April 26, 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!

One Comment on “Train 257 to the Bridge on the River Kwai

September 8, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Great article, love your sharing so much, thank you!


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