26 Apr 2016

Train 257 to the Bridge on the River Kwai

Last year I wrote about my plans to travel by train from Bangkok to the Bridge on the River Kwai. I also got sucked into the history and the amazing story of Eric Lomax. You can read the article here. I actually made the trip earlier this year, so thought it was about time that I shared my experiences. I like to think of this as a rather good "micro adventure". I decided the way I wanted to do it was to take the regular train (there is also a special weekend tourist carriage) and get there and back in a day. If I had more time I would have stayed there for a couple of days, but time just didn't permit on this occasion.

So there I was at about six o'clock on a cool Monday morning sitting in a taxi trying to get across Chinatown and across the river to the Thonburi station. Not an easy journey, even at a better time of the day. My driver was a kind looking old man who clearly knew his way round. We made a series of strange U-turns and rat runs to get towards our destination. The heavier the rush hour traffic got the bolder he seemed to get in these manoeuvres, culminating in his decision to drive the wrong way down a one way street that lead from the river to the station. This didn't impress a traffic policeman, and at one point it looked like we might be spending the day jail. From my crouched down position in the back all I could see was the cop's rather tightly fitting regulation brown shirt covering his midriff, and an enormous revolver strapped to his narrow waist. I would guess it was a .357 Python. Quite why traffic cops need such firearms I'm not sure. Any shots would undoubtedly cut clean through the body of the average imported Japanese car. After five minutes of indecipherable "chat", my driver decided to play his trump card in Thai negotiation - his age and the respect that young people show for the old. With considerable pleas and apologies (and no fines or bribes) we were back on the way.

Thonburi station was small and suburban. It was old but well maintained with flowers, vendors selling breakfast to bleary eyed commuters and a menagerie of unofficial platform pets. My ticket cost just a couple of dollars and I sat waiting watching the world go by as I had arrived in plenty of time. Having just returned from my Tibet trip, I wasn't used to the number of Western backpackers around. Some had more impressive suntans and hair styles than others, and I guessed these were the experienced ones. The others were probably still leaning the ropes of everyday life in the Khao San Road.

Right on time a rickety old set of carriages were shunted onto the platform causing people to flee from standing and chatting on the railway line. No health and safety here. I made a quick assessment of the train just in case any of the coaches were newer or looked any more comfy, but they were all the same - the shabby chic of Thai 3rd class! I have a couple of top tips if you have never been on a Thai third class train before. Firstly, think about the direction of the train and quickly find a seat on the opposite side of the from where the sun will be before the seats fill up. If you are unsure, its where the locals will all want to sit too. Secondly, with the pleasure of open windows and a fresh breeze in your hair comes the pain of the dust and pollution. Wear a shemaugh or a loose scarf around your face to avoid the worst of this.

Train 257 left on time at 07.45 and rumbled slowly through the villages of makeshift shacks. The driver made good use of his horn, making sure that there was no possibility of any sleeping as we progressed from the almost endless outskirts of Bangkok towards Nong Pladuk junction. On board the backpackers and the locals cohabited the sticky plastic seats. Ladies streamed through the carriage at every stop with snacks and drinks followed by a conductor who was clearly very happy in his work.

Against some online wisdom I got off the train at Kanchiburi station a few miles from the bridge. I wanted to pay my respects at the war graves before visiting the bridge and taking lunch by the river. The cemetery was immaculately kept and filled me with thoughts of peace and remembrance. I had brought a cross with me from the Lady Haig Poppy charity, and I wrote some words on it before placing it on the main memorial. I liked the thought that the cross had travelled over 20000km by train across a world mainly at peace to get there.

The bridge itself was swarming with bus loads of tourists and busy hawkers selling them t-shirts printed in a variety of languages. Whilst the sight of the bridge is very striking, I felt that had to get away from the place after only half an hour or so. As I had a spare couple of hours I wandered upstream and by chance found a restaurant at about the position that "Lieutenant Joyce" hides by the river bank in the famous film, waiting to blow up the bridge. It was low tide, but I could not see any wires, so decided it was safe to have some fried rice and a Chang beer for lunch.

My return to Bangkok seemed to take for ever in the relentless heat and dust of the afternoon. I discovered on inspection that I had made a schoolboy error. I did not actually have a ticket. I thought my ticket was a return, but it turned out to be just a single. I was rather received to see that the conductor wasn't armed, but I still wasn't sure at first what my fate was going to be. There was lots of paperwork to be completed. Was I to be thrown off the train? Fined, or perhaps imprisoned? It turned out that my on the train ticket would cost me just the normal fare, and I got to keep a special souvenir of Thai ticketing red tape.

