For my 5th birthday I received an old Swiss Railways calendar with twelve beautiful photos of railway bridges. It was love at first sight, with trains and bridges. For awhile I was torn between becoming a train conductor or a bridge engineer. As you know the bridges won, but the eternal flame for trains still burns bright in my heart.
As a child I travelled often by slow train on hard wooden benches with my mother and younger brother to visit my grandparents in the countryside and to this day I remember the muffled sounds of the “choo, choo” through the hermetically closed windows. No matter the soaring summer temperatures, they had to be closed or the soot would get into the compartment and ruin our clothes. Move fast forward to 1974 and the star studded (think Connery, Bergman, Redgrave) Oscar wining film “Murder on the Orient Express” shot on board of the luxurious train to Paris and my longing for train rides only intensified. Ah, I would have given my right arm to be on that train, even if only as the conductor uttering the famous words:
“Your ticket, please.”
In our modern époque it is not easy to enjoy travel on gorgeous rails. The original Orient Express has been disbanded, but lately revived with extraordinary lively prices. It can be even more difficult if your lifetime companion does not necessarily share your train interest, and you may have to work hard to convict her to get on board. Nevertheless, love, and marriage in particular, is all about compromise and if not every year, then at least once in a while (about 4-5 years apart) when opportunity arises my wife does give me a nod, if somewhat begrudgingly, and only if it does not break the bank. So here and there I can enjoy a ride and sometimes even an overnight ride on the train in her company in different corners of this world.
We are arriving to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport after a late evening flight from Singapore landing our tired bodies and battered duffel bags full of art acquisitions in a cheap airport hotel. Our plan is to spend a week in the North of Thailand in order to revive our memories of the first trip to Siam in our first year of wedded bliss some 30+ years ago. In January 1986 we traveled by overnight train from Bangkok to the jewel of the North, the city of Chiang Mai. As shoestring travelers from Eastern Europe we marveled at everything: the efficiency of the electronic ticket counter, the white linens and the food service on the train.
Here again is a rare opportunity to spend a night on the luxurious train (remember Orient Express?). Instead of flying to Chiang Mai, we will spend the day in Bangkok (my wife is already visualizing all those temples she will drag me to in 10 hours of daylight) and then get on the train No.13 and enjoy the ride to our Northern destination.
Next morning we leave all our luggage, but a small day backpack each in the airport hotel, and step out lightly, full of excitement (likely just on my side). We pick up our first class sleeper tickets in the Hua Lamphong Railway Station in downtown Bangkok. We are quite hungry by then, because our very cheap (but very clean) hotel does not offer any breakfast. As we step into the huge teeming hall we notice a small balcony. It is a franchise Black Canyon Coffee Shop with decent coffee and a great selection of pastries to satisfy our sweet tooth. Thailand is a great culinary country with endless food establishments, from street stalls to fancy restaurants. After our Sumba culinary deprivations everything is appealing. But fresh, crisp, flaky croissants – well, impossible to resist! I even order a second croissant! Why? Because where there is A WILL there is a WAY, or an EXCUSE. Before leaving Denpasar Hilton I checked my weight in the hotel gym. It showed barely 170 pounds (77 kilos). If that scale was not wrong, I must be seriously underweight. And therefore (how convenient!) I HAVE to increase my intake before reaching my next destination! One or two croissants extra should help, right?
Sitting in the gallery we have plenty of time and a great vantage point to look down and around and I can not miss the striking similarity of the station’s architectural style with the stations built in the Golden Age of Railways. A huge light filled station lobby is holding a thick crowd of passengers waiting for their trains. The main and unusual feature here is a large area accommodating passengers resting on the floor, while many benches are empty. Besides the ubiquitous round clock (currently under repair) underneath the steel arch roof I can also see another familiar feature of old stations – a large oil painting of the monarch or whatever important official of the time, hanging in a prominent place on the lobby wall. From our distant seat in the coffee shop I could have easily mistaken the person on the painting for Kaiser Franz Josef of Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The main hall of the Bangkok station also brings me back to the Prague’s main railway station, surprisingly named after US President Wilson. Except that the BKK station’s cleanliness would win by a significant margin over Prague’s. Similar structures built for the new colonial railways brought new global architectural fashion movement to all continents. Once we were astounded to find ourselves in Maputo, the capital of the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, in front of a beautiful Beaux-Arts railway station that must have been flown in directly from Paris. You might remember it from the movie Blood Diamonds. Popular culture attributes its design to Monsieur Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, though it was in fact designed by Senhor Jose Ferreira da Costa.
Speaking of Eiffel, you likely know him from the, what else, Eiffel Tower, but also the design of the Statue of Liberty. Another proof of the statement that “There is no justice in this world” and “Hard working engineers get screwed over”. Mr. Eiffel may have been the owner of the Eiffel engineering company, but did not design the tower. In fact Mr. Eiffel was a relatively lukewarm supporter of this project when two of his company’s senior engineers approached him with the idea. While he was the engineer for the structure holding up the statue of Liberty, it was a French sculptor Bartholdi who designed the famous lady. Not to go too far from our Californian home turf, Joseph Strauss may have been a great promoter of the Golden Gate Bridge, but was not experienced enough to design a suspension bridge and therefore its design was actually executed by New Yorker Leon Moisseiff of the Manhattan Bridge fame.
But let’s get back to my dream train travel. As the sun was setting over Bangkok my excitement grew exponentially. My memories of our trip 30+ years ago were very vivid with a butler bringing hot dinner and setting up our beds with fresh sheets, the vibrant green landscape rushing by behind the window. I remembered the smell of freshly made coffee in the morning. No, it was not espresso then, yet. A typical romance for the guy deeply in love with trains. I am not actually running mini trains in our California family room torturing the rest of my family with my hobby. It is more about inching close to experiencing the top of its class in this 150 year old railway business, the Orient Express movie golden standard of my dreams.
