Hua Hin slow train




David Whitley decides to head to the Thai beach town of Hua Hin by train. The experience ends up being something of an eye-opener 


The sign on the side of the building is not an encouraging one. “North Bangkok Hospital”, it reads. My geography can go askew at times, but I’m pretty certain this is not a good thing. The train started in central Bangkok and is supposed to be heading south. Unless named as some kind of evil joke to play on dumb foreigners, the North Bangkok Hospital is a strong indication that the train is going the wrong way.


Over half an hour or so, it has crawled painfully through the Bangkok suburbs, giving often bleak insights into what life is like for the city’s poorer residents.


Shacks back up right against the railway lines, often topped with corrugated iron roofs that don’t seem to be attached to the rest of the structure. Yet despite all the signs of squalor, many of the shacks seem to have satellite dishes attached to the top. We live in a world of bizarre priorities.


My previous experience on a Thai train started in the dark and saw me confined to a sleeper. This time, I’d see them during an afternoon of sticky tropical heat and – eventually – an almighty downpour.


The ‘Rapid’ 117 train, which leaves Bangkok for Thailand’s southern reaches at 1pm daily, is anything but rapid. It chunters along, stopping to change engines, wait for freight trains coming the other way and perform other inexplicable tasks of no doubt great importance. It also, I’m relieved to discover, heads the wrong way out of Bangkok before turning south.


The second class seats are not uncomfortable – there’s plenty of legroom and they crankily recline if required. But there’s something a little old world about them – the carriages are made of wood, and the air conditioning is provided by a series of frantically whirring ceiling-mounted fans. Everyone wrenches down the windows as soon as they get to their seat, making the traditional clackity-clack noise of slow progress drown out that from the fans.


Peace and quiet is, seemingly, not a priority. Throughout the journey, a never-ending stream of people pours past. They’re all selling food and drink – fresh fruit, egg rice dishes, undefined meat curries in boxes and cans of Coke from a bucket. Our emergency snack purchases from the station-side stalls in Bangkok are completely superfluous.


Everyone else just buys when they feel hungry. The foreigners tuck in and then wonder what on earth to do with the empty containers. There are no bins to stuff them into. The Thais don’t see this as a problem, and just chuck the plastic plates and polystyrene boxes out of the window. It’s a wonder that the tracks aren’t lined with litter.


The food-sellers keep coming, their piercing calls getting ever more familiar. With a relatively clear head, this is an endearing experience. With a hangover or a desperate desire to get to sleep, it must be the stuff of nightmares.


The train finally trundles into Hua Hin well after dark. It’s an hour and fifteen minutes late in what’s supposed to be a four hour, fifteen minute journey. By car, that would have taken two to two-and-a-half hours. Heaven knows how late the train will be running once it gets to the end of the line in the far south.

But you don’t get on a Thai train for its punctuality or speed. If you did, you’d end up severely disappointed – timetables towards the end of the line, in particular, should be taken with a fistful of salt. You get on them to see something different – and that’s not necessarily the scenery outside the window.


You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here