Train 9 – The Special Express to Chiang Mai
I’ve always loved the atmosphere at Hua Lamphong. It never seems to overwhelm, just a nice feel of passengers waiting to travel and anticipating their adventures. No one seems in a rush here. Everyone is polite, and many are even talkative. This will never catch on at Euston! The double edged sword of rail development in Thailand means that this will be the final year for most of this station’s long distance routes, as they switch to the new station at Bang Sue Grand, next door to Bang Sue Junction. This change is a big one in the city and I’m researching the history of the old and the prospect of the new for my next book.
Foregoing a seat with the monks in the main waiting hall, I walk through to platform 4. There is no stopping you walking onto the platform here, and many sleeper trains are ready to board an hour or so before departure. Sadly tonight’s train to Chiang Mai isn’t quite textbook, but the carriages finally get shunted into the station about 20 minutes before our scheduled departure. An army of staff set about loading bedding, filling the water tanks and checking everything is fit to go.
I’m lucky to be in first class again – the single carriage is number 13, at the rear of the train. I don’t have time to walk up the 10 carriages to have a look at the engine, so focus instead on getting my big bag up the steep steps into the carriage above me. Thai trains have to cater mainly for low platforms, and the access is a bit tricky if you have a heavy load. Fortunately for me the conductor spots my logistical problem and gives me a hand. He clearly lifts weights in his spare time as he swings 25kg above his head with one arm. I have brought not just my big bag for some shopping in Chiang Mai, but also my newly purchased minibar – a 600 baht camping cool box that I have filled with ice and supplies to tide me through the journey. Restaurant carriages are not currently operating on long distance trains owing to COVID regulations.
We set off just 9 minutes late and I’m familiar with the drills here now. Sheets and blankets, water, soap and towels are delivered, then the guard checks my ticket. The attendant will make your bed up anytime you like, and tonight I have this done early so I can close the door and not be disturbed until the following morning.
After watching a bit of Netflix (the latest series of Better Call Saul – recommend) I turn in quite early. From where I lie I can make out occasional bright lights through the flimsy window curtain. Alarmingly at one stop I see a fireball above me outside the window. This isn’t an electric train, so what could possibly be on fire? This pervades into my dreams, and I wake after escaping from a large imaginary inferno. Opening the curtain, I’m greeted by a dull misty dawn outside the window – the suburbs of Bangkok have been replaced by the jungles and mountains of Northern Thailand. I feel refreshed just looking at the scenery.
Our train arrives just 10 minutes late into Chiang Mai station on platform 3. Outside it is really cool, maybe just 20C. At the front of the station are a gaggle of friendly songthew touts – I decide to go with the flow, and pay a nice lady 100 baht to get me to my hotel in town. Some places in Thailand seem to have highly radicalised taxi drivers who see every journey as a chance to make more money than is justified, others are quite reasonable. I find Chiang Mai pricing to be reasonable, like Bangkok. Pattaya and Phuket are a different kettle of fish all together.
My hotel tells me I cant check in till 3pm, so I deploy ‘operation kitbag’. This is my not soo subtle room securing tactic. I unpack my bag in the middle of reception and start sorting out laundry on a number of seats until the manager can take no more, and a room suddenly becomes available.
I love Chiang Mai, and I’m allowing myself a few days here to meet some old and new friends before heading back to Bangkok next weekend.