Gaz from Chester in the UK is one of my best pals. We meet a couple of times a month, usually over lunch at the local shopping mall.
Gaz has lived in Thailand a number of years but during a recent conversation, I was surprised to hear that he had never been on a Thai train. He'd never even been to Hualampong, Bangkok's main train station. It was high time we put that right so I suggested we go to Ayuthaya for the day. If only to prove that a Liverpool and Man United fan can get along perfectly well together.
We decided on an early start in order to catch the ‘special' express train that left Hualampong at 8.30 am and would take just over an hour to reach the old capital. However, there's really no such thing as an early start in Bangkok, There are always thousands of city folk who do this crack-of-dawn commute on a daily basis, so after squashing ourselves on to the sky-train and then the MRT underground, we arrived at Hualampong Station shortly after eight.
The station's final days
I've always had an affection for Bangkok's grand 100-year old station. There's always been something to admire about its general griminess and organised chaos and the wild-eyed stares from Thai folk who have nothing better to do than gawp at foreigners. But sadly, its days are numbered. Bang Sue is set to take over as Thailand's main rail hub in 2019 and good old Hualampong will become a museum. At least that's the plan.
Gaz didn't look all that impressed and I have to admit we didn't appear to have caught Hualampong on one of its better days. The kindly man at the ticket office got us off to a decent start though. He confirmed that an express train to Ayuthaya would be leaving from platform 10 at 8.30 am sharp and two second class tickets in an air-conditioned carriage would cost 345 baht each.
We then looked for something to eat and our options seemed to consist of a Black Canyon coffee shop (heaving with backpackers) and a Dunkin Donuts concession, where a solitary male employee was struggling to cope with a queue of four people. There was also a Thai food court of sorts - if the signage was anything to go by - but it had been turned into a storeroom for broken and discarded furniture. Or perhaps it was part of the new-look museum. Who can say?
Donuts and take-away coffees in hand, we made our way to platform 10, where the sleek beast that would ferry us to Ayuthaya looked more like something suitable for transporting coal and scrap iron. A young man in a khaki uniform saw us looking at our tickets and scratching our heads and kindly informed us that the train to Ayuthaya was now leaving from platform 5.
With the clock ticking down, Gaz and I legged it to platform 5. Another platform and another strange-looking train, this time being hosed down with a jet wash until it was dripping wet both inside and out. Surely this wasn't our 8.30 express train? I interrupted a trio of three platform staff all playing around with their smartphones. The Ayuthaya express goes from platform 7 they said. And off we went again, sprinting up and down platforms like two characters in a Buster Keaton movie.
We finally found something that resembled a passenger train. Another man in khaki uniform, but this time holding a flag, which instantly promoted him to the rank of expert, urged us to clamber aboard and locate our seats. We were finally off to Ayuthaya.
"345 baht for a one-way ticket in second class" gasped Gaz as our heart rates returned to some sort of normality. "Fuck me, that's expensive"
He did have a point. I had promised him a wooden bench in third class for 15 baht and the opportunity to pull down the window, catch the breezes and watch the scenery go by. But our 8.30 express train just didn't have that option.
Second class in an air-conditioned carriage would have to do. A trolley dolly came past and offered us free coffee and some sort of cream-filled bun and the seats had an excellent recline. It was all perfectly acceptable provided you didn't touch any of the surfaces around you. Heaven knows what you might catch.
We trundled out of Bangkok, stopping at several stations for no apparent reason. As any long-term expat and train enthusiast will tell you, the terms ‘rapid' and ‘express' were probably dreamt up decades ago by an optimist with a particularly cruel sense of humour. The Thai train system runs on only two speeds; slow and slower.
I used the 75-minute journey time to prime my travelling companion on what lay ahead. "When we get to Ayuthaya Station" I said in a low whisper, "we'll be pounced upon by dozens of taxi drivers all wanting to take us on a tour of the sights and temples. It's a standard rate of 200 baht an hour. I know this because I did this day trip quite recently with my wife. You stick by me Gaz and everything we'll be OK"
Well, I got that wrong. We pulled into Ayuthaya Station and it was like the grave. Where was the welcoming committee? Where were the hordes of taxi drivers pulling at our shirt-sleeves with an enthusiastic chorus of ‘where you go? where you go?' Perhaps they were no longer allowed to encroach on to the platform or perhaps the station master had chased them all away with a large broom or something? It certainly didn't feel right.
We were going to have to hunt the taxi drivers down ourselves. How ridiculous!
Gaz and I left the station and paused to look at a rather splendid map of the city which took up virtually a whole wall space. The map clearly showed all the many sights you could visit if you had enough time on your hands. A short distance away was a straggly line of taxi drivers all ready to take our money. Except a more unenthusiastic bunch it would be harder to imagine. There we were - two out-of-towners ripe for the picking (I was even carrying a back-pack) and not one taxi driver raised as much as a finger to signal he was willing to show us around town.
