Thursday, February 02, 2012

The 'Rail' Way to Bangkok

The last week of June 2011 marked my return to Thailand in just a little over a month (from the KB/Thailand trip). This time it was with the Mensa gang. I wrote a 3500-word article/report for the Triple-M, Malaysian Mensa's bimonthly magazine; the length seems justifiable, as I'm usually expected to write about 500 words for day trips, and this was a seven-day trip!

I reproduce the article in its entirety here, with additional pictures not in the Triple-M article. Pardon the length, but I found the whole challenge of editing for the blog too much of a hassle. Besides, why edit when there's no space constraint here in the first place?

Sam blogged about the trip on the weekend of our return itself! You can read it here.

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When putting together this report the biggest challenge was not deciding what to put in, but what to omit. All in all it was a six-day trip (25-30 June) that effectively covered six towns/cities: Butterworth/Penang (counts as one as we weren’t there very long), Nakhon Pathom, Amphawa, Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi and Bangkok. How do you fit all of that into a two-page Triple-M article?

Well, the answer seemed simple enough: you don’t. And so I decided that the article could do without an over-detailed itinerary of the many temples and ruins we visited (we nicknamed Thailand the questionable country, for it was a land of many wats… get it?), without an over-romanticised account of the many train journeys (probably half the entire trip was spent on a train of some sort), and without a Wok Works-worthy exploration of the food we enjoyed; each of these would merit a book on its own.


It all started when Samantha asked me, in late April, when the next Heritage trip would be. She proposed either Bangkok, Kuching or KK; somewhere ‘farrrr’. Ever since the Heritage SIG started last year, there’d been talk of Penang and Malacca, but Bangkok sounded like a good idea to attempt something a little more ambitious within the first year of the SIG’s inception.

By end May we had more or less confirmed the dates: 25-30 June in Thailand. We had also confirmed our party of six: Samantha, her sister Stephanie, Eng Hoo, his friend Rachel (who was excited to go, as plans for a trip to Bangkok with coursemates fell through), Jeru, and myself. Poh Wah wanted to join but had to pull out due to professional commitments that week (no worries, we’ll have more trips ahead!).

It was also confirmed that we’d visit the only-on-weekends floating market at Amphawa (ambitious as it was to head right to Amphawa upon arrival in Bangkok by late Sunday morning), and that we’d be travelling to Butterworth by overnight train on the 24th, so as to catch the Butterworth-Bangkok train on the 25th. Jeru said, “In case you need to decide on something and you can't get hold of me, just go ahead and decide. I can sleep in $2 dorms with roach crawling around.”

And then, on 3 June, Eng Hoo threw in another variable: “Would be great to make a visit to River Kwai (or Kwae), Hellfire pass and travel on the Wampo viaduct. Heard the scenery there is great and of course the historical significance,” he said. Jeru’s immediate reply (in those days Jeru replied everything as though he was literally one with the computer) included a suggestion to EH to visit Ayutthaya, in line with EH’s interest in ‘historical’ things. This being a heritage trip, the idea seemed good.

Within 24 hours we had a totally revised itinerary, which included Bangkok, Amphawa, Kanchanaburi, the Hellfire Pass, Ayutthaya, and a place I personally wanted to see, Nakhon Pathom. To think that the original idea was just to head to Bangkok and chill there! And within those 24 hours we had also secured our tickets to Bangkok.

Jeru noted, “Our itinerary is more compact than a tour group.”

The Train: KL to Butterworth

Air Asia has successfully made Southeast Asia a smaller place; ask anyone how they would go to Thailand, and 9.5 out of 10 would probably say, “Fly.” (In some quarters it would be 10 out of 10.) Well, true to being the Heritage SIG, we took the train. Why? Because the journey is as important as the destination? Maybe. But also largely because heritage is about the story of a place.

Our journey was to cover places like the ancient kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Nakhon Pathom, and the World War II history-rich Kanchanaburi; it only seemed fitting that we travelled by a means that would allow us a good view of the land. And so, between an elephant convoy and the railway, we decided on the more practical option.

