The International Steam Pages
The Route of the Eastern and Orient Express Part 3
The following article by Andrew Robinson originally appeared in the
Ocean Beach Railway (New Zealand) News in May 2010 and is reproduced by
the kind permission of the editors.
For more information on tickets etc, see the Seat 61 website. Note especially that the journey from KL to Singapore is half the cost of the northbound version because tickets have to be paid for with the same number of Singapore Dollars as Malaysian Ringgit (the former is worth twice the latter). One shouldn't ask why! Perhaps some of the readers of this article (like me) can remember the days when the two currencies were freely exchangeable at par in both countries and no doubt this has a lot to do with it as do the legendary stupidly strained relations between the two neighbouring nations.
The first few paragraphs were originally in Part 2 but are included here now to make the narrative more readable if you are coming in directly! If you want to skip these, please click here.
Towards lunchtime, the rural landscape gave way to urbanisation and the train quickly threaded it way through the buildings and level crossings before finally arriving at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station, tablet working allowing us to arrive three-quarters of an hour early on this 22 hour 1000km journey.
This large curved-roof train shed is an impressive and well-used building, it would perhaps have looked more comfortable as a terminal station in France, rather than in the heat and noise of Bangkok. However, it is more than equal to the task. Walking along our platform, I was surprised to see that our 3-carriage train had grown to around 14 during the journey. I imagined that such a train, with its international status and the speed and skill with which it had been driven, would have required a very senior driver, but as I passed the locomotive a youth in a grubby singlet emerged from the cab. If he was the driver then he is entitled to full marks for a job well done. Many of the other trains at the platforms were what looked to be Budd railcars operating local services. These were well patronised although the engine noise and fumes as they moved off put breathable air at a bit of a premium. Adjacent to the station is a locomotive depot, the staff of which seemed more than happy for me to wander amongst the fleet that includes a steam locomotive on display.
After these distractions had been attended, to I made my way toward the stations exit and could see a large queue for the taxis. Feeling pretty tired by this point, the thought of standing still in the heat for an indeterminate time was not appealing. Then someone came up to me offering a taxi. Suspicious this was a con, I was shown a taxi licence and assured the journey would be metered. Walking out of the station with him past the queue, one of the railway staff pointed to him and made a throat-cutting gesture. Officials taking notes about the illegally parked taxi did not do much to reassure me, nor did the fact that my hotel which he had said he knew well, he could no longer remember. We move off into the traffic and did a series of turns, then he stared at my booking receipt, drove some more, stared some more until he finally got the subliminal clue from the paper and drove to the hotel. Probably the NZ$10 fare was on the high side but the roundabout route was still quicker than the official queue. Time had regained importance as I knew the arrival of my friend from Singapore was imminent, she was taking an hour and a half flight and would arrive crisp and fresh while I smelt of diesel fumes and looked fairly nomadic. The NZ$30 a night hotel was absolutely the right place to be, a hot power shower then cool air conditioning put me in good shape to take on the city.
Once reunited, she announced that the first mission was to go to the Chatuchak market to buy decorative chopsticks for her employer, this sounded interesting if not a bit unusual. To get to the market, we took Bangkok’s famous Skytrain. This quiet, efficient mode of transport glides on elevated tracks above the crowded city streets. (Bangkok is meant to have the world’s worst traffic congestion although it seems to flow better than Auckland motorways). The Skytrain is probably the most expensive mode of public transport in Bangkok but is still laughably cheap. The journey took us to the end of the line. I had been to Asian markets before but was not prepared for the sight ahead of me; the place is massive, supposedly 20,000 stalls. The atmosphere is great, almost everything imaginable on sale, clothes, toys, food. However, the heat outside was nothing to the heat inside. Fortunately, vendors selling ice cold drinks were strategically placed in the market. Even then, it was nearly a full time job replacing the fluid lost in perspiration.
