THAILAND. Bangkok to Penang by train

MANY YEARS AGO I resolved to one day make the thousand kilometre journey from Bangkok down to Penang in Malaysia by train. Now I have done it.

Train 35, the grandly named International Express, leaves Bangkok’s cavernous Hua Lamphong station every day at 2:45pm. It arrives at Penang’s Butterworth station at lunchtime the next day. It is made up of second class sleeping cars only, with seats that convert into beds at night. All very 60s looking, full of stainless steel and faux grey leather, very retro and quite comfortable.

The train trundles slowly down the Isthmus of Kra, the long neck of land that connects Myanmar and Thailand with the Malay Peninsula. The isthmus is only 44km wide at its narrowest point, and there has long been talk of cutting a canal through it. This would shorten the shipping route from Europe to Asia by over 1000km, cutting out the narrow Straits of Malacca. It would also diminish Singapore’s importance, and for that reason the idea has been resisted by both Singapore and Malaysia. But the Chinese want it to happen, and are reportedly funding a feasibility study.

I'll take the low road

There are two trains between Bangkok and Penang. There is my train, which costs about $50 one way, or there is the Eastern & Oriental Express, which goes from Bangkok all the way to Singapore over three days, with side trips to tourist spots, and costs more than $3000.

“Prepare for an unforgettable adventure … train journeys and luxury trips aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express are guaranteed to inspire … dinner is served in one of the luxurious dining cars … afterwards, head to the Bar Car to relax with fellow travellers or retire to your cosy converted cabin.”

You get the picture. Luxury hotel on wheels. No such blurb for Train 35, but just as much fun for a fraction of the price. Though I did get the overnight Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria once (at the Apartheid regime’s expense), and it was a great experience.

But I digress. I booked my ticket on Train 35 on the Internet a few months ahead. Thai railway ticketing is notoriously complex and dominated by third party travel agents who buy in bulk and make their money scalping them to the unsuspecting or ignorant. I found a good online agent (www.12go.asia), picked up my ticket in Bangkok the day before my trip, and turned up at Platform 5 at 2pm on Wednesday 13 January 2016 for the long slow trip south.

As I hopped on the train the captain was giving his pep talk to the crew, all lined up military style on the platform. They even saluted.

A traveling companion

A key to the enjoyment – or otherwise – of long train trips is one’s traveling companions. I was travelling alone, so it was the luck of the dra whether I got lissom Swedish nurses on holiday, drunken Aussie backpackers, or a Malay family returning home after their annual break.

As it turned out I got Henry, a 50 year old German jazz musician taking a few days off before he joins his band on a cruise boat in Singapore, travelling alone except for his euphonium. A pleasant chap, who was very tolerant of my attempts to speak with him in his native tongue. His music has taken him all over the world.

There were some loud Americans nearby, who we did not attempt to befriend. Apart from that it was mostly locals. The train was only half full, but even at capacity it would not have been crowded. I have never seen such generous seats on a train –three feetwide for each passenger. Heaps of room.

The facilities were ordinary but adequate. A pretty ratty dining car and acceptable toilets. Half of them crouchers, which are becoming rare in much of Asia. Train operatives coming up and down all the time offering food and drink, all of it of average quality.

No alcohol – sale and consumption was banned from all trains in Thailand a couple of years ago after a young girl was raped and killed by a drunkard, who as it turned out was a railway employee, not a passenger. After three days of excess in Bangkok, it was probably a good thing I could not drink on the train.

Thai Railways are notoriously overmanned, and run at an enormous loss. They are all government owned, and apparently the unions have resisted any attempts at rationalisation. But is does mean a very high staff to passenger ratio, including officious unsmiling railway police, which helps make the train very safe. No problems with security of valuables.

It took 90 minutes to get out of the Bangkok metro area. The train creeps along. Its average speed over the whole journey is barely 50 km/h. Thai railways use a one meter gauge, one of the narrowest in the world, which precludes traveling at speed, and the tracks are not in the best condition. The Government is planning a high speed standard gauge network, with much of the funding from the ubiquitous Chinese, but that will be years away. Bangkok to Chiang Mai in three hours by fast train would be fabulous.

We eventually got out into the countryside. Green fields and odd shaped hills over towards the Myanmar border to the west. The sun went down just after Phetchaburi, we ate our modest dinners at our seats (neat little fold up tables), and at about 8pm the men came around to turn the seats into beds.

Settling in

They are a marvel of design. The wide seats turn into a generous bottom bunk, and a narrower top bunk folds out from the ceiling. After my typically thorough research I had booked a lower bunk seat, and there was no-one above me. The bed was comfortable, with curtains for a high degree of privacy.

The sleep was good and the night was short. I converted back from bunk to seat just before dawn, had an ordinary breakfast of some sort of rice soup concoction, set the table up and started writing these words.

As I write now the train is stopped at Hat Yai, a major junction about one hour before the Malaysian border, where there is a lot of shunting as the train divides and where a great number of locals, with many children, hop on. Suddenly it is packed, and the wide seats are filled two abreast by unreserved ticket holders. Kids are running up and down the corridor. Hawkers hop on to sell dodgy looking chicken-based greasy snack type things. Some people seem to have a nice looking Beef Rendang or something, probably purchased before they got on.

The jolting shunting continues – God knows what they are doing. Thai Railways is rarely in a hurry. It’s all a bit of a change from the peace of the night, but all part of the rich tapestry of Asian travel. That’s why I am on this trip after all.

Soon we are off again, the sun rising higher in the skies, the green landscape sodden from overnight rain, the bloody Americans making themselves heard above everyone else though they are half a carriage away. Henry has his euphonium, called ‘die schnelle Hexe’ (the quick witch) on his seat beside him – it won’t fit under the seats or in the overhead compartments. Last night he kept it next to him in bed. “My second wife,” he said.

At the Malaysian border everybody has to get off, with their luggage, to go through customs. It’s all pretty routine, but a bit of a hassle, and takes an hour or so as we go through Thai and then Malaysian customs. And clocks go forward an hour.

Half an hour late the train pulls into Butterworth station, on the mainland across from Penang Island. Historic George Town, my destination, is a short ferry ride away. Its restaurants and bars await me.

The adventure continues …

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