Monday, May 23, 2022

The Slow Train from Trang to Bangkok

The train is a wonderful way to explore Thailand. It is convenient, takes you from city centre to city centre, and offers the most stunning views along the way.
This is my journey from Trang to Bangkok.

Stage zero: Trang – Kantang – Trang

Trang is another quiet provincial town. It sees quite some tourists passing through to Andaman Sea islands, but few stay. They miss out on a small night market, some traditional Chinese coffee houses (Copi, Sin-ocho), a modern clocktower, a lively Chinese New Year and the colourful Underwater Wedding festival and parades.

Some ten km south of town are botanical gardens with a stunning canopy walk, a rare patch of original forest.

30 km southwest, in the mouth of the river Trang, is the old seaport of Kantang. Connected by railway it is potentially an important harbour for east-west cargo, but its glory days are long gone. There is one daily (nightly, actually) train connection between Bangkok and Kantang.

You can join that train from Trang for the last hour. As most people get off in Trang, there are hardly any passengers. It was odd, being on that enormous train almost by ourselves. It’s a smooth ride through flat rural land, quite beautiful and very green.
The Kantang station is the original century-old wooden building, still brightly painted, with the original ticket windows and signs. One room is a small museum, an outbuilding now is a nice coffee shop: the Love Station.

We walked to the former residence of Praya Ratsadanu. A century ago he was a local entrepreneur who introduced the rubber tree to Thailand. The impact is still visible throughout large parts of Thailand. It’s the most grown crop nowadays.
His house was a two-storey wooden villa with many verandas, airy and undoubtedly very luxurious for the time. It was poorly maintained, but still had some old furniture and old photographs. The dining table on the back porch was quite impressive. It was surrounded by lush forest with the deafening sound of crickets.

To catch the same train back to Trang, you have to make it a very quick visit. If you want to explore more of the town and the harbour, you have to go to the (shared) taxi stand at 140 Ratsada Rd, or stay the night.

Stage one: from Trang to Chaiya

If, like me, you are not a fan of night trains, you have to use the Kantang – Trang – Bangkok train to cross from the west coast to the east coast and get off when night falls. I had a second class ticket that gave me an old wooden carriage but with comfortable modern seats. For hours we passed rubber plantations, banana groves, jungle, huts and hills.

At Thung Song Junction we joined the main line from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Surat Thani is the first major stop, and a possible stopover, but I rode a bit further

After 230 km Chaiya is a small town with just two streets, mainly with wooden houses, mostly shops. There is one hotel and one place to get egg fried rice. At 7 everything is closed and dark.

In the morning I had enough time to visit famous Wat Phra Boromathat. There are clear similarities with temples and chedis in Central Java. This once was part of the Sri Vijaya empire, that comprised Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula.

Stage two: from Chaiya to Prachuap Khiri Khan

For the next 300 km north it is best to take the special express #40. It is a Rapid Diesel Car. No locomotive and only three coaches, each of which seemed to have their own diesel engine. More modern and faster than yesterday's train, although the seats were older. A/C. There were quite some western tourists on it, about ten in my carriage. Lots of rubber plantations along the way, and also pieces of uncultivated land.

Train number 40 is the only day train from Surat Thani to Bangkok and sells out quickly, so you may want to get your ticket in advance. I am still confused when you should, when you must, and when you can buy advance tickets. It seems to vary per stretch. Tickets are definetly more expensive in advance, with rapid surcharge and a/c surcharge.

Construction was going on along the track between Chumphon and Prachuap Khiri Khan. You saw large sand beds, ramps and new concrete sleepers in the grass. Culverts were dug, iron bridges forged, concrete flyovers erected, skeletons of station buildings appeared. Train travel in Thailand was about to change.

Prachuap Khiri Khan is situated on a fairytale-like bay, a half circle with pointy rocks on the ends that protrude into the sea. It hardly has any tourist facilities. No strip with bars and restaurants that are specifically aimed at foreigners. Still there are hundreds of tourists in town.

It’s a nice walk to the next bay to the south. The beach is actually inside an airforce base!

Stage three: from Prachuap Khiri Khan via Nachon Pathom to Kanchanaburi

From Prachuap Khiri Khan you can take the rapid #40 again and arrive in Bangkok at around 21h. But I did it the long way.

