September 2, 2014
Thailand by Bike and Rail
There are numerous ways to travel within the Kingdom, from the healthy option of a push bike to the far speedier use of domestic flights, while the first option can keep you keep fit and it does not add to the issue of climate change, the risks to both your physical and mental wellbeing can be very significant.
Unlike some of its poorer neighbours riding peddle cycles in the Thailand is not that common and therefore drivers show little awareness of cyclists, add this to the poor driving skills you find throughout Thailand and you have all the ingredients for a disaster.
Driving on the wrong side of the road is the norm here, and further more having a Thai driving license is no guarantee of good driving skills, for you can take a driving test in the Kingdom and have a friend walk beside the vehicle giving instruction via an open window, while the examiner shouts out his instructions via a loud speaker and from the safety and comfort of his office.
You can see the option of peddle power can be detrimental to both your Psyche and physical state add to this the time involved in travelling great distances and it can appear that travelling by bike is almost unworkable, or is it?
One of the great achievements of the Thai people over the last century and something that is vastly under used by backpackers and tourists alike is the Railway systems of this magical kingdom (excluding the inhumane and barbaric use of slave labour by the Japanese and her allies, during the 2nd World War, to produce the ‘Thailand-Burma Railway’ or as it is also known the ‘Death Railway’).
The Thai railway system criss crosses this vast country, it can deliver you to most of its major attractions, cities and to its neighbouring countries. You can in fact travel the whole breadth of Thailand for a few hundred Baht. By ‘letting the train take the strain’ you can watch the miles drift past through an open window in 3rd class, with the smells and wind blowing your hair and sending your mind back in history, to a point where you can almost hear Yul Brenner singing a song from the ‘King and I.’ (1956_film)
For those longer trips why not try out 1st or 2nd class berths or an overnight sleeper train (this saves on accommodation costs in a hostel or hotel for the night), or really splash out and travel in an air conditioned sleeper cabin, whichever way chose to spend your money, just let the rhythm and hypnotic clatter of the wheels over the tracks take over your sense’s and let it gently rock you to sleep.
Travelling by train is a great and inexpensive way of seeing the real Thailand, at the same time you get to know more about its people, from those that are sharing the same train journey. Travelling by rail also allows you the opportunity to see how food plays such a large part in Thai culture, when you witness firsthand the vast amount food and drink that is consumed by your fellow travelers, the majority of which is purchased from a vast array of street vendors who ply their goods on and off the train at every stop on the way, and how the business of eating and drinking takes priority over everything and how it can and does delay trains from leaving railway stations on time.
A good tip: stay away from the buffet car as these can be expensive buy lots of snacks and drinks from the nearest mini market before boarding the train and while on the train ask your new found Thai friends to buy food from the vendors for you (normally 30 baht per meal) and let luck guide their choice, this can be a great way of savoring food you would have never chosen yourself.
Whatever class of ticket you chose to travel by, you can almost always take your peddle cycle with you, so yes you can travel throughout the kingdom of Thailand on your bike (or motor bike for that matter) and once away from the populated cities you are at less risk of injury as there are simply fewer vehicles to worry about and rural life runs at a far slower pace.
Train Journeys to try.
Bangkok- Hua Lampong Station to Pattaya Station and back
Pattaya Railway station is immaculately kept with a multitude of brightly coloured flowering baskets placed everywhere, it reminds me of a throwback to the early days of steam where all the picture postcards you see of train stations were of a well-manicured pretty oasis of colour, where it seemed that they were managed by the same families for years and who in turn put their sole into the job of maintaining the appearance of order and calm. The same I am afraid to say cannot be said of the train which looks as if it has been in continues service since the day the line opened, that aside I found the staff at the station to be very helpful, polite and they speak good English.
The station is just out of the city limits and the service is limited to the same old, tired train running from Hua Lampong station in Bangkok leaving 06.55, Monday-Friday only, stopping thereafter at 25 different stations before arriving at Pattaya at 10:34, from there it proceeds on to a further 6 stops before it reaches the end of the line at Ban Plu Ta Luang, returning (after it gets its breath back) to Pattaya at 14:20, and arriving back to Bangkok 18:15, where I assume it collapses from exhaustion.
While compared to road travel this mode of transport is slow at approx. 3:40 minutes, the scenery and the feeling of being closer to the real Thailand, is something you just don’t get when travelling by road or air, if this was not a good enough reason to use the railways then the cherry on the cake is the cost of the journey…..at only 31 baht. Combined these two facts more than make up for the snail’s pace of this rickety old train.
I will add details of other journeys at a later date: Bangkok to Udon Thani and Chaing Mai, to the south-Penang-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore and shorter trips to the likes of Maeklong Railway Market, nicknamed (Thai: Talad Rom Hoop), meaning the ‘Umbrella Pull down Market’. And more
More use full Thai railway info can be found at: http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm#.U_r9efm1Zgl