Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan – A (3rd Class) Rail Adventure
I distinctly remember the first time that I arrived in Bangkok. I was overwhelmed by the humidity and the sights and smells of the city: spicy street food mingling with motorbike fumes and the heady scents arising from the Chao Phraya River, all cooking under the blazing heat of the sun. Around me cars drove in all directions as Tuk-Tuks blazed through the tiny gaps between them, tourists pointed at the sprawling malls and stared in awe at the Grand Palace. It was all so dizzyingly fast.
Bangkok acts for me as a kind of hub. An easy place to begin and to end. A good start to a long adventure. I’ve travelled in and out of the city by various methods but by far my favourite is of course by train. Convenient, slow and steady. As such I’ve travelled a handful of times by train in Thailand, mostly in first and second class, amidst other travellers, sharing in conversation and beer well into the night, but on only my second Thai train journey, I found myself tagging along with a bunch of backpackers from Japan, from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan, and I travelled in an all but abandoned 3rd class car.
I love to travel by train, I love the hustle of people and the sounds of steel against steel as the train powers onwards. On overnight trains, whether in Europe or in Asia there is a certain ambience that always overwhelms me. I can’t help but stay awake to watch and listen as the dimly lit cabins hurtle through the night, occasionally stopping at junctions and stations where the sounds of life tread lightly through the train.
When I boarded the train I was a little apprehensive. 3rd class on a Thai sleeper train is quite literally a regular train car with no beds. Just padded seats made of wood. We found a couple of empty seats and tried to settle in on chairs that were wonky and old, creaky and uncomfortable. One of the group had brought some blow-up pillows, they smelled of plastic and were only marginally more comfortable than the chair’s headboard but they came in handy when sleep became unavoidable. Gradually, the commuting Thais left the train until just a few groups of people remained in our carriage. I’d found that in the first and second classes, once the beds are down and the curtains drawn, the cabins fall quiet apart from the sounds of the train, random footsteps and hushed voices. But in 3rd class the experience is entirely different. There are windows in 3rd class (the other carriages are air conditioned so the windows are generally kept closed all night and mostly blocked from view by the beds), but some of which, like mine, refuse to close but are eventually heavy handed in to submission by some more than helpful locals, and when the train stops, coffee sellers pass through the cars offering Oliang (Thai iced coffee made from coffee beans, soybeans, corn and a variety of seeds), black coffee, tea and the occasional beer to the sleepy passengers of 3rd class, most of which seem to manage to sleep through the shouts of coffee or gaafae in Thai.
The view from the windows of the train is incredible. I watched in silent awe, as we passed through small towns and sleepy wooden villages, stopped in the middle of dense jungle and travelled at speed over old bridges where the occasional local could be seen shadow-like, hanging on to the railings and illuminated by only the moon, as the train passes unaware. The journey takes the whole night but it’s worth it and more comfortable than the cramped busses that offer a similar journey. We were lucky enough to make friends with a group of Thai men from Bangkok who were on their way to Surat Thani too, who offered to order drinks and food for us, thus saving somewhere in the region of 75% for the entire journey. On a separate occasion I’d stumbled into the food car long after hours, and encountered a group of on-duty police playing cards whilst listening to a questionable mix of Thai rock through, what looked like, one huge guitar amplifier.
I only managed to sleep for perhaps 2 hours in that 3rd class car, for I was busy taking in the ambience of the journey through the windows, though the noise and the quasi-mayhem all died down eventually, as the train ploughed onwards through the night. And it’s then which is probably the best time to take in your surroundings. Whether it be grassy mountains or messy lakes, the silence of the train’s passengers allows room for the soundtrack of the night: the mechanical repetition of the train on the tracks, the occasional hint of wildlife just beyond the window and the hushed voices of the rail staff (and the occasional police officer) as they make their rounds of the carriages.
The journey onwards was rather mundane in comparison, passing through Surat Thani and by Koh Samui on the ferry until finally setting sites on the white sands and emerald green interior of Ko Pha Ngan – a beautiful sight – but despite all of this – I just couldn’t wait to turn around and head back to the trains.
This is an edited, archive version of an original piece that I wrote for the excellent, though sadly no longer active, online travel magazine Yettio.