Back at Thonburi station it was about 6pm and I decided that travel in a taxi would be madness, so managed to navigate the streets to get to a local river bus station. This was my first experience of the boat service that plies up and down the Chao Phraya river, and I squeezed into a standing place on the stern of the boat trying hard to look like I did this every day. I thought this was a good place to stand until I got soaked by a wave from a passing barge. I decided not to think about the water quality. The skipper and the crew used a special code of whistles to signal to themselves and the savvy passengers when it was good to make the jump onto the ferry piers as we criss-crossed the river. The boat stopped really close to where I was staying and was easily the best way to get home, albeit a little damper than I had been before I set out.

If you are in Bangkok I would recommend this trip as a great day out for little money. I was a bit depressed to come face to face with mass tourism in such a place, but this was perhaps inevitable. I think it was as much my worry that some (even many) visitors might not understand what this was all about. At least I travelled there with the locals, ate with the locals and got wet with the locals. Mission accomplished, my micro adventure was complete!

17 Mar 2016

What Makes an Explorer?

Since I have returned to expedition HQ I have been busy catching up with my blog and a few writing projects that I have been working on. One that I have recently completed is a series of short guides for Real Russia - if you don't know them, they are probably the biggest and best known specialist Trans-Siberian travel agency.

They asked me if I minded doing a short interview to help introduce myself to their readers. I found it really interesting to do this as I don't get asked about my motivations very much. If you are interested, you can read it here.

Without wishing to sound too deep, the last few weeks have also proved to be a really good chance to take a step back and think about what I'm trying to achieve and what really I believe in - if you like, my adventure "DNA". I think this has grown, or possibly even mutated, over the last few years and I will explain why.

When I first set out on the rails I was on a bit of a personal crusade. Finally getting away from the predictability of corporate life, to begin with my journey was one of escapism. But after a couple of years on these journeys I realised that I was getting almost as much pleasure from writing and sharing my adventures with others as from actually completing them. Did this make me a writer rather than a traveller? I like to think that writing is still a bi-product of my adventures, but they are now so inter twined that one needs the other.

As things progressed I decided I needed a way of describing to others what it was that I now did. It might seem trivial, but some people seem to judge others by their job title. Plus there were companies who wanted me to write for them. What did they expect me to be? Was I an explorer? An adventurer? A traveller? A writer? Or was it much simpler than this - was I just an escapist? I struggled with this at first. These labels can be tricky and mean quite different things to different people. Furthermore, social media these days is positively crowded with people calling themselves "explorers" and "adventurers".

In the space of one month in 2014 I met two people with very different outlooks, both of whom shaped my thinking. The first was Sir Ran Fiennes, without doubt a man who lives up to his tag as "the world's greatest living explorer". There was obviously no way I felt I was going to call myself an explorer after that meeting. I haven't been to either pole, can't ski and I get a headache when climbing Kilimanjaro. So if I wasn't an explorer what was I? Then I met Robert Twigger (one of my favourite authors and a source of much writing inspiration), and he said he felt he was an explorer by the fact that he fulfilled the role of bringing information back from his travels and telling others about his experiences. I do that too, all the time.

After much deliberation I ended up settling for describing myself as being an adventurer, as it feels closest to what I feel I actually do. But I still worry that this tag has issues. I recently read a great post by Tom Allen on his blog that highlights the problems with this. It's called Debunking the myth of the modern day "adventurer". Read it if you have time, but in summary Tom highlights how people can quickly end up spending more time marketing than exploring.

As a result of all this reflection I have also realised that I might actually have a point of difference. My adventures are challenging at times, but they are actually very accessible to most. After all, you don't need to be a hardened polar explorer or fitter than a Sherpa to travel somewhere far away by train. Rail adventures are not really about uniqueness or massive human difficulty, but about imagination and accessibility - albeit with a need for some time, focus and determination. My audience and those I interact with are really interesting. I'm not just communicating to people enjoying reading about my journeys, but to people that I hope will choose to get out there and have adventures of their own. All I have done is helped to light the blue touch paper.

So next time at I'm at a dinner party and someone asks me what I do I shall look them in the eye and tell them that I'm a rail adventurer and be rather happy about that.

