I'm not sure where I got the inspiration from but I had a sudden urge to take a train in Thailand - nothing too ambitious or demanding, just a stress-free couple of hours from Bangkok to somewhere else. That would do nicely.
My wife couldn't remember the last time she had taken a train in Thailand either. So with a four-day break to kill, it felt like an ideal opportunity for a day trip and to let the train take the strain - to the old Thai capital of Ayuthaya and its temple ruins. Ninety minutes from Bangkok, a regular train service. Perfect!
Second class or third?
In preparation for the trip, I had read several internet blogs (mostly written by railway enthusiasts) who were unanimous in their opinion that travelling by third-class was the best way - indeed ‘the only way' - to ride a train from Bangkok to Ayuthaya. There was no need to 'splash out' on the price of a second-class ticket for such a relatively short journey. "Travelling third class is much more fun and a more enjoyable experience" the blogs said
To that I would say 'well....yes and no' (having now done the trip myself)
I've travelled third class on Thai trains before. I wouldn't endure it for a long trip to say Hat Yai or Chiang Mai, but for shorter runs, it's been fine in the past. OK, the third-class carriages are generally neglected and filthy and pray you don't need to use the toilet facilities- but on the plus side, if you manage to secure a wooden seat near an open window, you can enjoy the cool breeze as you make your way through the Thai countryside.
You also get a continual stream of food vendors coming up and down the aisles offering drinks and tasty snacks. This to me has always been one of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of train travel in Thailand.
Last but not least, the third-class ticket from Bangkok to Ayuthaya costs just 20 baht. It's still an incredible bargain.
Hello old friend
So to start the day early, my wife and I got to Hualampong (Bangkok's main train station) at just after six in the morning. I hadn't been to Hualampong for years but it hadn't changed. It was still humid, sweaty and chaotic and the platform announcements were still hopelessly indecipherable.
The passengers hadn't changed either - still a curious mix of working class Thais going home to see relatives, foreigners with a spirit of adventure (some were even wheeling bicycles) and people like us - the casual day-trippers who are still in love with train travel.
While the Thai passengers lolled around on plastic seats in the main waiting area, picking their feet and gawping at foreigners, we took a few photos of the station concourse and then climbed the stairs to the second level where there is a welcoming branch of Black Canyon, serving early morning coffee and croissants.
Tickets purchased, we went to platform three to find our train. Just for the record, there are morning trains to Ayuthaya at 6.40 and 7.00 and then the next train doesn't leave Hualampong until 8.30. Some trains are ‘express', some are ‘rapid' and some are ‘sprinter'. Has anyone ever managed to work out the difference between them? One glance at a timetable tells you that the journey time is roughly the same for all.
A gentle pace
My wife and I had booked third-class tickets for the 6.40 train, which was due to arrive in Ayuthaya at 8.25. We eventually limped into Ayuthaya Station at 9.30 am - over an hour behind schedule. Never mind. That's the way train travel has always been in Thailand and the way I remember it right from my very first journey, when a friend and I took an overnight sleeper to Hat Yai way back in the early 90s.
Train timetables here are purely a rough guide, an educated guesstimate. As long as The State Railway of Thailand gets you to your destination on the date that's printed on the ticket, I'm sure they would say ‘what the hell are you complaining about? There are low-cost airlines for anyone in a hurry'
So back onboard the 6.40 to Ayuthaya at the start of the journey, we had no trouble finding a couple of seats near the window. Not only that but the added bonus of a window that actually opened and closed (most of the windows are jammed in either an up or down position by decades of accumulated muck) - and then bang on 6.40, the engine started, a man with a flag and an immaculately laundered beige uniform, blew loudly on a whistle (clearly a task he enjoyed) and we were off!
En route from Bangkok to Ayuthaya, the train stopped at about eight different stations. Most are located in the Bangkok suburbs - with the final two or three stations being closer to Ayuthaya.
Whether every train travelling that route calls at those same eight stations I couldn't say, but one thing I do know - we stopped for an awful long time at both Bang Sue Junction and Rangsit. I have no idea why (only railway staff are privy to such information) but it was certainly the reason we got to Ayuthaya an hour late.
Who's been sitting in my seat?
Ayuthaya was actually not the final destination for our particular train. After reaching the old capital, the train was carrying on to Ubon Ratchathani in deepest Isaan Province. So when we stopped at stations on the outskirts of Bangkok, there was a flurry of activity as groups of ‘migrant worker' types clambered aboard with enough baggage and belongings to survive a nuclear winter. My wife and I noticed that many of the new passengers not only started checking their tickets, but they were looking for seat numbers as well. My wife and I gave each other worried looks. Were we sitting in someone's seats?
Even in third class there is most definitely a seat booking system - and it can cause chaos. Disappointingly, I haven't seen this mentioned in a single blog on the topic of train travel between Bangkok and Ayuthaya, so I'm going to bring you up to speed. Bear with me because this is where it gets a little complicated.
Firstly, it's not possible to book seats in third class for short journeys and that's why our tickets from Bangkok to Ayuthaya had no seat numbers printed on them. Basically we could sit anywhere we wanted. However - and here's the rub - it IS possible to book seat tickets in third class if you are embarking on a longer trip, such as from a station in Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani.
So in reality, the third class system is as follows. You can sit anywhere you want in third class until someone gets on the train who actually has a reservation for that seat number. Then you need to shift and pronto.
