From Bangkok to Penang (Butterworth)
My Great Train Journey started in Bangkok last Saturday and finished on Monday afternoon as I came into land in Jakarta, with a child vomiting over my back. Journeys are extreme experiences.
At 2.00 pm last Saturday 27 September, 2008, Stefan and I arrived at the Bangkok Railway Station. Built in 1910, this magnificent example of architecture from the Kingdom of Siam is captivating.
Looking a little lost as we tried to find our platform, a pretty female attendant came and said in impeccable English. “ Can I help you?” We showed her our tickets. “The 2nd class train to Malaysia leaves on Platform 5 at 2.46 pm. ”
This was the start of one of the best short train journeys in my life. And having traveled much of Europe, New Zealand and Asia, " I know that Never the Twains shall meet."
For someone who has looked with envy at the Eastern & Oriental Express which made history as the first ever train to transport passengers directly from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, this was our $ 40 alternative to their $3000 plus price tag.
Stefan, who works for the International Federation of Red Cross in Bangkok on Tsunami rehabilitation, assured me the week before, "I am convinced you can get a second class train from Bangkok to Butterworth (Penang) in Malaysia." As I had an important meeting in Bangkok, I knew I could afford a long weekend to get back to Jakarta.
We were half an hour early for the train and we poured over Stefan's map of Thailand. The trip would take us east for two hours skirting round Bangkok and then it plunges south for about 1000 km to the Malaysian border.
We soon identified the staff on the three sleeping carriages, Mr. Pillow Slip, Mrs. Cook and Master McClean. Pillow Slip gave us just that the moment we walked in the train. We covered our dark blue pillows with a crisp white slip as Mr.McClean swept the floor yet again and Mrs. Cook asked if we wanted to order dinner. Flaggy, the guard, took us until departure, to identify.
Flaggy, the guard
The only work Flaggy appeared to do during the whole 22 hour trip, was to wave a green flag ceremoniously as he signalled the train to leave at 2.46 pm and the rest of his time he was chatting up the pretty women on the train endearing them with a practiced toothy smile.
The 2nd class train to Malaysia left on Platform 15 at 2.46 pm on Saturday 27 September
The first hour clearing Bangkok was fascinating as we passed thousands of shacks clustered into ribbon-like shanty towns along the tracks.
The Bangkok River
I didn’t realise how wide the Bangkok river was as we chugged across the bridge. Bang Sup, Bong Bamru, Sala Ya and a number of stations flashed by as we travelled West before turning south and following the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand. We saw a small floating market on a river and many Budhist temples. Mrs. Cook served dinner on the stroke of six o’clock comprising spicy Thai soup, rice, vegetables and sweet and sour chicken. Twilight accentuated the contours of the land.
Stefan produced a bottle of Chilean Red and life took on a rosier taint.
Rice paddies stretched as far as the eye could see and as twilight descended at 6.3o pm, I took a photo of the lady in the opposite seat, gazing out the window, silhouetted by the setting sun. As soon as the sun set, Mr. Pillow Slip, turned into a conjurer, as he produced a magic key from his chain, unlocked, a concealed compartment on the roof, and hey presto, an upper bunk was formed. Then he flipped the two lower seats together to form the lower bunk. Then out of the upper bunk, got two mattresses, and quickly had sheets tucked over them. Then out of a bottomless bag, he plucked out spotlessly dry cleaned blankets in a hermetically sealed plastic bag. The best he kept for last.
Like a card dealer laying a pack cards out in a fan-like formation,he clipped a pleated light green curtain with 15 hooks with a staccato sound, in one sweep of his hand. As we looked over the rim of our wine tumblers, we were waiting for him to pull a rabbit from his braided hat. There were no more tricks for tonight. Then like a matador, Pillow Slip stepped back to admire his work, before moving on. We had to wait until daylight for the finale.
McClean scrubbed the floor again, rid our table of circular red wine stains, and then he attacked the squat toilet, probably cleaning imaginary stains.