4 Mar 2016

The Bible

There was some excitement at expedition HQ this week when a package arrived from from the team behind the European Rail Timetable. I last held "The Bible" back in 1988 and it was an immediate trip of nostalgia into past European rail adventures. Back then it was produced by Thomas Cook who had been printing the "continental" timetable since 1873. Today it still produced in the familiar format, and is now run independently since Thomas Cook discontinued their involvement in 2013.

In today's world to some it would perhaps be inconceivable that there was a time when there were no smartphones, and the only way to plan a trip was using a paper timetable. Yet on my trips around Europe in the 1980's the guide was probably the second most important possession that I carried after my trusty blue coloured British passport. But it was more than just something that told you how to get from A to B. It had a certain spiritual and comforting quality about it. When the chips were down it could always be called upon to provide a solution. As disciples we studied the special language of notes and symbols. It became indispensable. I had not realised how much of a devotee I had become until I lost it.

I remember the day well. I was on Nice station platform with two school friends, feeling rather smug at having just completed the run down to Marrakech and back without too many problems. The supermarket supply run had been completed, and we were concentrating on securing our own compartment on the night train to Rome. Bagging a compartment back then involved either sending one person in at each end of the carriage in a pincer movement, or sometimes even bundling one person through the window in middle of the carriage.

My role on this occasion was the easy one - to look after the bags whilst the compartment was grabbed in our well rehearsed tactical manoeuvre. The guide was right next to me on a bench as this went on. At this point I was distracted by a couple of rather easy on the eye ladies on the opposite platform. I must have been day dreaming, as the next thing I remember was looking back and seeing the train slowly gliding away from me. Rowan Atkinson has rather stolen this sketch from me in his "Mr Bean's Holiday" movie. I needed to run for it, but that wouldn't look very cool, so I kind of casually walked backwards a few steps towards the train before turning and jumping on. I made it to the carriage behind the one I needed - I should mention that the train wasn't speeding, just going at a walking pace and there were no locking doors back then.

Whilst this was a thankful outcome for me, it left two problems. The immediate one was that I was in a couchette carriage and it was locked at both ends, and the less immediate but far more serious was that I was guilty of leaving our trusty and semi religious rail timetable on the platform bench. The rest of that trip we felt somewhat listless and without a properly planned route. The lack of our own timetable meant we could make it from A to B, but had no idea where C was going to be until we got to B, or that it might have been more interesting to go via D.

Today it clear to see how we have become conditioned to search for what we think we need online. Rail operators suggest routes that they think we are looking for, but little known alternatives and options can be hidden from the results. The conditioning effect is that you start to imagine that they don't exist or are not possible on the dates you type into your screen.

The first thing that crossed my mind on consulting my new Bible was that if I am to recreate the correct route of Orient Express, I should consider the "boat train" to Paris. Many of us will forget that before we dug the Channel Tunnel this was the norm, but today jumping on the Eurostar is the default choice. The printed timetable shows me the ferry connections to take me from London to Paris together with connecting trains. I can also see a much wider variety of routes across South Eastern Europe. I have become too reliant on following the online route suggestions of others, sometimes in isolation of the alternatives.

The remaining winter nights will fly by as I create routes and connections of my own by carefully scanning the pages and relearning the codes and conventions of the European rail timetable. Of course I will still use this in conjunction with online timetables, but like going walking in the mountains with just a GPS, I shall have a map and compass (aka the Bible) with me as well.

23 Feb 2016

The Next Adventure

One of the problems of returning from any adventure is getting that feeling of slight stagnation when you get back home. As you decompress back to everyday life it can feel a bit boring. It's not that I don't have a lot on.. like finishing my book and relocating my HQ to another country, but I am always thinking about "what's next?". So the solution was to push myself to decide where I'm going on my next trip and give myself something immediately to aim for.

It all happened pretty quickly. I had some mid-week beers with my fitness coach (must try harder), and was suitably motivated into action. I spent the next day pondering over lots of possibilities and decided on a new cunning plan. My first European objective - to take the original route of the Orient Express, from London to Istanbul via Bucharest.

