Paul Theroux, the great travel writer, once opened one of his books with the line "Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it." That quite neatly sums up my feelings about travelling by rail. I grew up a little too far away from tracks to hear any locomotives but, despite this lack of childhood nostalgia rose-tinting my judgement, I still find myself enamoured. Clearly I am not alone.
Train travel ticks every box
Trains have obvious advantages over other forms of transport. If you book the correct class you can conceivably have a decent night's sleep on a train. This is impossible in a car, astronomically expensive on a plane, and difficult on a bus. You can stretch your legs with a stroll when riding the rails. Only on an aeroplane is this remotely feasible, and increasingly the instructions from airlines are that we should buckle up at all possible times.
On a train nobody tells you to turn off your electronic device when taking off and landing, something I don't at all understand. (What is 'airplane mode' on my iPad for if not that? Am I missing something?) Furthermore, as a slightly nervous flyer who needs a couple of beers before take off I frequently find myself desperate for the rest room by the time the 'seat belt off' signs ding. I've never had this problem on a train.
All this in mind I decided to travel from Koh Samui last week not by plane (which is inexplicably extortionate) but by train.
Anyone who has been to Samui will be familiar with its cartel of 'taxi meter' cabs that erm, never use the meter. These guys live an unbelievably charmed existence when compared with their infinitely harder-working counterparts in Bangkok. I tried explaining to one that 400 baht for a fifteen minute trip on Samui would probably get me two or three hours in Bangkok gridlock but monopoly breeds complacency, and Chaweng cabbies would often rather swat flies lounging on a hammock than take anything under a thousand baht for a jaunt to the airport. The authorities either need to allow more taxis onto the island or penalise those who refuse to turn on their meters (ie all of them), because it really leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
So I took my expensive cab ride, and then a ferry to Don Sak, and then a ninety minute bus to Surat Thani, and finally a forty minute tuk tuk to Surat Thani train station. I never did find out why Surat Thani train station is forty minutes outside Surat Thani, but I digress.
The middle of nowhere?
Surat Thani is the kind of train station you'd imagine if you had never visited the developing world and were asked to describe what you think one would look like. It's poorly lit. It's old. There are people who aren't necessarily travelling anywhere watching television on the platform for some reason. Locals with enormous boxes of utterly ordinary stuff snooze in the heat before travelling with their cargo to some faraway dusty corner of the country. There are rats on the rails, and moody looking western backpackers reading paperbacks, and at the far reaches of the platform a person sleeping soundly in a blanket, oblivious to the sarama (or Muay Thai music) issuing from the aforementioned, turned-up-to-eleven TV.
Tickets for first and second class sleepers were sold out meaning my girlfriend and I had to travel second class non-sleeper. After explaining our romantic situation to two officials (seriously), we paid 604 baht each; pretty good value for an overnight train. But there were a few problems the State Railway of Thailand need to address.
Firstly, the train was due to leave at 8:41pm. It got going after 10pm. The doors were open all this time, so inevitably half of Surat Thani's mosquito population - hearing tales about a farang whose blood tastes like Chateau Lafite '86 - made a dash for my carriage.
A special ecosystem
During this stewing period I couldn't help noticing that Thailand's rail system is like a special ecosystem for small cockroaches. I've never seen them anywhere except whenever I take an overnighter so I can only assume that these trains have evolved a new species, one that enjoys collecting crumbs from pandan buns and other Thai culinary oddities. These little critters will be in your first class cabin, too. They don't just slum it with the rest of us. I'm not sure why it should be so hard to sort this issue out. I mean, we put men on the moon and send satellites to Mars. Would eradicating bugs from a few trains really be so difficult?
The toilet on the train was unspeakable. The floor was blackened and rusted and stained yellow, with what I couldn't bring myself to think about. There were cockroaches on the walls. The whole room (box might be more accurate) was made of deteriorating metal and I could practically feel it pulsate with years of bacteria and neglect.
Monopolies breed contempt
Yet poverty doesn't create filth. No, it was clear that the SRT's workers just don't care. I'm not implying they were rude, on the contrary, they were very polite. But a consequence of monopoly is that workers automatically do the least possible amount of work because they know they're unsackable. Moreover, SRT themselves know they won't lose customers. For vast swathes of the Thai population the train is their only option. The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai could swim in mildew and E. coli and some people would still have to take it. The monopoly knows this, and a comfortable lethargy has set in.
What is up with air conditioning on Thai trains? By the time 2 or 3am rolls around the carriage feels like Greenland in a cold snap. They give you these blankets - which are very welcome, by the way - that are such a length that you can either cover your feet or your shoulders, but not both. This was hugely frustrating, but even as I slipped into a hypothermic delirium I could see the funny side. A real first world problem.
My chair was broken. Every time I sat back it would slide out from under me. My girlfriend's chair was broken. Her drinks tray was also broken and if the woman sitting in front budged it would fall down and whack my girlfriend's knees. I suspect the woman in front thought we were trying to annoy her but we were too exasperated to try to explain what was going on.
The journey's end
By the time we rolled into Hualamphong Station (a wonderful station, for the record) two hours late we were so happy that we kind of forgot about the sleepless night and just laughed about it. And that's what I'm doing now, writing semi-seriously about some minor issues on a train in a developing country.
But when the chuckles die down I'm still left with the conviction that Thailand really needs to do something about its railways.