TTT – Taking the Train in Thailand

Placing our bikes between tracks 1 and 2 just before two trains arrived.
Placing our bikes between tracks 1 and 2 just before two trains arrived.

“I’m sorry. Too many people. No room for bicycles. Maybe you can take train tomorrow.”

Eric and I were standing between tracks 1 and 2 at the Ratchaburi Train station when the conductor gave us the sorry news.

Behind us was the southbound train on track one from Bangkok heading towards Hua Hin. Passengers were leaning out of the open windows gasping for fresh air and making conversation with Eric and me.

“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”

The train was stopped waiting for the northbound train to arrive on track two thus freeing up the single track heading south. Most of the windows are open. The four car train is old. The General Electric locomotive appears to be an early 1970’s model – I made this estimate based upon the mustard yellow paint job so prevalent with the olive green decorating scheme of that same era.

The northbound train chugged into the station…well, not really into the station but up to the track parallel to the station in the middle of some rocks and rusty pipe.
Eric and I had been sucking in our stomachs, trying to keep our packs, bike, and bodies from being squished between the two trains or thrown under the wheels on the northbound train. While several passengers disembarked, we hoisted our heavy mountain-bikes-retro-fitted–to-be touring bikes on one shoulder, slung our panniers over the other and started looking for an open baggage car into which to thrust our bikes.

It was at this point that we realized there was no baggage car. The conductor climbed aboard, peered down the length of the train, hoped back off, and gave us the bad news. The cars were packed with travelers returning home after a long holiday weekend. No room for bicycles.

We would not be riding today’s train, nor the next, nor the next.

To be quite honest, we’d expected this. It didn’t matter that we’d gone to the train station early in the morning to inquire if the train had room for our bikes .

“Bicycles, yes. 90 Baht for bicycle.”  (about $3)

It didn’t matter that we’d bought a ticket.

“50 Baht for two”(yea, I know…one bike cost almost double the  amount for 2 people)

It didn’t matter that the ticket agent had written a seat number on our ticket.

(I knew he made that up on the spot because he wrote #1 and #2 and there were 50 people ahead of us in the waiting area)

It didn’t matter that we’d risked life, limb, and bicycle to wait between the tracks.

The reality is that the trains in Thailand are about as far as you can get from a German highly efficient, organized and on-time railroad. Here, they have no idea how many people will ride, how many cars will be on the train, if it will have a baggage car, or what time the train will actually arrive at the station.

(The untimeliness of the train really concerns me because most of the country has only a single track.) I hope their engineers are good at solving algebra problems like these:

If train A leaves Bangkok at 7:00 , or whatever time the conductor finishes his Pad Thai, traveling south at anywhere between 15 and 70 kilometers per hour, and train B leaves Hua Hin at 7:00, or whenever the karaoke bars close, traveling at the same speeds, what time will they crash?
So why do people ride the trains in Thailand? Here’s what I think:

1. They’re cheap. A ride from Bangkok to Ratchaburi costs about 35 Bhat. That’s about 3 Malaysian Ringitt or about $1.00. (Yes, I mentally convert Bhats to Ringits to Dollars…dumb, huh, but it’s easier than diving by 30 to go directly to dollars)
2. The train stations have super cute paint jobs…kind of “Victorian” for those who like that look.
3. The trains are an option for cycle tourists who care about personal safely and don’t want to ride into or out of Bangkok.
4. Passengers want to try some local food that’s been sitting in the hot, hot sun for God knows how long because the trains don’t follow a schedule.
5. Passengers want to watch tiny, muscular Thai guys lift bulky bicycles laden with 50 pounds of soggy,smelly biking clothes and pass it through the train windows.

6. Someone or some book suggested this would be a good “experience.”

To be honest, we will probably use the trains again just to avoid riding in Bangkok traffic, but we will go with lots of patience,  a sense of adventure and an empty bladder.