Source: train-ticket.blogspot.com
I have actually completed this trip before, but much has changed since 1987. Not only have the route possibilities changed, but so have the actual countries involved. On my last trip I took a route through Yugoslavia and accessed Turkey via Greece. Back then it wasn't possible to travel to Bulgaria (or further behind the Iron Curtain) without a tricky visa. There was of course also no tunnel under the English Channel until 1994. My original route is shown below in blue, and my planned route is in red.

Now and then - the 1987 route and the 2016 plan Source: Google Maps
It is no longer possible to travel by train between Greece and Turkey, but I can travel through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria without any of the past difficulties. The journey does have some challenges though. Rather frustratingly, engineering works have closed the line from the Turkish border - something that has been going on for several years. There are also engineering works at several places in Bulgaria, meaning a few bus journeys might break up the flow. Border difficulties resulting from the current refugee crisis have closed some rail routes in Southern Europe. At the moment this seems to impact on the Greek border with Bulgaria, but not the Turkish one. But it is too soon to be sure how things will be in a few months time. I do have a back up route if things get worse, a journey from London to Athens.

A page from my 1987 diaries!
There are a few reasons to get quite excited about this trip. Not only is it historically interesting from a train perspective, but I will be able to visit a few places that I last saw 30 years ago. I have my diaries and photographs from back then, but I promise not to become too Michael Portillo about this. To further distinguish myself, I shall not be carrying a Bradshaw's Guide, but instead a trusty European Rail Timetable (sadly no longer printed by Thomas Cook). I have never been to Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria before, so hopefully the chance for some new experiences as well..

I shall keep you posted with my planning.

TGV image source : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TGVDuplex_Arriere.JPG

10 Jan 2016

The Snake House

My arrival in Hong Kong has feels like a bit of an anticlimax at first. It's not like anyone was there to greet me or say "well done, old chap" or "are you the only person to have ever completed both the Trans-Manchurian and the Qinghai-Tibet railways in one journey?". I walked the streets of Kowloon amongst throngs of tourists who had no idea that I had just joined them by taking the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Hung Hom, not to mention a side journey to Lhasa. I was very careful at first not to tell everyone what I had done, but did occasionally drop it into polite conversation after the odd beer.

As if I hadn't had enough of the rails, on my single free day I hopped on a local train from Hung Hom to a place called Taipo Market. It's close to Shenzen, and about five minutes from the place that I crossed the Chinese border the other day.

The plan was to sample some edgy food in some local restaurants - the sort of places that don't have menus. The expansion and growth of Hong Kong is such that you have to travel this far out to find such places. Even the New Territories are today full of branded chains that you could find in any big city. But in Taipo the brands have yet to arrive, and the family run places are still there. All you need is someone who knows where to find them. Cue Silvana, my "Cantonese Girl" and foodie guide for the trip.

My afternoon was busy sampling all sorts of things, but towards the top of the list was the crispy goose (I acquired a new and unexpected skill - I can now sex a goose by looking at its head), and the snake. 

My snake experience wasn't quite the one that I was expecting to be telling you about. The place we visited was run by a well known purveyor of snake in the Hong Kong restaurant industry. I was told he was in fact the "go to guy" when the police had any major reptile problems. But sadly he wasn't there when I visited. I like to think maybe he was on an emergency call out to capture a vicious Python from someone's apartment in Causeway Bay. Anyway, back at the Snake House I tried the snake soup, served with snake broth and dried shredded lemon leaves. Snake wine was optional, unless you needed a boost of virility, in which case it was essential.

I was both surprised and a little disappointed to discover that my snake wasn't actually from Hong Kong. It wasn't even from mainland China. Apparently there are now laws that prevent the export of mainland Chinese snake, even to Hong Kong. My snake today was in fact from Indonesia, which seemed a little unnecessary. Having read the fantastic book "Big Snake", by Robert Twigger, I happen to know that Indonesia has some of the biggest snakes in the world. But in the same way as getting your asparagus from Peru or your tomatoes from Tenerife back home, it felt slightly wrong. 

I returned to Kowloon in time for a few cold beers and an early night. I needed to prepare for an unfamiliar experience the next day - that of taking an aeroplane. The beers were German and remarkable for both their cost as well as their refreshment quality. I allowed myself a little smug reflection on another mission accomplished, this one definitely being the longest and most physically demanding that I have completed so far. 

Although (perhaps understandably) I feel a little ambivalent towards travel by train right at this moment, I suspect in just a few months I will be sat back in expedition HQ looking at large maps and thick timetables once again. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this journey. Do let me know what you think.