The Chow sisters were already in Butterworth, and so the other four of us were to meet them there on the morning of Saturday, 25 June. We took an overnight train from KL Sentral on Friday. The adventure had already begun for Jeru, who only then found out that KL Sentral was the operational hub for intercity trains; he thought we were to meet at the Old Railway Station! Eng Hoo jokingly commented, “Where have you been the last 10 years?”

We arrived in Butterworth and spent the morning wandering the streets of Georgetown, before heading back to Butterworth to catch the 2 o’clock International Express train to Bangkok. The journey was to last nearly 20 hours, but the seats (which converted into sleeping berths at night) were spacious and comfortable, and our Thai hostess made dinner and breakfast a most delightful experience.

The unforgettable Jeru.

View of Penang from Butterworth.

100 Cintra Street.

Company: Stephanie, Samantha, Ben, Jeru, Rachel, Eng Hoo (Photo: Mr Chow).

Detour: Nakhon Pathom

Although we had purchased tickets all the way to Bangkok, we decided to alight at Nakhon Pathom, a stop before Bangkok, in accordance with the revised itinerary. My student exchange friend, Piao, was to meet us at the station and bring us around what is said to be the first Thai settlement (Nakhon Pathom is believed to originate from the Sanskrit ‘nagara pathama’ – negara pertama).

We had brunch at a coffee shop near the station, before visiting the Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world at 127 metres. At the coffee shop, although it all looked so familiar, we could tell for sure that we were in Thailand as we were surrounded by people speaking in a different tongue. Fortunately, Piao served as interpreter and ordered for us a very complete Thai sampler.

Phra Pathom Chedi itself was busy, packed not only with what must be the usual Sunday crowd, but also by voters who thronged the temple grounds, which were used as a polling station ahead of the General Election a week hence. Nonetheless, everywhere we went it was peaceful, and life rolled on as usual. But for election campaign posters and banners, and a slightly stepped-up military presence, you couldn’t tell otherwise that this was a country on the brink of quite a political U-turn.

We spent some time wandering the grounds of the Sanam Chandra Palace, before Piao’s roommate Apple gave us a lift to the bus stand, so that we could get to Sai Tai Mai (the Southern Bus Terminal in Bangkok), from which we would head to Amphawa. There were eight of us including Piao and Apple, so it was quite a feat, stuffing ourselves into the car, with the entire luggage to boot!

Eng Hoo and Rachel settle into the International Express.

Through an archway at the Phra Pathom Chedi.

Canalside Evening: Nakhon Pathom to Amphawa

Over a late lunch at the Sai Tai Mai food court, where fellow exchange student Sai joined us, Piao helped us book our rooms at the Reorn Pae Amphawa guesthouse. We hopped into a minivan for the hour-plus journey, and made it to Amphawa well before sunset, where we were able to witness the well-known floating market. It is said that the Amphawa market is among the least touristy, and true enough, practically everyone on the banks of the river looked local, or at least, Asian.

There was a very pasar malam-like feel about the floating market, except, of course, that some of the stalls were operated off boats in the water. It wasn’t difficult to find the Reorn Pae guesthouse, which was above one of the shop houses facing the river itself. After checking in, we wasted no time and immediately found ourselves wandering about the market.

The highlight of the night, however, was arguably the firefly cruise along the canal. The hour-long ride up- and downstream through the sleepier parts of the canal was the epitome of tranquility, and we were treated to views of countless fireflies nesting/resting in the riverside trees. At only 60 baht (RM6) per person, it was one of the best deals of our entire trip.

After the cruise, we stayed out until all the shops closed, and the river was once again plunged into an abyss of silence. We had hoped to pop by the bar next to our guesthouse for some drinks, but, alas, it was about to close for the night. Much to our delight, the charming old lady who ran the guesthouse, and operated the sundry store downstairs, came to our rescue with a rather respectable stock of drinks and snacks. We had our first taste of the infamous Sang Som spirits, opting for the rum over the whisky, and carried on conversations well into the night. In our more sober moments we talked about the value of being actively involved in Mensa (as opposed to just lurking in the background), and in the less sober ones the discussions went as far as how ‘42’ is not the answer to everything.

It was a chilly, rainy morning the next day that greeted us, and so the breakfast of hot soya milk and fresh yew char kueh (courtesy of Aunty Proprietor) was most welcome. We said goodbye to the town most of us promised to visit again, and caught a songtaew (pick-up truck taxi with two rows of seats in the back) to the nearby Samut Songkhram train station.

