Hogwarts Express

“Let’s pack, we’re off to Hua Hin this weekend!” announced the happy policy statement from the diplomat.

“Cool. Where’s that?”

“South. There’s a beach, restaurants, a night market, loads of lovely countryside. A real taste of Thailand away from Bangkok”.

“Sounds great. I’ll get my stuff. How do we get there?”

“Four hours on a train. Second class, no A/C…Don’t worry, it’ll be a really authentic  train ride. 300Baht for both of us.”

Er…cheap in this case doesn’t sound terribly linked to romantic. Still….this IS an adventure so what the heck, let’s go.

Having stuffed Isla’s vital Bugaboo into the front seat of Bangkok taxi and slid into the rear with that oddly uncomfortable sensation of sweating skin on faux leather I found my daughter and I heading towards the Canadian embassy to pick up the diplomat and travel due south to Bangkok’s main train terminal at Hualumphong Station. I’d previously surfed Google and found what seemed like a nice website – http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm – which proudly proclaims that “Train travel in Thailand is comfortable, safe, cheap, [and] environmentally friendly.  And unlike flying, it’s a genuine Thai experience making the journey as much a part of your trip as the destination. “Quite something to look forward to then, especially given we were told that a car journey would cost around 2500Baht and take half the time. Still, a train avoided Friday afternoon rush hour in Bangkok.

Hualumphong station came across a little like Paris’ Gard Du Nord. Arching steel girders, frayed edges, and the smell of Bangkok in every rusting pore. The taxi drop off was onto a concrete forecourt barely the size of Arthur Ashe court, yet it was filled with the sweating hustle and bustle of those yearning to travel before the commuter hours really hit. Plenty of farang with their North Face backpacks, tied-back hair, sun-burned faces and that slightly dirt-scrubbed skin-tone you get in every city (except Vancouver, I’ve noticed). Everyone was trying their very hardest not to look out of place; wanting to casually to exude the kudos that you have to possess in order to be perceived not as an  owner of a copy of a “Lonely Planet Travel Guide” but to actually be a writing contributor to the publication. Such an attempt at the seasoned farang look should never be attempted next to a Dunkin Donuts – I don’t care which boy band might be inside singing their little hearts out.

With a couple of drinks and some tasty seed and honey covered cashew nuts we figured out that we need the train on platform 9. Off we trundled, found car 12 and attempted to board. Now…boarding a train in Thailand is like boarding the VIA in Canada. Basically, you’ve got a diesel locomotive with a set of box cars that have narrow entrances and four steps that are like climbing a ladder. You’ve got to watch your step or you’ll slip, twist a muscle you never knew you possessed and end up limping, cursing, down a train aisle of politely smirking co-commuters. The diplomat and I quickly figured out that she should board, I could hand her Isla through an open window and then I could dissemble the bugaboo into its two component parts and lob both it and our small luggage bag aboard. Oddly enough, everyone else seemed to be patiently waiting on the platform and not actually boarding. Hey, ho, we’re going for it. Having got everything bar the final luggage bag on board I suddenly found, to my dismay, the train lurching forwards down the tracks like a weaving drunkard with shunting and banging noises. It was one of those times where the adrenaline rush of panic allows you to have the gymnastic speed of a 20-yr old once more. I lunged up the steps, ignoring the flaring kneecap pain as I careened off a post, grabbed the nearest pole and hoiked the luggage into the dim recesses of the train. Breathed heavily.

The length of the carriage had a Japanese lad, two Thai ladies…and that was it. The train was definitely moving away from the platform Were we sure it was the train to Hua Hin? The diplomat went and asked a Belgian chap who was advancing on our position with the same need for reassurance. Sticking a neck outside the window, craning to peer at the name of the train gave a crumb of comfort with the nodded happy “Yes, Yes” of a Thai who seemed to be cleaning the carriage. So, we shunted and jolted our way outside the station and then ground to a stop near a freshly repainted ancient locomotive that was adorned with yellow flowers.

Doubts grew like the herbaceous border that mocked us in the gentle breeze. Overhead the five or six old fans that were bolted to the carriage ceiling spun and turned mechanically, groaning with the effort of metal on metal. Doubts were voiced; theories put forward and discounted, false confidence utterance from me whilst Isla cheerfully gurgled. Twenty minutes later we chuff-chuff-ed our way back to platform 9 where anyone who knew anything boarded our train; filling the emptiness of our lost esteem with the vibrancy of smiling Thais. This time, as we pulled out of Bangkok’s main station, we were crawling our way north, slowly, past graffiti that stared at us with a sardonic smile whilst we gazed back, utterly along for the ride.

