The feeling of having made it successfully onto your sleeper train as it pulls away from the station – especially as you relax into a private cabin and watch the platform start to disappear past your window – is a really special one, and I don’t understand anyone who wouldn’t feel the thrill in this. So began our overnight train to Bangkok, leaving a little late (but not drastically)
from Surat Thani and arriving about an hour behind schedule at 9.30 in the morning. The train itself was nothing fancy but similar to other sleeper trains I’ve ridden and we slept reasonably well, although I’m writing this from the future – after our incredible train out of Bangkok to Chiang Mai – which is warping my memory a little. More on that later.
We were very generously lent an apartment to stay in by the parents of one of Randi’s school friends (thank you!) and to get there from the main train station involved an introduction to Bangkok’s two main rail systems: the MRT (a subway) and the BTS Skytrain (an elevated train). Bear in mind that neither of these existed in any form until 1999 – I can’t imagine how awful it would have been to get around without them – and both systems are growing at a brisk pace, to the extent that the majority of stations on the MRT map are “future stations” which do not actually exist yet. So overall, I was very impressed. But the most galling flaw is that they use two completely separate smartcard systems for payment, even though they have been built to interchange with each other!
The Thai government has been promising to introduce an integrated Mangmoom Card (or ‘spider card’) for years, but it still doesn’t work. In the meantime, it’s BTS which has made the running with a cute ‘Rabbit card’ which can also be used to pay for meals at one of the food courts we visited. So we opted for that one and stuck with plastic tokens on the subway, refusing to shell out deposits for two different cards. Please keep working on this, Bangkok.
The most obvious thing to do when visiting the city is to visit the Grand Palace, the former site of the royal family and Thai government which is a large complex of courts, palaces and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We got there by taking a public boat up the river – no, the public boat doesn’t work with either of the smartcard systems I mentioned earlier, don’t be silly – and I was proud of us for walking determinedly past the staff misleading flogging the tourist boat at the pier (60 baht per person) and finding the right table for the ‘real’ boat instead (20 baht per person). You have to be jealous of your baht when visiting the Grand Palace since it is rather expensive in addition to being very hot and crowded, which definitely takes away the charm. That said, I did enjoy the quieter section at the back with the extensive murals depicting the national epic.
Thailand’s current government is a military junta after their coup in 2014, but new elections are now scheduled for the end of next week. I have not read up enough on the situation to understand what exactly is going on, but the roadsides of Bangkok are littered with posters for a plethora of different parties including – my favourite – whoever is campaigning with the somewhat complacent slogan #NoProblem. (Disclaimer: not an actual endorsement.) A couple of times we also saw vans driving past playing election material out of loudspeakers. We will be out of the country for the election itself but we are scheduled to return to Bangkok at the very end of our travels so we’ll have to keep an eye on what happens here.
Our other adventures in Bangkok included the Ratchada Train Market – an enormous night market with lots and lots of food – and Lumphini Park, where Randi joined in with the nightly aerobics class and I sat happily and read instead. We also had multiple cheap and cheerful lunches at the food court at Terminal 21, an airport-themed shopping centre (because who doesn’t love airports?) where each floor represents a different destination, from London to Paris to Tokyo to San Francisco to San Francisco again. (I don’t understand why… it’s not like they ran out of places in the world.)
It’s difficult to sum up Bangkok and we obviously only saw a small sliver of it, but I look forward to coming back and hope to uncover a little more then. What I absolutely adored, however, was how we left: the #9 Express Train overnight to Chiang Mai. This was possibly the nicest train I’ve ever taken even though this time we were only travelling second class. Instead of cabins, second class bunks (sofas during the day) are lined up ‘airline style’ along the sides of the train, each with their own electrical sockets and curtains for privacy.
It may not sound quite as nice as a private room but I think I actually preferred it, feeling very snug in my top bunk hideaway. We also very much enjoyed the company of our opposite duo: two German girls from Passau who were shocked and appalled to learn that both Brits and Americans buy their multi-pack beer in cardboard containers rather than plastic beer crates. (Seriously, this really rattled them… they were just like me with American kettles.)
The only downside of this train is that they keep the bright lights turned on along the corridor all night, leading me to root around in my backpack for a blindfold. Luckily I had one (nicked from an airline by Randi) and was able to get some good sleep. It was, in fact, a little disappointing when the train arrived into Chiang Mai exactly on time at 7:15am because I would have enjoyed an even longer rest on that train. Definitely our most enjoyable journey to date.