The Day Train to Kanchanaburi.

25 02 2010

Thailand,3.15 am. 22/2/2010

Dear World,

We spend far too much time worrying about other peoples foolish values and ideas,hesitating on the perimeters of love because of insecurity and fear.Women remain single, preoccupied with expecting men to supply them with economic security. Men stand alone waiting for proof of fidelity.Echoes from ancient times.

But an open heart is always susceptible of invasion, and there is no security, ever. To expect it is to demand  that the universe runs according to our desires, empty of surprise and respectful of our weaknesses. All too soon the transient  leaves of life have blown from the tree and it is too late for either. Only the courageous and the chronic gamblers can truly taste the the fruits of love

But for now my business with my book printer in Bangkok is finished and I can no longer stand the noise of Bangkok’s traffic. I cannot use the public phones in this city (among the worlds worst) because of my damaged ears and the incessant roaring, banging, popping, screaming of the vile and stinking tuk-tuks. I have to escape or go mad. I pack my little travel bag. Strap it onto the back of my folda-bike and go to the ATM to get some money.

I am fascinated with the The ATM machine. It  is the epitome and  ultimate icon of capitalism. It has eliminated humanity (jobs) from its business of moving money around the globe. It is utterly amoral. It facilitates and intercepts the passage of money in digital form and nibbles a generous percentage of it as it passes(3% in Thailand). It can neither be questioned or reprimanded . This percentage is passed to a small proportion of humanity while benefitting the smallest possible percentage of the general population.It uses our capital to enrich itself.

I pack my mini bag, strap it to my bike rack with bungees, pay my room rent, tip the cleaning lady bt100, buy a card for a friend and pedal like an Olympic slalomer through Bangkok’s teeming traffic. Scarlet faced and gasping like hunted animal I puff up the high arch of the Phra Pok Klao bridge. I have to stop half way up the bridge to catch my breath. Bangkok bridges are the most dangerous parts about cycling in the city. Along the streets , although the traffic comes at you from all sides and directions it also has spaces in between vehicles. Some turn off down side streets and soi’s ( lanes) or stop to shop. You learn to watch all directions and take advantage of openings. On the bridges which are narrower there are no sois. There are simply two lanes of racing vehicles, cars, trucks , tuk-tuks, motorbikes and  the buses, no longer forced towards the centre by parked cars, pass you with inches to spare. The pollution is intense. Your heaving lungs choke on the carbon monoxide and other gases.

At last I am over the hump and cruising down the other side.It is around 12.30. The train to Kanchanaburi is scheduled to leave  at 1p.m. I have a rough idea where the station is, but there is a maze of streets, sois and  entrances to businesses around its general area. There are no signs directing towards the station , or if there are, they are in Thai. It is an area over which fly-over highways cross and re-cross creating beneath them dead ends where  varied vendors run stalls for a few semingly idle people. I begin to ask directions , remembering the traveler’s caution of always asking three different people for any one direction and, when all three are contradictory, asking three more. I always remember  not to ask security men, doormen  at hotels, or cops who are always prepared to advise but seldom are correct and are generally poor at communicating.

By now I am getting a little concerned. It must be close to 1p.m. I am advised by two out of three people to go over another bridge which seems to indicate the wrong direction. The bridge is long and teeming with fast traffic. I go over the bridge and see railway lines. They were right. Sweating profusely I arrive at the station. It is 12:55p.m. I buy my ticket and another for my bike. But there is no train in the station which is a terminus. Oh well! I wait. And wait. And wait.

At 2.15 a train appears pushed into the station by an ancient little diesel locomotive. The train is 1950 vintage. Some windows work. Many do not. It doesn’t seem to matter since all are usually open. This line to Kanchanaburi ( and maybe others ) is free to Thais, so it tends to be used by people who have more time than money. It is about an hour and a half slower than the buses. The people who board are country  and provincial women with large baskets and bags of vegetables to sell in the market in Kanchanaburi because they are cheaper in Bangkok than in Kanchanaburi. The trains are also used by school children coming from and going to schools usually in the Bangkok suburbs.


Train carriage 

Finally at 2.45p.m. the locomotive gives a cheerful hoot, guards blow whistles, and wave green flags, and we pull out of the station. Within a little while the locomotive belies it’s antique appearance and tugs the short train along at a merry clip. It is wide gauge old-fashioned track with regular joints that rattle and bounce the cars which are old but wide and spacey.

