End of the LineFrancis Chang / Actions & Adventure
End of the Line
By Francis Chang
The taxi pulled up in front of Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok and the two Westerners climbed out. Percy looked up with glee at the front of the building and the domed gable and giant clock.
“Look Sarah… its true – just like the Central Station Frankfurt, no statues but the large clock and the domed gable are exactly the same!”
Sarah looked at Percy and rolled her eyes. “You know Percy – you are becoming a real Anorak!”
Percy and Sarah were travelling up to Chiang Mai. They could have easily flown but Percy had always been a railway enthusiast and had talked Sarah into making the journey on the overnight train. Although Sarah was not so keen she had agreed to keep the peace and make Percy happy. They had already purchased their second-class sleeper tickets from a travel agency a few days earlier. This was the second week of their holiday, they had spent the previous week on the beach at Koh Samui and now wanted to see Chiang Mai and all that the surrounding country side and mountains had to offer.
They entered the railway station and turned left towards the ticketing booths. Above there was an electronic display of all of the departing and arriving trains, times and platform numbers. There departing platform was to be number 8.
“Do you know Sarah, trains leave here for all parts of Thailand – Yala in the far south and both North and North-East Thailand, Central…everywhere. Guess how many platforms there are?
“Percy – I haven’t got a clue.”
“There are 14 platforms!
“Listen Sarah, I have an idea. I spotted a KFC by the entrance. Why don’t you have a cup of coffee and stock us up on snacks to eat on board the train. I want to have a look around.”
Sarah was only too happy to oblige. She had a thick holiday book to read and the last thing that she wanted to do was to trudge all over the station. Percy walked with Sarah to the restaurant and parked her and their back-packs there as well as the mini-suitcase that Sarah had insisted on bringing, full of their valuables, her ‘war-paint’ and lady things.
First of all he climbed the steps to the mezzanine and looked into all of the fast food vendors and travel shops. Then, back downstairs to find Platform 8. He walked through the gates of the platform and stood facing a portrait of the King which was lit with radiant light from the windows high on the ceiling of the station.
The train was actually waiting at the platform. At the rear of the train was a General Electric diesel electric locomotive. Percy seemed to recall that these engines packed a punch of 2860 horsepower. He started to walk to the front of the train and count the carriages. Third Class, Second Class and then First Class. Percy lost count half way down the train and decided to board to find their carriage and seats. He passed a restaurant car. (Hmm... perhaps better than cold KFC chicken!) and opened the door to the toilet in the second class cabin.
Ummm, he though ... Perhaps better to direct her to the ones in the first class compartment!
He looked at his watch 17:45 - fifteen minutes to go before departure. Just enough time to go and collect Sarah and their luggage.
The seats on board the train were arranged with two single seats on each side of the aisle. Later, the two facing seats would be made up into upper and lower sleeping berths. Percy settled back into the seat facing the direction of travel with Sarah opposite. Their bags were in the space between theirs and the two seats behind. Suddenly the train gave a lurch and started forward. Percy jumped to his feet, pulled aside the mosquito screen and looked out of the window. He could see the station guard on the platform with his flag at the end of the train. Looking forward he could see the twisting line of the carriages as the train made its way on its journey out of Hua Lamphong station.
“Do you know Sarah - Thai Railways uses narrow-gauge tracks?”
Sarah looked up from her book. “That’s nice dear.” She looked across the aisle and saw a Thai man sitting adjacent to her and opposite him a Buddhist Monk in yellow robes.
The Thai man caught her looking and said “Hello… are you going to Chiang Mai?”
Sarah nodded and quickly returned her attention to her book. Percy was sitting with his nose glued to the window. Outside many Thais were walking alongside the railway track.
‘No doubt workers returning home from the fields thought Percy. Now what’s the first stop….hmmm… Don Muang Airport … then on to Ayutthaya’.
