Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani

For once I had time on my hands, so I decided to take the train from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani. Usually, I fly; a few boring hours, mostly spent waiting. I have always liked trains, but this was to be my first sampling of Thailand's highly esteemed rail service.

I had not made a reservation, so I showed up at Hualamphong Railway Station - easily found at the end of the BTS line - on a Saturday morning, hoping to purchase a 1st class sleeper ticket for that same evening. The only available berth was for a female - in 1st class, sexes are separated, two to a cabin - so I settled for a 2nd class sleeper. At 671 baht one way, it seemed like a bargain. The railway station and booking process are simple. The station is well signposted, in English as well as Thai, and there is even a special ticket booth for foreigners. This seemed a far cry from the railway system in my own home country. Within a few minutes, I left the station, ticket in hand, and knowing which platform I needed to come to later that evening.

I arrived at the station early; a combination of having already checked out of the hotel and being unsure of traffic conditions at that time of day. This time I travelled by taxi, having luggage with me. The train had not yet arrived, so I stocked up on snacks for the trip; a small bottle of Sangsom, some soda, and ice. Soon the train arrived, and well before the scheduled departure time of 20:30, I was able to board and get settled.

In 2nd class, the sleepers are arranged like bunk beds, a row down each side of the carriage. The bottom bunk folds away to provide two seats; one each for the upper an lower berths. Genders are mixed, and my travelling companion turned out to be an interesting and friendly middle-aged Thai lady. Noi was a teacher in Sisaket, returning home after a short break. She taught business administration at a technical college, and proudly showed me photos of former students she had visited whilst in Bangkok. One was working at the checkout of a 7-11, and it reminded me how hard it is for young people to find good employment in Thailand, even with a good education.

After we had chatted for a while, I sensed that she was ready to sleep, so I made my excuses and went in search of the dining car. This allowed the steward to convert the two seats we had been using into her bunk. Each bunk has a curtain to provide privacy when sleeping.

The walk to the dining car took me through the rest of 2nd class and all of 3rd class. The latter looked rather uncomfortable, and most people were already trying to get to sleep in their seats. When I arrive in the dining car, I was the only passenger. The other occupants were all railway police, guards, stewards, etc., in their various tight-fitting uniforms. I was soon served a delicious "wrap egg", a bottle of cold beer, and a bucket of ice. One of the guards eventually joined me my table; actually, I think I was at his table. Daeng was a shiny faced, friendly chap, missing his front teeth. At each station he jumped up to look out of the window; this seemed to be his only duty. He told me that he makes the trip up one day, down next, and sleeps during the day.

As the train picked up speed out of Bangkok, through Ayudhya, and beyond, the windows wide open, I smiled and raised my glass to Paul Theroux, that most intrepid train traveller. How happy I was to be here!

Later, as the diner filled up, I joined another farang, Erik, and Lek, a Thai lady who had some business somewhere; but by now the Beer Leo was flowing and I can't remember what it was. We chatted on and on, until finally the stewards, probably wanting to get some sleep themselves, urged us to turn in. Apparently the inter-carriage doors are locked at night for added security. I returned to my bunk, which was now made up, for a satisfied sleep, rocked in the cradle of The State Railway of Thailand. The bed was comfortable, with a clean crisp sheet, pillow, and a blanket sealed in a plastic bag. The toilet facilities, entirely stainless steel and well ventilated, were basic but clean and without any unpleasant odours.

By the time we reached Sisaket, most passengers had gone, so I got up and sat in a spare seat to watch the routine of early morning rural life begin. Finally we arrived, punctually at 07:25, in Ubon. "This is your station", said the pyjama clad stewardess in charge of my carriage, "have a nice day".

Mike Chapman
(posted 19th November 2008)

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