Where the carriages join, the entrances have no doors, so you can stand or sit on the floor and feel the breeze as the wheels jog and roar. The carriages clatter through occasional corrugated shanty towns crowded closely against the line. As we race past we can see the occupants cooking, cleaning, washing themselves or watching colour T.Vs which are quite frequently the only furniture in the shacks. Possibly the deeper the poverty the more important is distraction. The mind has to be fed as well as the stomach for life to be tolerable.

The scenery outside becomes more rural as city gives way to rice-paddy viridian in its shiny mirrors and sugar cane and vegetable crops. The countryside is flat and intensely cultivated as far as the eye can see. Great sweeps of bamboo occasionally lash at hands and arms protruding too far outside the windows. We pass rural developments of tacky-looking boxy houses and occasionally massive factories with towering chimneys spewing black smoke.

The train is on a run and stops less and less at country communities with romantic sounding names like Sakasinarai and Ta Non Srong Pon. At one a group of plump, middle aged  women with baskets and trays hung on their chests comes on board  and moves through the carriages. They are selling water and Coke and Pepsi and Orange juice. They have ingenious packages made from bamboo leaves, tucked in and folded, containing a helping of fragrant sticky rice and a few pieces of barbecue pork or chicken or catfish in a tasty sauce.The bamboo leaves in which they are steamed add a unique flavour. They cost thirty cents and are delicious and the wrappings, being organic and bio-degradable, can be thrown out of the windows to decompose. If you find that you like these spicy little snacks and want more you must buy quickly because the women get out at the next station and catch the next train back. Of course I can’t help imagining all the health food regulations and prohibitions that in my radically over-governed  country Canada, laws would prevent these practical, cheap, yummy and green meals happening. I’m afraid there is no cure for this natural disease of control and of course behind it, as behind  so much that is problematic and inhibitory, is the greed of insurance companies and lawyers. “What if somebody gets sick and sues the railway?” somebody asks, and there is Fear, and an end to it,leaving us in our secure sterility.

I have always loved trains.For some reason, crammed beside some stranger in an undersized seat on a bus no one talks, while on trains it is common for strangers to converse across the aisles and become friendly. I have even had fine little impromptu musical jams on trains. I love sleeper trains and the idea of covering vast distances while I am rocked from my dreams to awake, refreshed at my destination. And perhaps above all, I love the wild erratic symphonies of the wheels, especially on lines which haven’t yet installed the new seamless rails.

Now, with  the close suburban stops behind it, the little locomotive finds a vigorous pace. Across the aisle from me a country woman with  two small girls dozes in a pile of folded limbs. The locomotive trumpets the first bars of the symphony. The rhythm section picks up the tempo, ‘te tick te tang, te tick te tang’—the driving leitmotif of the piece. This is broken as the train goes over an iron bridge. Then there is an accelerando and a roaring echo  punctuated by abstract bangs and squeals from the couplings that fade as suddenly as the statement has been made, and the wheel tempo resumes to a attenuated cacophany of squeals and squeaks. A train passing from the other direction exchanges greetings with our loco ; five long sonorous siren phrases   from the brass section that decline and submerge as the doppler effect transforms them into a plangent cry of meeting and separation. It is the cry of sweet connections made and swept away by the driving urgency of time. And immediately the rhythm section re-asserts it’s own strident time line with erratic  variations and tympani.  The brass section lays a joyous matrix leading once again to the roaring hussh of a metal bridge, only to have that motif shattered by the complexity of tympanic syncopation as the wheels pass through junctions. Over and under  it all the background of conversation from the passengers rises and falls weaving into and out of prominence as the women discuss their produce with each other, admire their baskets and bags, and generally talk shop. A small girl walks down the carriage that sometimes, to her delight, lifts her out of gravity so that she is taking air as the carriage rises and falls. And I, lifted out of mental gravity by the symphony,  close my eyes and allow myself to soar in the composition as outside sheets of viridian paddy clatter past in the warm countryside.Then, at last and all too soon, the train slows into Kanchanaburi with its neat, clean  little station surrounded with topiary animals and birds whose tails sometimes are a mat of bougainvillea. We have arrived.The symphony has ended.