Eventually, one driver managed to tear himself away from Facebook and came over for a chat. Actually, he turned out to be a very nice guy. He congratulated me on my spoken Thai (which always goes down well, however insincere) and we negotiated a price of 600 baht for two hours. Actually we didn't negotiate anything. There was a big sign that said ‘Taxi Service - 300 baht an hour' and that's what everyone pays. So off we went!
We asked our driver why Ayuthaya seemed so quiet. Even for a low-season Thursday, the town felt remarkably low-key. "Lots of people have moved away" he said, "they have had enough of the floods"
I could understand. During periods of prolonged rainfall, Ayuthaya suffers from extreme flooding more than most places. I guess there are only so many times you can put up with the sight of your sofa and TV being swept away down the street.
The novelty wears off
But today was dry and ferociously hot. Gaz and I ambled around a couple of the main temple attractions. I had been everywhere in Ayuthaya less than a couple of years earlier, so it felt like I was doing it out of a sense of duty more than anything else. And Gaz is another farang who has been stricken by the dreaded Asian temple fatigue. We took some photos of a big gold Buddha (impressive) fed some fish (greedy) and told our driver that we were hot and hungry and no longer required his services. He looked very happy at the thought of being sent back to the station and seeing how many Facebook notifications he'd missed.
We walked around looking for a basic Thai restaurant, somewhere that could rustle up a bowl of noodles and a few scrag-ends of chicken, but all of my regular stand-bys were closed (or closed down). Ayuthaya really did feel like a place in decline. Somewhere that had just given up or was barely going through the motions. It was sad to experience because I like Ayuthaya. It's one of the few places that is truly worth visiting and yet still makes a comfortable day trip from Bangkok.
"Does this place have a shopping mall? Gaz enquired. "surely they would have food there?"
It seemed entirely plausible that this place might have a shopping mall and when we approached a couple of motorcycle taxi drivers, they told us the Sky Shopping Mall was just a 20 baht ride away, where there was a branch of KFC and even a Swensens ice cream. Oh happy days!
And then one of the most bizarre things happened.
I got on the back of my motorcycle taxi and we sped off towards the Sky Mall. After we'd gone a few hundred metres, I instinctively looked back to see Gaz still standing on the street corner and the second motorcycle taxi driver still sitting down. I told my taxi guy that my friend had intended to come too. This information seemed to come as an enormous shock to my taxi guy and we turned to double back.
Now I don't want to get into a discussion about brain cells or levels of IQ but I just happen to think all the signs were there. Two farangs approach two motor cycle taxi drivers. There isn't another soul around. The street is deserted. The farangs ask to be taken to the nearest shopping mall and a price is quoted and agreed upon. Except only the farang who does the talking wants to be taken to the shopping mall. The other farang just wants to stand on the hottest street corner in Ayuthaya and stare into the middle distance while his friend goes off for chicken nuggets and a coit tower.
I'm going to leave it there.
A surreal shopping mall
The Sky Shopping Mall was like something from the twilight zone. It was as if a fatal epidemic had killed off the world's entire population and me and Gaz were the only survivors. If we moved that pile of boxes, would we discover a KFC trainee lying on the floor, twitching his last?
We ended up in MK Suki for an uninspiring bowl of duck and noodles. The staff genuinely looked amazed at the sight of two customers at two o clock on a Thursday afternoon and I couldn't resist asking the pleasant girl who served us if business was always this slow. From what I could gather, the restaurant opened at 10 am but during the week, customers didn't appear in any great number until five in the evening. Time must tick very slowly at The Sky Shopping Mall. Thank God for smartphones!
"Thailand is made up of two countries when you think about it" said Gaz. "There's Bangkok - and then there's the rest of the country. And you sometimes forget that this is really what most of the rest of Thailand is like. Very slow-moving and peaceful"
As we made our way back to the train station in a public songthaew, we got stuck in a minor traffic jam on what was probably Ayuthaya's main thoroughfare. It was refreshing to finally see some activity and a bit of life in the old place.
Back on the station platform, a timetable confirmed our worst fears. We had just missed an express train back to Bangkok and the next train wouldn't be for another 65 minutes. And that was an ordinary (very slow) train that would take almost two hours. Just then our friendly taxi driver from the morning appeared to offer some sage advice.
"I take you go minibus back to Bangkok. Minibus only 60 baht one person. One hour to BTS Morchit. Sabai sabai. Very convenient. Train too slow. Have many delay"
I hate minibuses but we couldn't face the thought of the slow train home either.
Driver, take us to the minibus station!