Floating market, Amphawa.

Accordion player, Amphawa.

The deserted Monday morning, Amphawa.

Aunty Proprietor and her dog, Amphawa.

The Mahachai Shortline: Amphawa to Bangkok

In order to get to Ayutthaya, we had to board a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station. So we set off to Bangkok from Samut Songkhram via what is known as the Mahachai Shortline, a series of two 10 baht trips, which terminates at Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai station, west of the Chao Phraya.

The first leg of our journey ended at Ban Laem. We crossed the river by ferry to the port town of Samut Sakhon, where we had lunch at a roadside stall before catching the connecting train to Wong Wian Yai.

Upon arrival, we attempted to find our way to Hua Lamphong by foot. Up until then it had been a rainy morning, but as we were walking the sun had unveiled itself in its full glory, and getting lost only made the journey more arduous. Jeru was right; Bangkok is to be explored in person, and by making many mistakes—maps do precious little to help.

Nonetheless, we did arrive at last, and caught a late-afternoon train to Ayutthaya. (As you can see, trains were indeed a recurring motif on this trip!)

The Mahachai Shortline crashes through the market, Samut Songkhram.

Aboard the Mahachai Shortline.

Crossing over to Samut Sakhon.

Noodle stall, Samut Sakhon.

Trishaws, Samut Sakhon.

Samut Sakhon is not all that far from Bangkok, and yet in this somewhat backwater town, time seemed to move a lot more slowly. The whole 'small town' vibe was alive and well.

Of Ancient Kingdoms: Ayutthaya

The Provincial Administration Organization of Ayutthaya nicknames the city, ‘The City of Gorgeousness’, and given the sheer number of wats—each with its distinct historical and architectural characteristics—it would be hard to disagree. We checked into the P.U. Inn Ubonpon, which by guesthouse standards had really luxurious rooms and a cosy restaurant/cafeteria downstairs; the owner/manager practically chased us on motorcycle to secure our patronage, but it was well worth it.

After a rather rushed dinner at the guesthouse, we went on a night cruise on the river(s) that encircle the town centre of Ayutthaya—namely the Mae Nam Lopburi which joins the Chao Phraya. A number of riverside temples were lit up, but due to the low light and our being in the boat, we could not take any decent photographs. However, we did alight at one of the temples—the Wat Chai Wattanaram—and were able to explore the grounds and take photographs. It was indeed a highlight, and although we visited that wat the next morning, it was a lot more surreal at night.

The next morning, we were taken on a whirlwind tour of some of the temples in Ayutthaya. Mr Pok, our guide, was most animated and enthusiastic throughout the whole journey, and this was probably one of the more touristy things we did throughout the week. In spite of the commercialisation of so-called historical tourism, the wats seemed for the most part well taken care of, and if one stopped to actually reflect and absorb the sights (minus the sounds) both in the day and at night, one might actually begin to feel what a great kingdom this must have once been.

After a quick lunch of noodles, we found ourselves in a minivan, en route to Suphanburi, from which we would take the bus to Kanchanaburi.

Wat Chai Wattanaram at night, Ayutthaya.

Dog at Wat Chai Mongkhon, Ayutthaya.

Mr Pok with tiffin lunch, Ayutthaya.

At the Suphanburi bus station.

Besides numerous songtaew rides, we also travelled by bus (Nakhon Pathom to the Sai Tai Mai terminal, Suphanburi to Kanchanaburi) and minivan (Sai Tai Mai to Amphawa, Ayutthaya to Suphanburi).

World War II Vignettes: Kanchanaburi

Thailand has, over the centuries, proudly remained sovereign, free of colonisation. But that is not to say that the great colonial powers of the West never set foot here. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kanchanaburi, where the tables were turned and the great colonial powers were, instead, the humbled white slaves in a project to build a railway linking Thailand and Burma.

The Bridge on the River Kwae (according to Lonely Planet, pronounced ‘kwhere’, not ‘kwy’; to rhyme with ‘square’, not ‘cry’) is situated north of the town centre. It was one of the key destinations on our itinerary, but by this point in the trip everyone was quite worn out, and I suppose the stopover in Kanchanaburi meant different things to each of us. Here, my friend Joan joined us. That night, after a somewhat relaxed dinner, the girls and Jeru headed for a Thai massage, while Eng Hoo returned to our rooms at the VN Guesthouse, and Joan and I chilled at the Reggae Bar.