While I busied myself haggling over a really trendy silk camel-print shirt, my friend announced she would be “over there” pointing in the distance. After completing my purchase I went in the direction of “over there”. I couldn’t see any sign of her, but a vendor came over and told me my friend was two aisles over looking at dried flowers. I fought may way through the mass of humanity and one and a half drinks later I found the dried flowers, to be told that she was looking at chop sticks four aisles away. On arrival, they told me she was shopping for shoes but I was to wait right there. Beside the chosen piece of pavement was another drinks vendor, so the waiting was quite bearable. Seemingly amongst the zillion other shoppers, I was the only skinny white person with a blue shirt so had been easy to direct. One her return, there was a frenzy of haggling before we became the proud owner of about 10 kilos of hand crafted chopsticks. That evening we met up with my friend’s sister's boyfriend's friend, which is as close as I came to knowing anyone in a 7 thousand mile radius. She knew of a night market that had a good selection of music and designer goods. Having seen a travel documentary just before the trip, I asked whether this would be the Pat Pong market. The answer was yes and my friend was a bit curious as to how I knew of it.
While regular taxis are cheaper, the onomatopoeic Tuk Tuks looked really fun. So the two girls quickly commandeered one, haggling over the fare, playing two drivers off against each other. After some minutes of this I decided I should take an interest in proceedings and realised the life and death war of words and wills was over 10c. Tuk Tuks have fact acceleration and are very manoeuvrable so we were able to weave amongst snarled and slow moving traffic. The drivers are passionate and enthusiastic about their vocation and the open sides and lack of seatbelts makes for an interesting ride as traffic and other solid objects miss the vehicle by millimetres. All too soon we reach Pat Pong. On realising that there were numerous attractive scantily clad local girls nearby; I received an indignant nudge in the ribs from my friend. The market certainly lived up to expectations, but surprisingly soon it was decided that it was too crowded and we needed to move on. So it was time for another high speed horn tooting zig zagging trip through the traffic, this time a longer one to the Night Bazaar. This is a more refined market, less crowded, well set out with an excellent selection of merchandise from around the world. Handcrafted scented candles, carved furniture and hand-woven silk were amongst the offerings. The prices were still reasonable, a degree of haggling was still welcomed but didn’t require the frenzy of counter-offers and sob stories that the other markets did. Thailand has its own unique culture and heritage which the people are justifiably proud. This combined with their Buddhist beliefs and acute trading spirit makes Bangkok distinctively different from the other South East Asian cities frequented by westerners. However, hurtling through the traffic at breakneck speed, memories of Pat Pong still fresh, the words of the famous Rock Anthem seemed to sum up the last few hours.
One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster.
After downing large quantities of the cooked and continental breakfast, we made ourselves ready for a day in the countryside to the west of the city. I had some misgivings about the tour operator when I booked over the Internet, everything had been too perfect, too cheap and too easy. But 10 minutes before the appointed time, the phone rang to invite us to the foyer to meet the guide. As well as the guide we had a driver, both well presented with an immaculately clean white tour van. A delightful Indian family were the only other passengers. As we drove through the city, I was intrigued to see that during rush hour, lanes on the other side of the median barrier are used to ease congestion. Fortunately the traffic doesn’t go fast enough to create the collisions that such a move would ordinarily make. On the outskirts of the city, we saw an elephant with goods on its back, doing service as a low speed delivery van...
On reaching Kanchanaburi, we transferred to a long-tail boat for a trip on the Kwai Noi river. Somewhat surprisingly, the bridge popularised in the film “Bridge over the River Kwai” doesn’t actually span the River
Kwai, that river meets the one spanned by this bridge some distance downstream. To keep life simple for tourists, the section between the junction and the bridge has been renamed Kwai Noi. The long-tail boats are brightly painted teak vessels with up to 10 rows of two seats. They all look tranquil and innocent enough until the unmuffled engine bursts into life and you hurtle off down the river at an incredible speed.
Also at Kanchanaburi are two steam locomotives and one of the rail trucks used during the construction of the line. The next attraction was lunch, this was served in a wooden shack with a dirt floor and no walls in the middle of jungle clearing. Without a doubt, this is one of the finest meals I have ever had. There were a range of dishes for us to help ourselves to; I made a determined effort to empty the delicious “butter chicken” pot without success. I was amused that the soft drinks came in the old glass bottles with a refundable deposit; they are still in widespread use which is no doubt a great for the environment. But we could not linger too long over the meal, we had an elephant to catch. A short distance away is an elephant sanctuary. Being perched up on the bamboo seat on top of an elephant is a bit disconcerting, especially when it walks with a swaying motion. I had expected the elephant ride to be a short walk around a paddock but instead we headed off into dense jungle and even clambered up and down a few steep banks, the non-English speaking guide riding behind the elephants head and steering with his heels. Descending steep banks by elephant is a bit alarming as there is not much to keep you on your perch, but not nearly as alarming as the Indian family experienced when their elephant reared up to snack on some high tree branches and could not be convinced to finish the meal for some minutes. We returned to the sanctuary by walking some distance down the centre of a reasonably significant river, the baby elephant at our side having to make use of its inbuilt snorkel. To conclude the elephant experience, there was a short show. One of the trainers asked if anyone wanted an elephant massage to which there was a deafening silence until a small boy of around 8 bounced forward. It was hard to imagine a happy ending to this one, given that the elephant’s foot was larger than the boys back but really his broad smile said it all.
