Author Topic: Slow train to Korat  (Read 1474 times)

Offline thaiga

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Slow train to Korat
« on: July 10, 2017, 05:56:36 PM »
Slow train to Korat

Now that Section 44 has unlocked the way, Thailand's first high-speed train from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima will go ahead. Before boarding the fast train, we take an old-school trip to the Northeast

The third-class carriage on Train No.233 to Nakhon Ratchasima. (Photos and video by Melalin Mahavongtrakul)

"Where are you headed?"
The question broke the ice at the start of our long journey.

"Saraburi," replied Dusintorn Rittisorn, 40, who got on Bangkok-Surin Train No. 233 at Don Muang railway station. She had two large plastic bags filled with make-up kits and inventory for her online shop. She visits Bangkok about three times a week to buy the products, taking advantage of the free train service to make the journey home without having to pay a single baht.

"It's just too much of a hassle to drive. Travelling by train is much more relaxing," said Dusintorn, as she sipped iced coffee. "Just sleep or look at the view. You'll get there eventually."

Bangkok-Surin Train No. 233 leaves from Hua Lamphong daily at 11.40am. Thai citizens can pick up a free ticket on the day at any stations along this route (foreigners are charged based on distance). There is no advanced booking. The route covers popular destinations in the Central and Northeastern provinces, such as Ayutthaya and Pak Chong, all the way to Buri Ram and Surin.

Train No. 233 is also one of the free services that get commuters to Nakhon Ratchasima, a gateway to the Northeast and terminal station for the 179-billion-baht Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project. After several hiccups and negotiation delays, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha last month invoked Sector 44 to clear all obstacles that would hinder the new 252km railway, which has since generated much controversy over investment details, the influence of China and the necessity of having to bypass many laws in order to speed up the project.

The much-touted high-speed train, set to begin its first phase in September, will alter the 121-year history of Thai railways forever.

So before we have a chance to try the fast wheels, I took a slow train to Nakhon Ratchasima. For old-school romance and the chaotic Thai way of life -- and a journey that sometimes tests your patience -- nothing can beat the five-and-a-half-hour free ride.

For low-income commuters, the service is a lifeline. There are 10 direct services available daily that get passengers from Bangkok to this Isan destination at varying speeds and they cost anywhere from nothing for a slow, hot, third-class train to more than 1,000 baht for an air-conditioned ride with a nice bed. Once completed, the high-speed train, according to reports, will cost around 500 baht for a one-hour 17-minute journey.

Making a living on the moving train

Train No. 233 departed on time from Platform 8 at the Bangkok central station. Through the wide, open windows, we were treated with views of slum communities, distant skyscrapers and rows of trees, and soon those sights transformed into creeks, paddy fields and mountains as we travelled farther away from the capital.

A vendor on the train. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Stiff, upright seats. Wind in our hair. Throat increasingly parched from all the shouting that made up most conversations over the engine noise. This is third-class train travel. Up and down the narrow aisle, there were men and women with everything up for sale: lunch meals, iced drinks, novels, cold fruits, roti saimai (Thai-style roti with strings of candyfloss) and even lottery tickets. One guy asked around for a donation to buy coffins for unidentified bodies.

Dusintorn, the online make-up vendor, said she has been taking the train since she was young and the experience has changed a lot over the decades.

"Before, you wouldn't see anything like this, people boarding the train to sell stuff. The vendors would only stay at their stations and sell items through the window when the train made a brief stop," she said. "I would only buy bottled drinks, though, as I'm not sure if the other things they sold were clean or not."

There are some who still choose to remain at a station and conduct their quick business "through the window", as Dusintorn put it. Perhaps the most iconic spot to experience this is at Ban Phachi Junction station in Ayutthaya. The local treat of coconut ice cream can be bought at five baht for a small cup. Under the heat, the sugary boost looked more like a slushy and came with a straw, not a spoon.

As the train proceeded further into the countryside, the stuff available from vendors began to grow more adventurous. There was som tam plara (papaya salad with fermented fish), deep-fried crickets, boiled bamboo shoots, khai khao (developing chicken embryo, cooked and eaten from the shell), pla som (deep-fried fermented fish) and more.

Nuch, 49, got on the train at Saraburi with her bags of skewered sausage and meatballs. She sells a bag of four sticks with a side of cucumber and sweet chili sauce for 20 baht.