Our rooms were in a floating chalet complex on the River Kwae itself, and the next morning Samantha and Stephanie opted to stay behind and enjoy a leisurely morning by the river while the rest of us made the journey to the Hellfire Pass north of Kanchanaburi. An Allied war memorial has been built there, and the interpretative centre was very informative, providing visitors an in-depth perspective of the significance of what has been dubbed the ‘Death Railway’.

In spite of time constraints, we managed to walk a part of the railway route itself, i.e., on the tracks, or what’s left of them. And then it was back to town to catch the last of our train rides as a group.

Dogs cross the tracks, Bridge on the Kwae Yai River.

Floating chalets at the VN Guesthouse, Kanchanaburi.

Memorial, Hellfire Pass.

I found this especially poignant, because the koala hugging the giant nail/spike so vividly recalled to memory the numerous Australian soldiers who were forced into slave labour in the Hellfire Pass by the Japanese.

Boarding the train from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok.

Arrival in Krung Thep: From Kanchanaburi to Bangkok

Ironically, for a trip billed as the ‘Rail Way to Bangkok’, we only really arrived in the city on the very last day. But arrive we did, just as the sun was setting on 29 June. A songtaew and a Skytrain ride later, we arrived in the Silom area and checked into the Take a Nap Hostel.

Apparently, the locals call their national capital Krung Thep, and only foreigners refer to it as Bangkok; it is thus easy to distinguish between those who are, and aren’t, local. We met up with more of my friends from the exchange programme; they brought us to dinner at a pizza place near Khao San Road, accompanied us as we explored Khao San Road itself, and later showed Samantha, Stephanie and me around the area while Eng Hoo, Rachel and Jeru headed back to rest ahead of their flights the next day.

Khao San Road was indeed Mat Salleh central; offhand the first impression was that of Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street on steroids! There were many bars in full swing, street performers, and stalls selling all sorts of snacks—including those of the invertebrate variety. We tried some deep fried silkworms and crickets. The Chow sisters developed quite a taste for them; Samantha once said, “I’m squeamish about leeches and bugs,” so I suppose this must have been a breakthrough of sorts!

We then went with the Thais to the area west of Khao San Road, towards the Rama VIII Bridge over the Chao Phraya. It had been, on the whole, a very hectic trip, and walking the deserted streets around Khao San Road and the Rama VIII Bridge was actually restful. Eventually we parted ways by taxi; the Thais to their respective homes/hostels, and the Chows and myself back to Take a Nap.

SUSI 2010/2011 with Mensa Malaysia, Khao San Road.

A sense of local flavour. ;-)

Eating insects, Khao San Road (Photo: Bas).

A barge passes, Rama VIII Bridge.

This is a very imperfect time exposure. For one, the water droplets on my lens appear in the picture, marring it unless you imagine that it has the aesthetic value of looking through a raindrop-coated window. But I nonetheless like it because it reminds me of that night we spent walking the deserted streets of Bangkok.

Apparently the bright building to the right of the passing barge is the hospital where King Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently being treated.

The Return: Hua Lamphong to Butterworth

In the wee hours of 30 June, Eng Hoo and Rachel tumbled out of bed and hopped into a taxi bound for the airport, the great Suvarnabhumi (pronounced ‘suvarna-poom’). Jeru would also be flying back to KL, albeit some six to eight hours later. Perhaps they got the most complete experience out of the trip, travel-wise, literally navigating by ‘sea, air and land’.

Samantha and Stephanie managed to squeeze in a bit of shopping, while I took the MRT to Pahon Yothin to check out the camera stores and photography labs there, upon exchange student Fitra’s recommendation. That afternoon, the three of us boarded the International Express back to Butterworth, bidding Bangkok goodbye at the grand Hua Lamphong train station.

