Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Journey On Death Railway

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I didn’t know that train journeys in Thailand could be so much fun, until I had hopped on a passenger train going from Thonburi in downtown Bangkok to Nam Tok situated in the hilly north-western region along the border with Burma. Apart from the journey itself, it was the thrill of being on Death Railway that had sowed the seeds of excitement in the first place. The infamous Death Railway once connected Siam (Thailand) with Burma (Myanmar). But I was not going up to the last station; my destination was Kanchanaburi- a small town and a state capital situated on the banks of River Kwai- and it was three and a half hours away. Most of the travellers going to that part of Thailand make Kanchanaburi as their base to explore further. It is in Kanchanaburi that you find the world-famous bridge on River Kwai (made famous by a 1957 movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ ).
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Before I take you onto this journey, let me tell you an interesting fact about the naming of the bridge. When this bridge was constructed during Second World War, it was not on River Kwai actually. It was built on the mighty River Mae Klong, but wrongly documented as built on River Kwai, which is in fact a smaller tributary and merges into River Mae Klong a little further downstream. To correct this historical mistake, River Mae Klong up till the merger was renamed as Kwai Yai (literally meaning ‘the Big Kwai’) and the tributary River Kwai was renamed as Kwai Noi (literally meaning ‘the Small Kwai’). And after the point where two Kwais merge, the river name remains the same as Mae Klong. It does sound interesting, no??

The Journey Starts
We were three friends visiting Thailand together. It was the month of December in 2010 and the sun was rising a little late in the northern hemisphere. So, when the train started from the station at 7.50 in the morning, it was still pleasant in otherwise hot and humid Thailand. The trains covering short distances usually have 3rd class seating compartments and seats are not reserved. The train fare in Thailand is according to the distance travelled, but they charge a flat fare of 100 Baht from foreign tourists travelling on Death Railway no matter where one wants to alight.
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The railroad passes through some beautiful landscapes. As the train starts coming out of Bangkok and labyrinth of stone buildings starts thinning, green paddy fields and banana trees start meeting your eyes; and believe me, those are very soothing sights. You get to see a lot of country-side life on the way- quite opposite to what you witness in Bangkok. This is real Thailand.

And inside the compartment, you can get a chance to interact with this rural life of Thailand. Don’t be surprised if you find some of your co-passengers giving you constant glares and flashing a large grin the moment you happen to look straight into their eyes. After all, you are a foreigner and a rare and special commodity in the rural areas. You have to be lucky to get into conversation with one of them, because a very few of them know English.
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It is advisable that you take enough eatables with you as these trains don’t have a pantry car. Though, you will frequently have vendors inside the train selling beer cans, water bottles and small eatables. We had got some packets of fried rice with us. It was fun to sip beer while cool breeze from the open windows was blowing in my face.

One more thing you will like about the train journeys in Thailand is the stations are very clean and are not crowded with vendors. The bigger stations do have eateries and other shops, but those are inside the station premises and never on the platforms- quite opposite to what you see in India.

We reached Kanchanaburi almost on time. But sadly, we had not crossed the famous bridge yet. It is about 5 kilometres ahead of Kanchanaburi station towards Nam Tok. This bridge was to be crossed on our return journey which we took two days later from Wang Po- a beautiful place further up in hills in Sai Yok area and the second last station on this route.

The Return Journey
 
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The return journey was far more exciting- thrilling, to be accurate. We had stayed at Sai Yok the night before. It had a station named Wang Po. We boarded the train in after noon from there. Just after leaving Wang Po, the train crosses Wang Po viaduct- a wooden bridge which is in the last stages of its life. It is built along River Kwai Noi. The train speed is so low that it almost crawls. And below on the right side you see a sprawling water body. Don’t be surprised if your heart skips a beat... It was one of the most thrilling experiences I had in life. And on the banks of river, one can see lush green lawns of resorts. These resorts offer the beat stay in the area.
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The rail section between Nam Tok and Kanchanaburi runs through lush green hills and above the meandering river and it offers some great views. I had missed this on my journey two days before which had ended at Kanchanaburi. But the return leg compensated for the earlier miss. 
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Our final moment of exhilaration during this return leg came when we reached ‘the bridge’. As the train took a curve and the bridge came into sight, I could see many tourists taking a stroll on it. How the train is going to pass them!!! Well, the train slowed down and the strollers took refuge on small platforms built at regular intervals on both sides of the bridge. They waved when train passed them. It was an unforgettable moment. And it had completed my first experience as a train traveller in Thailand. My second train experience in Thailand came one year and two months later when I went to Chiang Mai. That I will describe in my next article.

Some Helpful Tips
  • The trains usually run late in Thailand, and this was the case during my return journey and my journey to Chiang Mai. They will start on time, mind it… but will get delayed during journey. You can blame it on single line on most of the sections.
  • For 3rd class compartments, there is no need to buy tickets in advance. But you should be at the station early to get good seat if you are starting from originating station.
  • Outside Thonburi station, there are many vendors who sell cooked food. The food is good and clean.
  • The train to Kanchanaburi departs two times daily from Thonburi station. First one at 7.50 and second one at 13.55. and the train from Nam Tok departs at 5.20 and 12.55 daily for Bangkok.
  • The biggest station or the central station in Bangkok is called Hua Lamphong. It is located in the centre of the city in Pathum Wan area on Rama VI road.
  • There is online booking system of train tickets in Thailand. You can check the availability of seats than can book your tickets at www.thairailticket.com The charge per transaction is 20 Baht and you can book four passengers in one transaction.
  • Else, you can use private train travel agencies like www.thailandtrainticket.com, www.asia-discovery.com or www.thaifocus.com. These agencies charge a fee for booking tickets through them.
 Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

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