Nowadays, the internet is the source of instant information and this is especially true for travel news. I forget how I found www.seat61.com but in no time, I was intrigued by the very detailed account of how to get from Bangkok to Butterworth, which is the railway station to get to Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia. Mr. Mark Smith, a British career railywayman, has set up this site about trains worldwide in such an easily accessible manner, that I was instantly convinced. Why not, it is only 24 hours from point A to point B? And this is not any fancy Orient Express Nostalgic Luxury train. This is the real thing, second class and all.
In Bangkok, I had therefore purposely taken a hotel in Chinatown, nearby the Hualamphong Station. Basic and clean is the simplest description I will use for the “Hotel Chinatown”, but then, it was also only 30 Euro/night. And it had air-conditioning, essential in 34 Celsius humid heat. Walking to the station in the morning to get my ticket, I passed through the recycled car parts district – if ever you wonder where the nuts, bolts and other small scrap metal ends up, well, here it is, neatly piled up in umpteen corners of little shops – and was soon standing in the large domed hall of the main train station. The benign portrait of the King of Thailand gazed upon the leisurely activity of travellers getting their provisions in the twenty or so little shops. This must be one of the few train stations where there are real orchid plants adding a touch of class to the otherwise very functional architecture of such places.
After getting the information from the internet confirmed by a pretty Thai employee speaking quite good English and told to get my ticket at the foreigner’s booth nr. 1, I happily paid 1210 Baht (about 25 Euro) for a lower berth, second class (the only direct wagons) on the International Express Train Nr. 35, leaving at 14:45 on track 5.
Punctually, the 10 wagons slowly made their way through the suburbs of Bangkok for a good hour. New, glittering skyscrapers could be seen in the distance, but we pass vast expanses of semi-industrial, half-finished constructions.
My wagon was very clean but seemed easily 30 years old. Every two seats facing each other converted into two berths – upper and lower – with space for luggage in a metal contraption on the aisle. Let us just say that the name of the designer of this layout will be lost to us in history and we will not miss him, alas.
A train steward came around, checked the ticket and proceeded to refund 20 Baht to each passenger in this wagon: We had no air-conditioning, only old-fashioned but efficient fans. In good Chinese train tradition, vendors came along selling drinks and various kinds of prepared foods. Slowly, conversations started up between the travellers – a group of three English young women finding much to share, coming from northern Thailand and going to Kuala Lumpur, a Spanish couple on their way to Borneo, a Chinese man talking endlessly on his cell phone, quiet Thais – and we all settled down.
Eventually, the train gathered speed and we start to travel through open but fairly populated countryside. Not much is cultivated yet, just tropical greenery accented by various types of palm and banana trees and, unfortunately, small waterways largely full of refuse. About two hours out of Bangkok the rice fields start and will be dominating the scenery, along with banana and palm tree plantations throughout the journey. Often I also see wild bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus. The houses – many huts – reflect a very modest lifestyle, poor even in parts, shanty town structures that often occur close to rail tracks everywhere in the world.
Darkness comes soon and with it, delivered to my seat, a dinner which I had ordered from the steward earlier: Chicken curry on rice, a vegetable dish and miso soup, a slice of fresh pineapple for dessert, all for 170 Baht (3.50 Euro). Freshly prepared and quite tasty. After dinner, the steward makes the berths with sheets, a pillow and a coverlet – all fresh. Blue curtains are hooked in and give a high degree of privacy and definitely a “Some like it hot” feeling. I expect Marilyn Monroe as Sugar and Tony Curtis to pop out of a top berth any minute…
By 9 p.m., the wagon is absolutely still. I am comfortably ensconced in my berth and can give myself over to the swaying clickety-clack, clackety-click as the train speeds over the surely still British-built tracks. Every now and again I peek out into the darkness and see astonishingly many lights of small villages and towns. As this train is an International Express, it has limited stops and speeds through most empty stations. The moon shows the silhouettes of palm trees and the dim lights from the train throw a ghostly shadow on the tropical countryside.
It is barely dawn at 6 a.m.. when the steward comes around with the one-choice breakfast (also ordered the evening before and delivered to the berth): two eggs sunnyside up, a small sausage, one each tomato and pineapple slice, two pieces of toast, butter and pineapple jam, a non-descript yellow juice and tea or coffee (120 Baht, approx. 2.50 Euro). It is time for a cat’s wash-up, meaning a quick moist wipe will have to do the trick this morning. By the way, the toilet facilities are well, yes, clean-ish, and there are two sinks with running water for the entire wagon.
The time between 7:30 and 9 a.m. is spent at the Hat Yia Junction station with Thailand-Malaysian border formalities, meaning that everyone has to debark with all their belongings and exit Thailand and enter Malaysia. Don’t complain, just do it.
Eight wagons go off in other directions and we continue with two wagons and a different, smoke belching locomotive. The stewards have taken the berths away and cleaned up of sorts and left. There is a new Malaysian crew and no service. Even the water supply of the wash basins is gone. There are more stops, locals disembark, others get on.
The countryside seems more cultivated: Papaya plantations and tree forestations alternate with the rice paddies. Even the palm trees are mostly in orderly rows. The green seems even more intense – we are, after all, in the wet tropics.
And then, suddenly, the end of the journey approaches: We arrive in Butterworth only 30 minutes later than scheduled. This train station is totally charmless and functional. The best thing that can be said about it is that is connected by covered track to the ferry terminal to cross over to Georgetown.
Would I have given up this journey for the comfort and speed of a flight? Never! After all the way is as much the mean as the end….