That evening we felt the need to further explore Bangkok. Using the sky train seemed a bit too easy so we went to the canal near the hotel. Bangkok is known as the “Venice of the East” and while some of the inner city ones have been filled in to form roads, the remaining ones and the rivers form an important transport artery that extends over hundreds of kilometres. The large public canal boats had finished for the evening but private enterprise was still on duty in the form of a smaller scruffier long tail boat. After the boat pulled into the jetty, the man (what do you call a person who drives an overgrown canoe with a car engine bolted to an extended weed-eater shaft with a propeller on the end and races about the inner city late at night with no lights) lifted the shaft onto the wharf timbers and set about filing the burrs off the propeller that were the result of hitting solid objects on the journey upstream. The boat was even louder and faster than the one earlier in the day. When boarding, I had noticed that the locals kept the seat cushion on their laps, I’d assumed that if would give buoyancy in case they fell out. As we gathered speed, I realised that the cushions are good for deflecting the copious amounts of suspicious smelling spray from your face. On boarding we had admitted that we didn’t really know where we wanted to go, and after a lightening fast trip across the city (90° turns at speed in a long thin boat defy the laws of physics but somehow we remained comparatively dry), he said we had arrived. He was right; we had said we didn’t know where we wanted to go, and on arrival we really did not know where we were. The normally busy canal was silent, meaning that retracing our steps wasn’t possible. A short distance away was a major bus stop. Our hotel was near a distinctive shopping centre so before long we had established which bus to take. The bus was a huge red and white machine with a centre entrance and a conductor. The driver looked like he should probably be in school but drove the large rattly contraption with great skill through the chaotic streets. After about 20 minutes the conductor announced that we had arrived.
Once on the pavement we realised the shopping mall was very similar to the one beside the hotel but not the same. The buses were quickly thinning out so we decided a taxi was the best option. The taxi ride was a long one, I suspect that over the course of the evening we had travelled in a giant triangle. I was amazed at the number of massage parlours we passed but therapeutic massage is widely practised in Thailand and highly regarded worldwide, although doubtless some offer services more recreational than therapeutic. The evenings travel for the two of us came to $10 so it was a cheap night out, even if we did have to cheat to get back.
Next morning it was white van time again, this time to the Royal Grand Palace. The King and Queen of Thailand hold a special place in the hearts of Thai people, many people have posters of them in their homes. The complex is vast with over 100 buildings, each ornately decorated inside and out, including the elaborate use of gold and gems, all set in beautiful grounds. I can’t do the place justice here, the easiest way to experience the palace is to buy a ticket and go; and yes, this is the place featured in the musical “The King and I”. Given the option of making the return journey by van or river we chose the latter. One of the first sights was the river based naval fleet who had a couple of patrol boars and a transport ship docked. They also had a miniature block-setting crane for working on the fleet. We then sped through residential areas built out over the river. While not the most elegant of structures, the people seemed happy with their lifestyle.
Everything arrives and leaves by boat, our wake nearly upset the hot soup and noodle boat and even the local hospital has a large wharf and their own boat. We stopped at a Wat to purchase loaves of bread from the monks to feed to the catfish. The frenzy of fish climbing over each other to get the bread was incredible, you made sure your hand had lost contact with the bread before their teeth got near it. As the journey drew to close, we passed a couple of steam locomotives waiting their next turn of duty; the King likes railways so the steam locomotives are used to celebrate his birthday. The next job was to collect the airline tickets for the journey south. Despite having booked them on the Internet, Finnair still required us to present ourselves at their office to identify ourselves and fill in paperwork. We took the Skytrain to the quarter of the city we needed and found the road quickly. However, as we battled the increasingly repressive heat and passed more and more airline's offices, the search became more frustrating. We asked for directions at several offices, fortunately China Southern knew Finnair were hiding, high up in a tower block without signage a few minutes away. Unsurprisingly the Finnair staff were not terribly busy as I don’t think many other potential customers found their hiding place.