My wife survived the whole train ride without another traveller laying claim to her seat but I wasn't quite so lucky. A young guy got on the train about half an hour from Ayuthaya. He had clearly reserved the space I was occupying so I gestured for him to sit down while I faced the prospect of standing in the aisle for the last leg of the journey. However, I managed to find an empty seat further down the carriage. It was all a bit of a kerfuffle and I think the one reason why I wouldn't bother with third class again.
And don't get me started on the actual seat numbering system. The three seats opposite my wife were numbered 51,92 and 53. I rest my case.
Later that afternoon, my wife collared an employee at the Ayuthaya Station ticket office and asked her why the whole seating and reservation system was so poor. The ticket officer just shrugged her shoulders and said "we know it needs improving, but that's the way it is".
I wouldn't hold your breath.
Ayuthaya at last
On arrival at Ayuthaya Station, the moment you disembark you are mobbed from all angles by local drivers all offering to show you the sights. They are not tour guides because they don't actually walk around the various temples with you, but you hire them and their vehicle (usually the standard ‘songthaew' affair with two opposite-facing benches) to ferry you from one tourist attraction to another.
This being ‘mobbed' at bus and train stations is a time-honored tradition and part and parcel of travel in any Asian country but it still gets tiresome - even for the most experienced of travelers. I appreciate that everyone has to make a living but sometimes you just want to step from the train and have a few minutes to gather your thoughts. Perhaps walk up and down the platform, grab a bite to eat and just take in your surroundings without some guy sticking to you like shit to a blanket and asking "where you go? where you go? I take you"
The taxi drivers know the score. They know you've come up from Bangkok for the day, they know that you want to see as many sights as possible in the shortest available time and they know you haven't got the first clue where you're going. If your instinct is to brush past the drivers and exit the railway station as if you don't need their services, you'll find yourself in a ‘no man's land' of busy main road and tatty looking restaurants and you're back to square one. The best course of action once you get off the train is to smile through gritted teeth and simply let your driver choose you from all the faces in the crowd.
The ‘system' of teaming up with a local driver is pretty well-organized at Ayuthaya Station. There is no monkey business. Every driver charges 200 baht an hour for their services and hire of their vehicle, regardless of how many persons there are in your group. And every driver has the photos and names of the main temples and attractions printed on a large piece of laminated card. Think of it as some sort of menu. You choose which places you want to go to and your driver tells you how long it will take allowing for 20-30 minutes at each location.
My wife and I selected the four most popular temples in Ayuthaya (at least according to our driver) and we also asked if he could take us somewhere for lunch. Without hesitation, the driver said we should allow three hours to do that whole circuit (including a lunch stop) so the final price would be 600 baht. And that's exactly what we paid him when he dropped us back off at the train station three hours later. And for those three hours, our driver was polite, courteous and professional at all times. We had no complaints.
To bargain or not to bargain?
I'd like to touch on the topic of haggling if I may - because there's something I want to get off my chest. I want to take you back to Ayuthaya Station earlier in the day - to the moment our train pulled into the station and passengers and tourists got off and started to ‘pair up' with the local drivers for a tour of the temples. As my wife was getting information from our new driver friend, I stood around and conducted my own little social experiment.
Even though using the services of a local driver was clearly a fixed price system - 200 baht an hour (as I've already mentioned) Westerners will still stand there and haggle and negotiate as though their very lives depend on getting the cheapest possible price. And I ask myself if it's really worth it? Have we just spent too many years reading too many Lonely Planet guides?
I watched the Japanese and Thai day-trippers getting off the same train. They quickly grasped the concept of the fixed price system, and they were in their hired vehicle and speeding towards their first temple while the Westerner standing near to me was still digging his finger into a driver's chest and telling him he wouldn't pay a baht over 150 an hour. And predictably the driver was having none of it. This was a take it or leave it situation.
I don't want to give the impression that Thais never bargain for things. Far from it - Thais can be tough cookies when it comes to haggling, But they know when there's a time to bargain and a time when you have to accept the going rate. I think too many Westerners have the attitude of ‘Oh I'm in Asia, so everything has to be negotiated"
I saw another Western woman with her two very young children. She was negotiating with a local tuk-tuk driver but she wasn't looking for a tour of the sights. She simply wanted a ride into the center of town. The driver wanted 100 baht for the fare but the young mother was willing to go to 80 baht and no higher. Negotiations became more and more protracted and the children began to get impatient. I resisted the temptation to interfere and tell the woman that the amount of money she was trying to save - given the current exchange rate - was little more than 50 cents. I wonder if she realized that?
I used to be a serial negotiator. I thought that everyone was out to cheat me - especially local taxi drivers. But perhaps I've mellowed with age and I've adopted a different attitude. I'm a great believer in as long as the buyer and the seller are both happy with the price, then that's all that matters. Is the time and effort spent on getting something for 20 baht lower really worth the 20 baht?
Back to Bangers
For the return leg to Bangkok and tired from our traipsing around temples, we didn't have the enthusiasm to play third-class musical chairs so we reserved a couple of seats in second class - still a bargain at 125 baht.
I had fairly low expectations for the second-class carriage but it was wonderful. It was spotlessly clean (an SRT employee spent the whole journey going up and down the aisle with a garbage bag) the seat was comfortable and you could see just as well out of the window, albeit from behind glass.
And we left Ayuthaya and arrived in Bangkok ninety minutes later. Just like the ticket said we would!