Trains at Hualampong (Bangkok) Station have finally rolled in and out for the last time - and it's crying shame.
Why would I say that? I've only ever taken one train from that station before and an archaic slow one at that, with its Indian red and yellowish windows propped open permanently to allow for some ventilation, which prevented the passengers from either passing out in the sweltering heat or melting away.
A slow train to Hua Hin
That was a decade and a half ago, and I was a middle-aged father of two young children, travelling alone from Bangkok with the intention of staying with my parents at their retirement home in Hua Hin, which in those days still remained a quaint and pleasant coastal town.
The journey took a good few hours but how many exactly I can't recall. The train stopped at every station along the way, where at each one, half a dozen food vendors would clamber aboard and invade each carriage whilst pushing their wares - only having to jump off a few minutes later as our procession set forth once more.
Travelling by train instead of making the journey by road, I was able to take in some rural scenes I'd never witnessed before and enjoy an amicable chat in a mixture of both scratch stick Thai and broken English with a couple of lighthearted and not unattractive young ladies. Nonetheless, this was the calm before the impending storm, when the locomotive dropped to fifty per cent of its speed something like half of its way there.
This slowing down caused the final part of the trip to be completed in the night-time darkness with just the interior lights of our coach burning bright. By this time the hard wooden seat I'd been sitting on seemed to have turned to stone and my backside was way beyond uncomfortable. And then the impending storm to which I was referring was hundreds upon hundreds of manic moths landing annoyingly on our faces, in our hair, and outside and inside our clothing.
By the time I'd sighted the platform of Hua Hin's famous station, where my mother had been waiting for my arrival with Tonk the taxi driver, I'd already decided that I for one would not be travelling by train in Thailand ever again. Strictly speaking, I'd well and truly lost all of my nostalgic and romantic illusions about railway travel.
A Bangkok gem
Returning to the ill-fated architectural and historical Italian Neo-Renaissance style gem and railway station in Hualampong, which incidentally turned 105-years-old on June 25th this year. From its grand structure I've watched the world pass by, or at least a good many thousands of Thai people, more often than not country folk with a sprinkling of foreign tourists. Those who've flooded out of its thirteen double fronted, bottle green painted panelled doors. Those who mainly came from other provinces often to make new lives for themselves in the metropolis, or upon some form of business, perhaps to visit relatives and, or friends, or simply to take a break.
Here, during many a temperate evening spent drinking cold larger outside of a kao ka moo (pork and rice) geptang restaurant. That's while facing the famous landmark as Krengthep's crazy horses roared by, thereinafter just about managing to pause at the local tollway. Some being taxis which had been queuing down one side of the station, next transporting former train passengers to their various destinations.
Foremost, I've viewed with fascination the menagerie that was attracted to Hualampong's station, like the moths that swarmed the carriages of the train on my journey to Hua Hin. That said, I'll hold up my hand as one of those who often went to replenish himself at one of the four or five bottom runner outside eating places across from its way. Adjacent to a noodles restaurant frequented by among others, backpackers, students, some from two of my old schools (Mahapruttaram and Sai Panya), also young British graduates starting out on the South East Asia Loop who felt the need to stay awhile.
What's more, the poor and hardly souls sleeping on its well worn ceramic floors just above its solid foundations (not only homeless), the new arrivals who presumedly couldn't afford a room. For example, travel guides who would be meeting their clients early the following morning; farmers who came to stake claims to land that they'd farmed for relevant periods of time, further and heartbreakingly teenage runaways for whatever reasons. Though more likely than not those who would venture the next day to find means of employment, hence procrastinating on finding a place to stay until they knew the whereabouts of their workplace.
To the occasional foreigner who had lost his way, and was then staying in a disgusting 200 baht a night hotel room, just a short walk away.
Characters who cadged cigarettes and told hard-luck stories in expectation of gaining some sympathy, or even more optimistically - an alcoholic beverage.
Ultimately, we'd all gathered there, and for generations after generations (not to mention the cheap street hookers of both genders who plied their trade, because it is none PC to do so) in the general excitement and healthy haze of its confusion.
It was once the most prolific gateway to a city that was once far more interesting, varied and extreme than it is today.