At Don Muang - Percy stepped off from the train. The carriages prevented him from seeing across the road to the terminal buildings but he could see the pedestrian bridge which went from the station to the airport. He bought a couple of bottles of drinking water from the platform kiosk and then returned to the train. On board Sarah was reading a plastic menu and there was a steward standing next to her.
“Percy.. come have a look at the menu and tell this man what you would like to eat. He’ll bring it to our seats as there is no restaurant car on the train.”
Percy took the menu from Sarah’s hands and gave it back to the steward. “No Thank You”
After the steward left Sarah asked Percy what that was all about. “Sarah - many of the stewards get commission on the meals that they serve direct to your seat.. Of course there is a restaurant car on this train – I saw it earlier.”
The man sitting across the aisle leant over and said “Your husband is very correct. Many of the worker are crook. My name is Jo. Your wife tell me that you go to Chiang Mai. I can help you… with hotel and tour – wherever you want to go.”
The Monk sat watching and listening to this exchange.
“Ermm – no thanks, we have everything booked already.”
Jo looked at their luggage. “How long in Chiang Mai?
Percy continued “Not sure yet. Thank you anyway.” and turned around to look at Sarah. She looked over at Jo and then back at Percy and made a face.
Unfortunately Jo saw this and understood the meaning.
Ayutthaya came and went along with many unscheduled stops at sidings to allow trains to pass in the other direction on the single track railway. A ticket inspector made his way through the carriage checking and clipping the passenger’s tickets. At eight o’clock stewards appeared with armfuls of pillows and sheets. It was time to make up the berths. Percy and Sarah collected their luggage and Percy led the way down to the restaurant car.
Apart from one table it was nearly full with some "Farangs"- Westerners and many Thais.
The Buddhist Monk from their carriage was sitting at the one table, which had seats, drinking a cup of coffee. Percy strode over, indicated the available seats and pointed to Sarah and himself.
“Certainly… please sit down.”
“You speak English!”
The Monk nodded and smiled. “Yes, there is a school at my Temple and an excellent English teacher.”
“Where is your Temple and school?”
“Chaing Mai of course, the same place that you are going to.”
Sarah was surprised, but then remembered the brief conversation with Jo. The Monk must have overheard. Percy, ignorant of restrictions on when a Monk can eat, asked “Would you like to join us in our meal?”
The Monk smiled and ruefully shook his head “Thai Buddhist Monks cannot eat after twelve noon until the following morning.”
As the Monk got up to leave he said “When you are in Chiang Mai – you must come and visit us at the Wat Padhert Phra Sing, my Temple – it is very beautiful.”
Percy and Sarah smiled and expressed their thanks and the monk made his way back to the sleeping carriage.
“What a nice old man!” Sarah said and started to read the menu.
Both Sarah and Percy were totally lost as they were only used to the ‘westernized’ menu at their local Thai restaurant back in England and even on Koh Samui did not stray far from western food. Eventually they made their order and Percy told the waiter “No Spicy.”
After their meal of fried rice and chicken, they made their way back though the swaying carriages to their own sleeping car.
The curtains were pulled on the berths opposite of Jo and the Monk. Sarah opened her case and took out the toiletry bag.
“Just going to the loo love.”
“Hang on a minute Sarah… don’t use the one in this carriage… go on down the train and use the one in the first class car.”
Sarah gave Percy a look but went off the find the first class carriage.
Percy heaved one of the back-packs up into the smaller top berth and placed the other one in the lower berth that he intended to sleep in. He switched on the small reading light and then retrieved a long piece of string from his back-pack. He tied one end to the handle of the small suitcase which he left in the small space between the rows of seats. Even in the lower berth, which was larger, it would have been uncomfortable trying to sleep with both the back-pack and the case inside.
Sarah returned and he helped her up the step-ladder to the upper berth. She was quite impressed with the clean sheets and pillow.
“Looks cosy Percy!”
Percy lay back in his berth and tied the piece of string to his wrist. ‘Can’t be too careful’ he thought. They both