Occasionally flaggy appeared, leering at the beautiful lady sitting opposite us.
Unfortunately it was early in the night when we passed the Marugathaiyawan Palace where the King and Queen of Thailand are resident. I met the King when he came to my home town in New Zealand Dunedin, in 1960, when he attended a rugby match. Years have passed and this man is still held as dear and respected as a God in Thailand.
At 9 pm we decided to go to bed. Only 7 hours into the journey and we had a feast of people and scenery.
I was rocked to sleep by a carriage’s version of I Walk the Line. This cacophony has three instruments, the clickety clack of the gap in the line, the whine of a worn and poorly lubricated axle, and the grinding of an ill fitting coupling. Every so often I would peer out the window to see the lights of small farming hamlets, or the glare of cities.
At 3 am had to get up for a pee and the bowl on the European toilet was the art of McClean, polished to a gleaming white. Cleanliness and orderliness are Thai traits.
Paddy fields as far as the eye can see
When we awoke, paddy fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Budhist Monks were out with their bowls receiveing food from theor devotees. (photo below)
The increasing number of Mosques indicated we were now in the Southern provinces of Thailand and not far from the Thai/Malaysia border.
At Hat Yai, a major train junction, all the other carriages were shunted to a siding, and our two sleeping compartments carried on to the border. With them went all the staff on the train except Pillow Slip. Here at Hat Yai was an office with a sign CHIEF PERMANENT WAY INSPECTOR My curiousity was aroused. It seemed the occupation of a lifetime. Inspecting the way, perhaps a fellow wayfarer ?But the office was locked.
The sign on the side of our carriage
We crossed the border at Pedang Besar at 07.45 am.. There were six of us crossing the border, two Thais, Stefan and I, and two other foreigners. Both Thai and Malaysian immigration and customs were most efficient and courteous.
I looked back at our carriage. The locomotive had been detached and a replaced by one from Malaysian Railways. The new locomotive above at Pedang Besar.
Here we saw crowds of Malays returning to their villages to celebrate the end of Ramadan for the Eid-ur-Fitri holidays. After a longish wait, we left Pedang Besar at 10 am, and passed Arau and Alor Setar a station with a commanding steeple. Palm oil plantations, and to a lesser extent, Rubber, were the dominent crops with jungle as a backdrop. Around 1 pm, we crossed a bridge which afforded a view of the strait separating the mainland from the Island of Penang. At 1.10 pm we slid into the station of Butterworth.
Stefan on arrival at the Butterworth Station. The small blue sign to the front left of him says the Eastern and Oriental Express Butterworth-Singapore was arriving at 7pm in the evening.
Butterworth is the site of the Malayan Railway station for Penang, and is linked to the island by the Penang Ferry Service and by the 13.5 km Penang Bridge. is also the site of a Royal Malaysian Air Force station, RMAF Butterworth, formerly operated by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, and is now the Headquarters of the Integrated Area Defence System (HQIADS) of the Five Power Defence Arrangements.
Butterworth will be the site of an integrated transport hub called Penang Sentral, which will integrate rail, ferry and bus transport.
As we disembarked, Stefan pointed out a small, neat sign notifying that the Eastern and Oriental Express from Butterworth-Singapore was arriving at 7pm in the evening. Ours was not the same regal or posh experience, but a memorable journey from Bangkok to Butterworth down the Gulf of Thailand.
Strangely, during the trip I kept thinking of an acquaintence, Tiziano Terzani, travel writer who died last year in India. He said, "If I have time for reflection at the end, I would like to be able to say, 'I have traveled.' And if I have a grave, I would like a stone with a hollow from which birds can drink, inscribed with my name, the two obligatory dates, and the word, 'Traveler.'"
It was mid afternoon. I had to be back in Jakarta the following day. I took a bus from the station above and travelled down the E1 to Kuala Lumpur enjoying the rugged scenery as we crossed the mountainous spine of western, central Malaysia. It is amazing what you can do in a three day weekend, if you want to.