I did make other attempts over the years. Most turned out to be quite the opposite of my ideal. The train from Dar-es-Salaam to Arusha, Tanzania with our first honeymoon night in Africa and the sunrise view of Kilimanjaro. Hemingway’s heroes and heroines would not approve. The three miserable days and nights ride from Kunming to Guilin and on to Yangshou, southwestern China on a communist sleeper train. Each morning at first light we were awoken by the loud music blaring from the speakers, playing revolutionary songs for the rest of the day. Six passengers (stacked on six rock hard berths) to a compartment without any compartment doors, the train full of smoking, coughing and spitting Chinese fellow travelers. Not exactly a fairytale experience, but ending in the unforgettable fairytale landscape along the Li River. The train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes on the way to Machu Picchu, testing your comfort level with the lack of oxygen.
Am I going to experience what I have been dreaming of for so many years this time? Will the excellent tourist standard in the Land of the Thousand Smiles persuade my wife that the build up to this was worth it? With love and admiration she will turn to me at the end of the journey and say, “Dahhling, you chose well, I will never doubt you again!”
Well, to be honest, it was not even close to my expectations. And I think I am on terribly thin ice with my wife now. The first class on train no 13. is not very luxurious by any means. Just the opposite. The furnishing is quite limited. No framed Picasso painting can be found on the walls, but it does have the plug to charge our iPhones, a sign of the new information era, and a hanger for my shorts (yes, I changed to my travel long pants PJs).
They serve dinner (we declined) and breakfast (we ate it hoping it would warm us up – for details read on). Regarding breakfast, I would describe its temperature as lukewarm, but positively above freezing temperature. The food was preservative laden, and the coffee never arrived. Overall – borderline garbage. For delivering all food in plastic containers Thai Railways would not get any environmentally friendly awards. No china, silverware or similar signs of first class. It felt quite like the first class on United Airlines domestic flight. Even the attendant was a brusque, older woman, never cracking a smile. I guess she has reached her quota of allocated 1000 smiles in her early twenties.
There were certainly enough lights to read, which we did until our fingers froze. As for the personal hygiene there was a tiny sink to wash your hands and brush your teeth. There was actually one shower in the car but I did not see any volunteers using it. The ultimate relief space was located at both ends of each rail car behind sliding doors. Inside of its limited but relatively clean environment you could try keeping your balance over the western style bowl or use your sharp shooting accuracy over the Turkish hole in the floor!
Due to my back surgery I reluctantly chose to sleep in the lower berth. What did I find extremely depressing with my lower berth? While costing me THB200 (about 6 bucks) more than my wife’s upper berth, it provided much less impressive view of our compartment or outer world behind the window (even if it was dark most of our way to Chiang Mai) than from my wife’s cheaper upper berth! What a shame! Did I say there is no justice in this world?
After the heat of Bangkok I was afraid of extreme temperatures on the train. My fear proved to be well founded, BUT not exactly. We decided to travel very lightly for a week and we left behind in our Bangkok Airport sleeping den almost everything with long sleeves. We made just two exceptions. We took our light waterproof jackets since there were possible rainy days in the north and I carried my long pants PJs for cold nights in the Golden Triangle (how could I be so wrong?). I was worried we might suffer a heat stroke if our compartment air-conditioning would not work.
Well, it worked way too well! By midnight we unsuccessfully tested a few options to shut it down. We turned knobs and levers. Some were missing or required extra force. At 2am I woke up the Englishman next door. He should have traveled with a screwdriver, shouldn’t he? The English started Industrial Revolution, after all! Well, this guy clearly did not. And so the temperature in the compartment continued to drop. By 4 am we exhausted all our clothing extras. We put on our waterproof jackets, and underneath extra T shirts. We enhanced Thai Railways blankets with the allocated towels. Luckily the towels were dry, as we smartly opted not to take a shower. By 5:30am I observed the first signs of frostbite on my extremities. Shortly thereafter I considered praying for increased train speed to break the record of earliest arrival to Chiang Mai ever! My companion usually keeps her body much warmer so while I prayed, she was looking for the phone number to text an emergency message to Chiang Mai hospitals, as we may had need for immediate medical assistance upon arrival. When we finally reached our destination, we slowly stood up and collected our almost empty backpacks (everything was on, remember?). Slowly, steadily we tried to straighten up our limbs and I hesitantly moved my upper torso a few times to the left and to the right to see if I was able to bend the frozen platinum rods in my spine. Then we helplessly crawled off the train onto the balmy platform No.1 of Chiang Mai Railway Station. WE MADE IT after all!
When I finally got enough strength in my legs to look like a bipedal human again, I looked around and I realized how little the train station has changed, but how much WE changed over the years. As the much younger travelers were passing us to catch the first tuk tuk or Uber or Grab to their hostels, airbnbs, surfing couches or whatever, we wistfully recognized the youthful enthusiasm. As we matured in our travel style, our physical abilities and willingness to drag with us everything we may need declined. As our travel budget ballooned and we could get rid of sleeping bags and pads, we realized that what you do not have in your small backpack is what you do NOT NEED. Now I was delighted to see the youngsters with backpacks easily larger than their upper torso. I knew what they could do in emergency if their money ran out. They could pack their bodies in their backpacks and FedEx themselves COD home to their support centers or whatever they call their parents. And in a deep corner of my heart I did envy them.