I cycle to my guest house, make a deal with them for a room on the water’s edge and unpack my bag from the bike. The river Kwai is a beautiful and serene waterway that is in the process of destruction by insensitive tourism.The ugly past World War 11 history of the Japanese invasion and their brutal treatment of P.O.W’s conscripted to build a bridge over the river and  a military supply line into Burma was made into a film and has lived on largely as a result of the film commemorating it. The result has been a tourist ‘attraction’ in it’s vacuous worst with mindless Western hordes flocking to photograph the nondescript iron bridge and be prompted to spend  money on a thousand importunate stalls and shops. The bridge over the river Kwai is not even the original bridge which was bombed by the R.A.F.and twice replaced since then. Nonetheless the lunacy lingers on.


The bridge  over the River Kwai

Starting at around nine a.m. seven or eight entrepreneurs with long-tailed hydroplanes meet western tourists as they get off tour buses down stream and chivvy them into the speedboats. The boats are powered by huge diesels with no silencers whatever and can be heard from two kilometers away. They then race upstream for about four kms to the bridge where they discharge their sheep and scream downstream for another load. The result is that from nine six p.m. the river sounds like a Bangkok feeder turnpike, all serenity utterly destroyed.

In the evening the vehicles are changed when house-sized float houses with no walls and truly huge loudspeakers are towed slowly upstream to the bridge and then back, Sometimes they are karaoke and sometimes they have dances happening, The music must be played very loudly to avoid being drowned out by the tow boat’s motor. Only later at night and in the very early mornings is the rivers tranquility returned to it. Then the calls of the bird the Thais call Nok Gawow float across the river and the sacred peace of the river once again becomes public property.The tourism is concentrated along a two to three kilomter strip of road running parallel with the river and here some of the truly brash bar-signs and pretty prostitutes beckon to a mindless international tourist industry that drinks until it is obnoxious and loud, watches t.V. plays pool, picks up young hookers and generally behaves as it does at home.



The town itself is pleasant with a clean centre and a good market, and there are many interesting routes for bicyclists to take into the surrounding countryside. Many interesting and beautiful architectural sights lie in wait for more discerning travellers, beginning with the attractive and artistic streetlights and including perhaps the super-cheesy Chinese buddha.


Chinese Buddha

I spoke with Chuchart Oncharoen, director of the Kanchanaburi Tourism Authority of Thailand about the river noise problems that I and a considerable number of travelers agreed was rather tragic, as any violation of water anywhere  in the world is tragic. I asked him whether or not the municipality was aware of the situation and whether or not any authority was doing anything about it. We talked in vague circles for awhile, the upshot of which, as I interpreted it, was that there were a number of overlapping authorities, local governments etc all of which had some power but none enough to act decisively and unilaterally.My suggeston that there was corruption involved went unconfirmed and undenied. I also suggested that perhaps the best way to deal with this kind of  problem was to hit the perpetrators with selective taxes—for example a two tier system under which noisy boats pay way more tax than quiet ones. Mr. Oncharoen considered the idea.

What I was still not  considering myself, is the strength of the Thai love of ‘laissez faire” or as they define such situations, “mai ping rai” or “ aah well! Never mind.” Which, basically is why they have lovely private enterprise snacks on their trains and we in Canada don’t. And why they don’t appear to suffer from road rage and we do.Nor are we ourselves free from screaming speed boats and sea-doos. We merely have more space at present.Till later goodbye Dear World.

Copyright covering all media Laurie Payne 25Feb 2010.




3 responses

25 02 2010

Interesting read Laurie.

I know you from the Chase area .

Seems like you haven’t be to Thailand for ages because I know you were here back many a moon ago. Bet you have noticed major changes.

Hope things are well with you.

I’ll keep reading. Are you heading south in your travels?

I’ve been living down south for a few years and if you’re down this way maybe we can catch up for a tea or even a brew.

3 03 2010

Hi Russ, good to meet you on the blog trail. I have been in Thailand every winter for the last five or six I’ve forgotten. Hope you enjoyed the ramblings. I head back to Canada on the 17th and it will be difficult .Keep in touch .Laurie

21 06 2013

As soon as browsing blogs, it’s my job to find a very good articles like your own

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