We then set about finding the Rail Enthusiasts of Thailand Museum. The sky train took us to roughly where it should be and we wandered the neighbouring park looking for it without success. We asked passers-by where it was and no-one had heard of it. Eventually we asked some Thai Army men who had parked their van nearby and they insisted that they drive us. The journey was all of 100 yards long but much appreciated. The museum is a static one, housed in a concrete and glass building, although there were plans to build a narrow gauge track around the park; some toast rack carriages were built for the project by the SRT railway workshops but lie unused. The museum houses the old Royal Train; a few steam and diesel locomotives, a 4-wheel tram, cars and technology displays. The future of the museum was in doubt as interest was low; I am unsure if it has survived. (I assume Andrew is referring to the museum in Chatuchak Park. The last I heard it was still there, RD)
The evening is a bit of a blur as it was spent being left outside shoes and clothes shops. She was actually very good abut it. I was free to wander around the impressive camera shops (in terms of both price and high-end range) and music stores while she searched for the ultimate pair of shoes. At Siam Plaza there was a white gold necklace with blue crystal that would make a great gift although the chain was wrong and price was steep. After a flurry of Asian accents, the situation was put right. Dreamworld was the next day’s destination. The Skytrain took us to a giant bus exchange radiating around a large monument. Somehow amongst the hundreds of buses, my friend managed to find the van that would get us there. The journey was uneventful, although being the only westerner, it was decided that I had to ride in the front seat beside a tall slim Thai girl. The theme park is pretty good, plenty of interesting rides set amongst tropical flowers and palm trees. I think some of the attractions are second-hand from Expo 88 in Brisbane. The suspended roller-coater was my favourite, the locals were a bit scared of it so I largely had it to myself.
With the trip rapidly drawing to a close, there was time for one more white van ride before the final rail journey. We went 80km east of the city toward the Floating Market. It was raining steadily so it was appreciated that the long-tail boat we transferred to had a canvas roof. Unlike the previous journeys, the canal had a bit of chop to it and we weren’t able to travel at warp speed and had to be content with the jungle scenery rather than noise and blur. On arriving at the market, we transferred to an engineless boat powered by an old lady with a single paddle. The floating market is an exciting if rather crazy place; many of the goods are sold from covered wooden platforms on the edge of the canal as the customers sail by, but there are also goods being sold from boat to boat, and to complete the matrix, it is also possible to stand on dry land and make purchases from passing boats or even walk to some stalls and do everything without the aid of a boat. The vendors interest in tourists seemed a bit finite as the latter were content to look while the locals were buying as part of their everyday life. The next stop was a rather terrifying snake show, at the end of it they took the opportunity to extract some venom just to prove it was all real. We also visited a timber joinery factory to view traditional teakwood carving. The craftsmen’s skills are amazing to watch. Then it was time for another elephant show, this time a colourful all singing, all dancing one. As well as a game of elephant soccer, some of the elephants were decked out in traditional battledress. Elephants are extremely versatile in the jungle and a large number are employed by the Thailand Forestry Commission as they are less destructive than any other means for moving heavy loads in the bush. As an aside, the elephants were used to recover people following the 2004 Tsunami as they could move fallen trees without the harm bulldozers would cause. Next was a fairly wild crocodile show, the commentary involved a lot of shouting as the performers taunted the reptiles, one person badly cutting their arm when their reactions were a bit slow. Undaunted, one of the other performers happily put his head in the crocodile’s mouth. We moved on to a cultural show and saw a mock traditional wedding and a music and dance presentation, everyone looking spectacular in their brightly coloured silk costumes. This was followed by a demonstration of Thai kickboxing which wasn’t really my scene; I wonder what the job description says for the poor guy who gets his head kicked in at ten past two each day. I much preferred patting the baby elephant on the way back to the van. To complete the day we went to the Gems Gallery near the centre city. After watching an excellent film about the diamond mining industry we were free to inspect the breathtaking and vast selection of jewellery on display. My friend accepted the invitation to try on many of the expensive pieces.