The return journey is never quite the same as the forward journey. While the latter is taken with much expectation and excitement, the former is usually a more subdued affair laced with a contemplative fatigue. On all accounts the journey was officially ended, yet there was a long road ahead—all 20 hours of it, and only half the company as at first. And if there’s one advantage of ending a trip with a flight, this is it: flying is like a quick and painless death. The train, on the other hand, is a long slow death of Shakespearean proportions—full of lengthy soliloquys and ‘last words’ that seem rather to last forever.

We arrived in Butterworth in the afternoon of 1 July. Leaving the girls behind, I ended as I began: with the night train to KL, arriving almost exactly two days after Eng Hoo and Rachel.

Such a pleasant surprise (Photo: Sam).

Lunch with Joan, near the Dusit Thani. My last bowl of noodles in Thailand (for now).

Hua Lamphong station, Bangkok.

The first time I saw this was when we arrived from Samut Songkhram, to buy tickets to Ayutthaya. This time, it was goodbye—or at least, au revoir!

People waiting, Hua Lamphong.


It has been said, always say ‘hello’ in the local language. And, some would add, ‘thank you’ as well. To this end, our trip was saturated with countless utterances of sawatdee krap/ka (krap if spoken by a male, and ka if spoken by a female) and korp kun krap/ka.

We got back together in Bangsar on the weekend of my birthday (end July) to exchange photographs and meet everyone once again. Azrai joined us and it was a nice way to ‘officially’ end this adventure.

Finally, a hearty thank you to Eng Hoo, Samantha, Stephanie, Rachel and Jeru for making this trip so enjoyable and worth every minute of it—including the arguments and the not-so-comfortable moments: the challenges of group travel, but I’m glad we pulled through.

And a deep korp kun from the bottom of our hearts to our Thai friends who made us feel so welcome in their land. May we do likewise.

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What They Said

A mode of transportation that opened up frontiers, speeded up development of towns in the 19th & 20th century. Into the 21st century, railway is still an important mode of transportation as well as that of a nostalgic one. When the Mensa Heritage SIG put together a rail trip from KL-Butterworth-Bangkok, it was one trip I wanted to take. I would say the itinerary of the original that Benjamin had in mind was almost hijacked with the suggestions to include more places of interest. Kudos to Ben for managing to fit it all in and without any hitches encountered.

Would I go again? Without hesitation but will spend a longer time at each place.

~ Eng Hoo

It was my very first time on a trip like this. All my previous trips were not like this at all, not even close. My first backpacking experience, it was fun, awesome and STINKY of course. If I remember correctly, we didn't bathe for more than 48 hours. That's a record for me. Not to forget, spending about two days on train is another record for me too. I call that train hopping.

Thank you Uncle Lim and Aunty Lisa for persuading me. I wouldn't have had this much fun if you didn't talk me into it. I wasn't very keen to go at first, especially when I didn't know any of them. But I am glad that I went. Thank you Ben for the arrangement, the accommodation, transportation, basically everything. You rock, Ben! Please let me know if you are planning another trip, I would love to join!

~ Rachel

Most significant memory from the trip? This place where we could not find (Singha) beer, and had to settle for Chang! Is seeing many Wats exciting? Huh, all the same what!

You’ve been to Thailand so many times, why join this trip? I’ve never been there by train; quite ‘dai’—you pay so little and the journey is so long! It would have been nice, though, to stay another night in Kanchanaburi or Amphawa.

The last time I took the train was probably 1999 or 2000. I went to the old train station, and then I called Ben and asked, “What time is the train to Bangkok?” I thought I was going to miss the train, and had to go to Bangkok by Bus.

~ Jeru

Here’s to our next trip! Somewhere equally exotic, like the Philippines perhaps?

~ Samantha

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Technical matters:

B&W shot on Kodak TriX 400. Colour shot on Kodak Portra 160VC; except Samut Sakhon and Ayutthaya shot on Kodak ColorPlus 200, and Kanchanaburi shot on Fujichrome Velvia 50.

Pictures in KL Sentral, Penang, Khao San (Ronald McDonald) and Bangkok (Joan, Hua Lamphong) shot on phone camera.

Nikon N80 with 18-35mm lens. 50mm used for the Phra Pathom Chedi photo.

1 comment:

seejayel said...

Very beautiful photo of the floating chalet, Ben. Also, it's nice being reminded of Krung Thep. :) Missing the food now.