Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Death Railway Bangkok March 5th 2012

Bridge over the River Kwai..

Train leaves from Thonburi station, the other side of the river at 7.50, so up at 6.30. 15 minutes to the ferry, 5 minutes to cross the river and about 20 minutes to the station. Should all work out with time to spare. Through the Thammasat canteen, nothing much going on this time of the morning not that I had time to stop anyway. A ferry was docked waiting for people to jump on. That they did and soon it was heading over to the opposite pier, just by the Black Canyon Coffee Shop, or the Hospital might be a better landmark.

All is going to plan as I grab a Danish pastry from the corner, 15 b, that's 33p roughly. The route to the station basically follows the elevated highway after turning right out of the road leading to the pier. 20 minutes and there's the station. A small local place serving mostly commuters with 2 trains a day running out into neighbouring provinces. There is bit of a queue for tickets, not a big deal since I have time to spare. 100 b, £2.20, and it's the train to Nam Tok that I need if I am to ride the "Railway of Death" over the River Kwai. Just enough time to grab some supplies from the market opposite - water, bananas and a pork satay. The train is supposed to depart 7.50 but finally gets going 20 minutes late.

Thonburi in times past was a city in its own right, but now is a suburb of Bangkok, and is considerably less adorned with smart developments. The train rolls through a poor neighbourhood with shacks both sides of the line. It's not wise to stick ones head out of the window since its just millimetres between the corrugated iron roofs and the carriage! Occasionally whitewashed housing blocks appear from behind the line of shacks, perhaps an indication things might be changing for the better. Further from town, about 20 minutes along the line, a complex of housing blocks just laying empty. Now into a very rural scene as bamboo and corrugated iron structures are replaced with, well, a few more bamboo structures, probably farmers dwellings. Irrigation channels with banana trees each side, rice paddies then a fish farm and more banana plantations, all very green and lush.The train stops at some obscure locations, just a name and a concrete shelter. Sometimes not even a platform as locals stumble across the track. Towns come and go with various methods employed to stop traffic getting in the way. Sometimes it's a guard pulling an iron gate across, or it's an automatic barrier, but often nothing other than flashing lights.

Until now the train has been mostly empty, but there appears to be quite a crowd coming up the platform. Looks like a school outing wants to ride over the River Kwai too. A 10 minute stop here, and sitting directly opposite is the Oriental Express train that operates the Singapore to Bangkok route for people with money to burn. A ticket to take that train is a cool £1200 according to a Google search.  I can see a waiter tending to one of the cabins, setting out a fruit bowl with a bottle of something, wrapped in cloth next to it. What I don't see is any passengers though!. Still quite someway from the Kwai bridge, so why here?

Train setts off again and mountains are visible obscured with mist and haze. It's hot now, much hotter, even the breeze is hot, but manageable since there is a fan and some shady areas in the train. Kanchanaburi station sees more tourists alight. 3 minutes later the next station, it's the River Kwai Bridge station and an exchange of tourists. Getting off here won't get the ride across the bridge and the even more dramatic scenery further along Won't be experienced (according to research that is).  A small display of old steam train engines here, presumably used during the 1943 era when the bridge was constructed.

The train creeps along at walking pace. Everyone hangs out of any available window space to snap away at this probably one time event. So, here I am, on the Bridge over the River Kwai, quite a significant event. Quite a sight as the bridge creaks, taking the strain admirably one more time, and hopefully again since I need to return. Tourists are around in quite a number and some have been walking on the track. They are forced onto platforms jutting out over the river as the train creeps past. It's been nearly 4 hours getting here, but well worth it, so far anyway.

Over the bridge and the train picks up speed - clickety clack, clickety clack. Looking down on the river for a few minutes then it's parting of the ways as the train continues to Nom Tok. The scene changes again as the river once more flows below. The train slows to a crawl and eases onto another wood and iron creaking bridge. It's the Thamakase bridge, another famous landmark and provides some spectacular scenery. The Kwai below, steep mountain on the right, hills on the left and lots of lush greenery.

A problem is apparent. The train back to Bangkok is timed at 12.55pm and it's already 1.05. That's the last train until about 5am next morning! I'm told by a local it's the same train back, but probably won't get a ticket in time - no tickets are sold on board, apparently, so looks like I might be staying the night at Nom Tok. There is however a bus to Bangkok that leaves at 3, might be true, might not, but it's a glimmer of hope to hang onto for now. Train rolls into Nom Tok at 1.15. It's taken 5 1/2 hours to get here, but really hasn't seemed like it. Luck is on my side as the carriage pulls right alongside the ticket counter. I have 5 minutes while the engine is replaced for the return trip. Another 100 b and back on the train - another 5 hours! If all had gone to plan, there would be about 30 minutes to wander around here, get lunch etc...

Back on the death railway, heading towards the "Bridge over the River Kwai" once more. More pictures, more video and more hanging out the window. Loads of tourists still milling around, their coaches lined up just yards from the rail line. Rolling on back to Bangkok then  on what can be described as I suppose a 3rd class train - it's the only class there is on this route. It's grubby, torn fabric on the seats and ants, quite a few are munching on dropped crumbs and taking the occasional chunk out of my leg, but for £4.40 for a 10 hour trip, I shouldn't really complain. Actually, has to be the most memorable train ride ever, no toilet smells either. Not having had time to get any food I'm thankful of the hawkers that ply the train on a continuous basis. Food and drink is available, and at a reasonable price. About £1 for some kind of rice, omelet and vegetable and a can of cold sweet coffee was about 55p. Train rolls back into Bangkok Thonburi, 6.30pm, much cooler now, but I need a shower and something to eat and then....Zzzzz

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