Monday, 6 September 2010

The Special Express Sleeper to Chiang Mai

I seem to have upset two of my friends, Andy and Ian. Andy's a tad jealous of my mountain escapades and Ian's envious of my rail journeys - so what can I do to appease them? Secretly speak to their wives and buy them both a train ticket from China to trek in Nepal? Would that be a good Christmas present?
No, no, no - they wouldn't want me to go to that much trouble or expense - it's far easier and a lot more fun just to wind them up, they really wouldn't expect anything less . . .
Wannabee Scotsmen both - you can tell this from their names, Andrew MacGregor and Ian McKenzie. Andy will have to wait until I get to the soaring volcanic peaks of Indonesia and the mountains of Borneo. This blog's for Ian:
My favourite station in the world is the efficiently run and wonderfully named Hua Lamphong. I've no idea what it means - it just sounds nice. There are no long queues and the happy smiling lady who sold me a ticket on Thursday spoke perfect English and wished me a good journey. What a difference from London stations where you're more likely to wait half-an-hour only to be served by some miserable faced jobs-worth, with a mouth like an arse that's been sucking on mouldy lemons.
Saturday 22 August: It's not a pretty station, but for me Hua Lampong is a place of pent-up excitement, where people wait in anticipation of arriving at some exotic destination - southern Thailand's islands and beaches, Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samet, Ko Tao or onto Butterworth in Malaysia - east to Vientiane and the Laos border - west along 'death railway' over the river Kwai towards Burma - or north, where I'm headed, to Chiang Mai. On the right as you enter Hua Lampong, hiding under the junk-food balcony, is the station's food court where you buy a coupon then choose the meal you fancy from those displayed. Each little kitchen-hatch specialises in a different dish - flat noodles, rice noodles, steamed or fried rice each with a different delicious topping or mixture - hand over your coupon and it's freshly cooked for you - it's great. But today I'm running late and take my place on the 18:10 pm sleeper, 2nd class, to Chiang Mai.
My seat is comfortable, no numb-bum here, and wide enough for two. Heading for the restaurant car I'm ushered to one of the six cloth-covered tables, the rest are bare. The food's good, not exceptional, and only slightly over-priced. The ice-cold Chang beers are too, but I can live with that. Here I meet Peter, an excited middle-aged Swede who has just flown in. He speaks a little Thai and has been here many times (he likes Thai girls). He reserves his next flight to Bangkok as soon as he gets home (he says he always needs something to look forward to).
At 10:00pm promptly, as the dining car fills with train attendants, we are thrown out - it's bedtime. This is no longer a restaurant, it never really was. It's the home of all the lovely train staff who, Peter tells me, live most of their lives aboard the train with only a few hours off at each end. They lay plywood boards across the restaurant car's seats and this is where they sleep, underneath the table-tops - we've been drinking beer in their bedroom! The manageress has been living this way this for five years, some of her staff longer.
In our absence, as if by magic, the carriage has been transformed - beds have been folded down, I have crisp sparkling-white sheets, a soft fluffy pillow and little blue modesty curtains. I've opted for a slightly cheaper upper berth (the lower ones are wider, more like doubles, but are for single occupation). I sleep very well.
Sunday 23: I'm the only passenger eating breakfast. The dining car is full of excited chattering train staff, some quickly changing into casual clothes, pulled out of plastic boxes from under the seats. They are lucky today, the train is only two hours late - this means a longer than usual break in Chiang Mai. But they really should change the translated name of the catering company - Bogie Gourmet is a no brainer.

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