I took the slow train north, 255 km to Nachon Pathom. It is fun and there’s a lot to see, but it is also slow and hot. The open windows provide a warm föhn wind.

The rubber trees were gone. They were replaced by pineapples, coconuts, vineyards, fish ponds and the first rice fields. Towns, villages, bamboo huts. In Hua Hin, more tourists got off than on. The journey was long and hot. Sometimes a long wait for an oncoming train. The train slowly emptied, unlike what you would expect getting closer to Bangkok..

The train schedule forces an overnight stop in Nachon Pathom. If you want to avoid that, you can get off at Ratchburi and take a bus to Kanchanaburi there. Get off at Chulalongkorn Bridge and it’s just a short walk to the bus stop in front of Numsin Hotel. Be careful getting off, as the last carriages may halt where there is no gravel path next to the train and the ramp is too steep to stand.

Nachon Pathom is a pleasant and thoroughly Thai town. The downside is that there is no decent hotel near the train station, and there is nothing to see but the huge Phra Pathom Chedi.

The most lively place at night was the train station, with tourists who came from Kanchanaburi waiting for a night train south.

The next morning I took the ordinary to Kanchanburi. It was another third class train, mostly filled with locals and food vendors pacing up and down the aisles.

Stage four: Beyond Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is an excellent base to see nature, waterfalls, caves, elephant camps and tiger gardens. But it is most famous for the Burma railway. One of the key passages was the Bridge over the River Kwai, as in the movie with the same name.

I walked from town to the Bridge. You can pass underneath it via a small park, in the shadow of the bridge itself. I heard the whistle of a train. Yes, there was one coming. It turned out to be the Eastern & Oriental, the super-deluxe train from Singapore to Bangkok, which made a small detour to catch the Bridge over the Kwai. It just drove over it, and then back again.

I made a daytrip by public bus to Hellfire Pass, a notorious part of the Burma railway. There was a small museum with information panels about the construction of the railway by prisoners of war. Outside was a walk, first a long staircase into a valley, where I walked in a bamboo forest. Hellfire Pass was a piece of rock "just" 100m and 30m deep, hewn out of the rock by hand (!) and dynamite. After that I walked a bit further on the railway track bed, sometimes flat, sometimes parts were sagging and I had to climb and descend. The gruesome history is impressive and a strange contrast to the beautiful bamboo forest, which stretched all over the area, and where there was a continuous concert of crickets and other insects.

On my travels I visited several Khmer temples, satellite cities of the famous Angor Wat. Prasat Muang Singh is the westernmost Khmer site and far from the others in Cambodia and Isan. Also relatively far from Kanchanaburi, 40km, and the only public transport is the train. It only runs a few times a day and there is just one combination of return trains that can be done. If the trains are on time.

According to a sign in the station, the train would arrive 10 minutes late. That should leave me just enough time. Three special coaches for foreigners at tourist price (100b) were already waiting, because this ride also did the passage of The Bridge. When the train arrived from Thonburi, the locomotive was disconnected, it picked up our carriages, drove forward, then back again to connect to the coaches from Thonburi. So we became an extra long train.

We drove over The Bridge very slowly. After The Bridge, the tracks followed the valley of the Kwae Noi. Lots of agriculture, rice fields, corn, bananas, and crops that I did not know. Occasionally unexplored tracts of land with the bamboo bush that was so characteristic of the Hellfire Pass. Villages, Buddhist monasteries, schools, children and farm workers waved to the train. Sometimes we had a view of the river, which was quite wide despite its name. With a fifteen minute delay we arrived at Tha Kilen station. I was the only one who got off and walked the km to the entrance to the historic site. The site was beautiful, and I could even get lunch. But I had to hurry to catch the train back. And at 37 degrees, that's not what you want. Back through the gate, the access road, through the village, the station road. With 5 minutes to spare I arrived at the station. Time to buy a cup of coffee before the train arrived.

The final stage: from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok

There are two daily slow trains from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok. The terminal changes over time. They used to run to the old Thon Buri station (then called Bangkok Noi) close to the river. Then a new station more inland was built. These days it may be more convenient to get off one stop earlier at Jaran Sanitwong to connect to the Metro. And one day all trains will terminate at the Bang Sue Grand Station. That will be the new era of train travel in Thailand, with double track, and electrification and fast trains.


Thailand, February 2015-16-19-20 – Amsterdam, May 2022



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