For an hour we moved slowly from station to station, stopping twice at brand new platforms where nothing was ready for people to commence using it. At those stations which were populated, we paused for a good ten minutes at each; gazed out of the window at the laconic demeanours of older Thai men sheltering from the sweltering heat, barely deigning to notice the swarms of midges that hovered desperately over stagnant pails of water.  Inside our carriage the chatter was muted, every few minutes punctuated by the next vendor hawking between us with 20Baht delicacies such as fruit, pad thai, iced water, toys. No one bought anything, yet it did not deter them, as they returned with regular monotony, as though, like goldfish in our ancient, rickety bowl, we had forgotten them in the past five minutes.

“Mai ow” – “No want”. A politely dismissive cadence beating out at the same rhythm as the rumble of the train over its racks.

It rained just the once. A fierce storm that lashed us for a short few minutes, forcing the open windows to be lifted shut, allowed us to feel the drip, drip, drip of a leaking roof. Where was Mr Potter when we needed a griffin to bear us away? Isla slept and I gazed out at the vegetation that flashed by hypnotically. For the first half of the journey, until we reached Nakhon Pathom, we were contained in a tunnel of either grimy buildings or desiccated broad leaves with the odd break for patiently waiting traffic with the usual buffer of dozens of mopeds. Every so often we’d cross a klong, its murky brown waters idly letting human flotsam and jetsam drift onwards to who knew where.

Once we’d curved round the bend in the Gulf of Thailand that Nakhon Pathom sits on and moved southwards there appeared to our right a shadow of mountains.  Mountains that protruded from a flat plain in a manner I believed was artificial for a while. Surely these were piles of sand, gravel, stones, earth…whatever machinery had created them at the behest of a mining community. But no, these were mountains – the closest I can get to seeing something similar was in Vancouver where the islands poked out of the flat inlets with the same triangular up-thrust, the same unscale-able cliffs, and the same perfect coverage of trees. It was odd to think that on the other side of them lay the Indian Ocean. So close to it, yet for now, still unseen.

Eventually, having passed the flat lands that raced away to the sea – lands covered in rice paddy fields, sprinkled with the odd palm tree, single farmstead and lone Thai standing in his or her fields carrying out a daily arable or irrigation task – we pulled into a station which we were assured was Hua Hin. Thankful, we stumbled off the train to see a suspicious sign saying “Petchaburi”.

“Sa wadee ka, bai Hua Hin” asked the diplomat of a local.

“Mai, Petchaburi, ka” came the reply. Basically…”no chance”.

<sigh> All aboard again with a faint glower at the now apologetic Thai lady who said “I mean at next stop. Hua Hin, next stop.”

Cheers. You nearly left us 45 miles from our destination. Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

Having dropped back into our mixture of entertaining Isla and a humid somnolence, the easy rhythm was broken, briefly, when the diplomat leapt on me from a seated start. Our temporary alighting at Petchaburi had resulted in us swapping seats so she was now at the window (well, not at that precise moment because she was in my lap) where a temporary guest was peering at her with an unflappable gaze. You could tell the enormous grasshopper knew we were farang. I flapped at it with a piece of paper as it was on the window sill but it only fell onto the floor and disappeared until I noted it happily clinging to the chair leg in front of me. I was all for leaving it because Thailand is noted for its reluctance to kill any creature but the Thai lady who had nearly dumped us in Petchaburi took pity on the curious Westerners, grabbed it by its neck – for a split second we thought she might eat it – and carefully launched it out of her own window into the descending gloom of dusk. Almost as good as another diplomat who discovered a large cockroach on her in a taxi whilst feeding her baby. What is it about multi-limbed small invertebrates that make our fight or flight instincts kick in so fast? Is it their speed of motion? Afterwards we always reassure ourselves that they mean us no harm, but we have a universally agreed shudder at their presence and a fast, conclusive debate that they firmly belong elsewhere. Usually in Hermione’s potions classroom.

It was dark when we finally got to Hua Hin, clambered down from our temporary home, waved goodbye at all the cheerful Thais who were heading further south to the train’s ultimate destination at Sungai Kolok.  A “taxi” was awaiting the farang and duly ripped us off with 100Baht for a 2 min ride. The ride was basically a pickup truck with a tarpaulin cover. You almost expected the Ark to be in it, guarded by soldiers, a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. However, it actually proved awesome because Isla went in it without having to take her out of the Bugaboo; we engaged her brake and took a ride into Hua Hin’s town centre whilst hanging on for dear life off the back of this vehicle. We are definitely up for “Parents of the Year 2012” awards. As I said, two minutes later, we ripped round a bend and slid to a stop outside a lovely white-walled hotel 200m from the beach with our own chalet accommodation.

But that’s a story for another day. This was all about the Hogwarts Express and we’d made it safely from “four Privet Drive” to Hogwarts Castle. 300Baht for a five hour non A/C, second class ride?

If you’re a backpacker….go for it.

Is this what diplomacy is all about?




Categories: Hua Hin

Tags: , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. That grasshopper was a foot if it was an inch I’ll tell ya! And yes, I screamed like a girl…



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