The time had come to follow the final portion of the route taken by the Eastern and Orient Express (ignoring the fact that it sometimes uses a new route north to Chiang Mai rather than south through Malaysia). Aware that we had to cross the city in the early morning rush hour to catch the train I had asked the hotel to book a taxi for me, to be told it wasn’t required, the porter would get one when it was needed. So, when the time came, the porter went out and stood in the middle of the road while we sat idly in the air-conditioned foyer. Just as taxis had proven elusive at the start of the trip, they eluded this professional taxi magnet now, which is bizarre, as normally every third vehicle seems to be a taxi in this city. After twenty critical minutes a taxi was finally cornered and the porter carefully translated the instructions to take us to the Thonburi station on the far side of the river, not the Hualamphong station that most tourists seek. After a considerable amount of diving (it is amazing how many people are employed to direct traffic in this city) we were safely delivered to the station. We went up to the ticket window and were told something in Thai that was unintelligible apart from conveying that we were in the wrong place. In desperation we grabbed a particularly scruffy Tuk Tuk and sped James Bond style through muddy puddles and dowdy back streets toward where we were meant to be. We began to realise that time was running out and silently began contemplating other things to do. But after paying the surprisingly reasonable haggle free fare, we found the train was still at the station despite having been scheduled to depart ten minutes before. Track repairs further down the line were delaying the departure, so we had plenty of time to find a seat in the old wooden framed carriages.
Eventually we moved off. the low speed and lack of wind meant all the windows could stay open despite the downpour outside. This portion of line was being upgraded with concrete sleepers. We passed a rather neat 4-man motor trolley about the same size as a New Zealand one but painted yellow with 5 forward facing seats. At Kanchanburi, we picked up more carriages and tourists by the busload for a trip over the famous portion of the line. Kanchanuburi station is relatively small but has a tablet office (these are exchanged using the old bamboo hoops) and refreshment rooms, there is even a woodburning Garret and a hand-trolley preserved nearby. Once everyone was on board, we proceeded onto the famous bridge, the pedestrians quickly scuttling to the refuges. While the construction of the line has an atrocious history, it is a history that even needs to be told well or not at all, so I’ll concentrate on the journey and the scenery and leave the history to the excellent published works.
After the line leaves the bridge it traverses farmland and jungle before continuing up the river gorge on a high timber trestle. One seeing me battle to capture the journey on film, the guard invited me to ride on the bottom step on the outside of the carriage. The only condition was that I had to loop my arm around the handrail and be careful. The new vantage point made a huge difference to the experience and the end of the line at Nam Tok was reached all too soon. I had hoped to walk the portion of track bed that had been converted into a walkway to the memorial. But as the train was running late, as soon as the elderly Alstom locomotive had been attached to the other end of the train, we began the trip back to Bangkok. Arriving back in the city in pitch darkness, there was only time to choose a few last minute bargains before getting some sleep and preparing for the flight home.
The now superseded Bangkok International Airport is unique in that it has a golf-course between the runways and players actually cross the taxiway during the game. It looks a little bizarre to see Jumbo Jets landing behind trees and water hazards. The course was developed to entertain servicemen during the Viet Nam war. After checking in (making sure the chopsticks were only going as far as Singapore while my stuff went to Christchurch) we separated for a few minutes while she explored the shops and I checked out the DC3s and Hercules that have found a civilian life flying to remote communities. Meeting up again was surprisingly difficult; finding a pretty Asian girl amongst the hundreds passing through was nearly impossible bit within minutes of the flight departing we found each other. She was oblivious to the fact that she was missing.
The flight south was on an MD11, a very pleasant aircraft that never gained the popularity it probably deserved, with many ending up as freighters. After a final meal and good bye, I settled down for a long night flying back to Christchurch on a Boeing 777. It is a great aircraft, good service but I would have preferred to be travelling on the to somewhere exciting rather than the cool damp Dunedin weather.
Note; while I followed the route of the Eastern and Orient Express I didn’t actually use their train of former (New Zealand) Silver Star carriages and did different excursions to those the E & O trains offer. I am confident I had a great time but have no doubt that their passengers do too. Their web site is