"I make a 500 baht profit a day, if I sell everything," she said. She gets off at Pak Chong and catches another train home the same evening.

Nuch began her trade at the age of 11. Before, she used to sell fruits though she now relies on sausages, as they are more popular with passengers.

"I used to carry my tray of goods down the platform. Back then, the authorities didn't allow us to board the train. And we even had a uniform -- white shirt, sarong and a name tag -- so there'd be no confusion," recalled Nuch. "But there's pretty much no rules now. Anybody can board the train and sell whatever they want. This is how it's been for years, perhaps since the early 2000s."

She revealed that business was better in the past when there were some regulations in place. Nowadays, the competition has become intense, though it's not much of a problem for this train veteran: "Vendors hop on the train all the time, but passengers do eat all the time, too.

"People used to sell alcohol, too. But that's stopped since we've had a rape case on the train," adding, "And even drugs, really."

A few seats away, a man was secretly selling cigarettes to a passenger -- with a "No Smoking" sign on the wall behind them. Smoking on the train carries a 2,000-baht fine.

"Smoking is prohibited, but it is just difficult to stop people. Even if they get fined, they don't have the money to pay," said Nuch. "Still, better not let the conductor catch you."

Selling sausages on the train is not Nuch's only way of making a living. She usually works as a maid at a bar in Pattaya. But whenever she is home to take care of her grandchildren, she reverts to her childhood trade to make extra bucks.

"I'll probably quit the maid job by next year. Then I'll be home permanently -- perhaps I'll come back to the train full-time," Nuch said.

While food is plenty, the one thing that is not being sold is toilet paper, which is not provided in the train's toilet. Some of the taps weren't even working. It's highly recommended that passengers pack their own toilet paper or wet wipes to avoid nasty mishaps in the toilet.

What is certain is that the new high-speed train won't have a place for vendors in the aisles.

Many lives

In a place with no Wi-Fi and no power outlets, and at times not even a phone signal, one of the best ways to find enjoyment is to strike up a conversation with strangers. And since the seat is not fixed, it is easy to change from one carriage to another to mingle with different people.

Train No. 233 had an eclectic mix of people. A German man was travelling to Korat to cross over to Laos. A European lady got off at Ayutthaya to visit the historical sites. A Thai woman was a regular commuter and used Train No. 233 to avoid the city traffic to get to Rangsit.

They echoed the same sentiment as to why they boarded this particular train: it is free -- for Thais, at least -- and for foreigners, it is cheap. A ticket from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima costs 100 baht.

"It's also safer [in light of] all those bus accidents we always hear about," said Noi, a passenger heading to Buri Ram.

"The train is mostly OK, though I do have an issue with its tardiness. The condition and cleanliness could also be improved," said Dusintorn.

A station master waves his green flag as a sign for the train to take off. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Khanchai Kidkhum, a train conductor on board No. 233, said that safety -- the relatively low amount of railway accidents -- and affordable tickets are the two main factors that still draw passengers to train services, even though there are provincial buses of a similar (and even cheaper) price range available.

"With the free trains, everyone gets a chance to travel, no matter if they're privileged or underprivileged," said Khanchai, who has been a train conductor for 35 years.

Over the past decades, he said, the number of passengers have decreased as roads began to improve. Still, the popularity of the train has never ceased, especially during long holidays like Songkran or New Year, when seats have to be booked months in advance.

Lots more + pics
Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.

Offline Baby Farts

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Re: Slow train to Korat
« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2017, 08:42:45 PM »
Nice article!  Thanks for sharing, thaiga.  :cheers

Offline thaiga

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Re: Slow train to Korat
« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2017, 09:04:23 PM »
Yes i enjoyed reading it - will it all be lost soon - with the fast track  :cheers

Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.

Offline thaiga

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Re: Slow train to Korat
« Reply #3 on: July 11, 2017, 02:45:41 PM »
Old railway stations/trains always have a strange fascination of the good old days. you'll never get hungry on a train in thailand, vendors walk up and down the train selling various Thai snacks to passengers. Whether or not you're brave enough to try any of it is up to you. Go on you'll love it  :-[ Clip of Old Korat Railway Station

สถานีรถไฟเก่า สูงเนิน โคราช Old Korat Korat Railway Station
Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.