Right before heading to Japan, Stuart and I completed a biking adventure up to Prachinburi province, northwest of Krungthep (Bangkok). We had talked about doing a combined train-bike day trip just for the experience, so with the clock ticking before his move to Phuket, we decided we had better get this trip done.
(It is worth noting that this entry is actually a month old but I didn’t get a chance to edit the video until this past weekend.)
A view of the station from a bridge heading into the old city.
We started early on Sunday April 5th, leaving the Thong Lor area about 6:30 am for the 10-km ride to Hualamphong Station, the main rail station in the city. Stuart has ridden the Thai rails before but this was a first for me.
The lovely Italian Neo-Renaissance exterior of this station.
Hualamphong is a big station and was teeming with travelers even at this early hour on a Sunday. While Stuart watched the bikes I went to buy tickets and inquire about what to do with our bikes. Even with both of us speaking a fair amount of Thai, this process wasn’t very clear.
Interior of the station waiting area – crowded even on a Sunday morning.
The ticket agent directed us to somewhere near track two for our bicycles. Once we entered the track area it wasn’t clear where we were going so we stopped at an information kiosk. The agent there vaguely waved towards the far end of the station. Eventually, walking way down the tracks, we found the cargo area.
There, they checked out tickets and then explained that our particular train wouldn’t have a cargo car on it, so we were going to have to carry out bikes into the passenger car. They then pointed to the other end of the tracks, indicating that we needed to go pay some surcharge to do that.
We walked back up the track and eventually fond another kiosk where we paid for “excess baggage”. For our 122 km journey the fare was a whopping 26 baht per person, each way. That’s right, less than one US dollar. The baggage fee for the bicycles was something like 80 baht per person.
Stuart and his bike share space with another passenger. These two benches are meant to seat four people.
We eventually got everything straightened out and got on our train moments before it was supposed to depart. Had we known how crowded the train would be, we would have boarded earlier. As it was, we had to remove the front wheels from our bikes in order to make them fit. Fellow passengers, who were mightily inconvenienced by our bikes, were very gracious about it. Next time, we need to make sure there is a cargo car on our train.
A young boy enjoys the view from the window seat.
The train tracks snake through the heart of Krungthep, affording a front-row view of the belly of the Big Mango. Needless to say, it isn’t the prettiest of views.
One of the smaller stops within Krungthep complete with banana trees.
There are vast areas of low-income housing and many markets which are built right up to the edge of the tracks. What is amazing is how vibrant life in this communities is: there is an entire world going on right next to the train tracks, paying no attention to the iron intruders that cut through their towns.
The entire train was third-class seating, unassigned and un-air conditioned. With the breeze and fans, the trip was fairly pleasant. Vendors walked up and down the aisles with snacks and beverages, so it wasn’t much worse than a flight on one of these low cost airlines.
Eventually, we found ourselves outside the city, spilling into the rice paddies that are a familiar sight in the central region of Thailand.
One has to wonder at the lack of safety gear. There was nothing to prevent people from falling between the engine and the train or out of any of the doors, all of which were open to the passing landscape.
At each stop we picked up more passengers until the train was near capacity. Most everyone stayed on for the first two hours until we hit Chachoengsao Junction, where the northeastern and easter lines split. At this station about two-thirds of the passengers disembarked, after which we had enough room to spread out and not worry about people getting greasy as they walked past our bikes.
Our stop, Prachinburi Province, was an additional hour past Chachoengsao. By this point it was nearing 11:30. We offloaded our bicycles and watched as the train pulled away. Checking our time, we had five hours before the return train arrived, and about 80 km planned on this hot day.
After a light meal in a small restaurant across the parking lot from the station we set out. Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of memorable sights. An “ancient city” was hard to find, or at least what we did find wasn’t very exciting. It ended up being an ancient water storage pond with carvings of elephants along the side.
It was cool in a sort of, “oh, that’s interesting” way. But not in a “wow!” sort of way.
One stop that ended up being fun was the largest and oldest Bodhi tree in the kingdom: Ton Pho Si Maha Pho. It is located across from a temple way out in the outskirts of the province.
It is actually a beautiful tree and of course is well-venerated. They say that some 2000 years ago, Phrachao Thawanampayadit, the ruler of Mueang Si Mahosot during the Khmer empire, sent his representatives to India to bring back a branch from the bodhi tree in Buddhgaya, India, under which Buddha attained enlightenment. This is ostensibly the tree grown from that branch.
Across the street in a temple, we encountered a group of novice monks. During the summer months when school is out of session, parents will send their sons to the temples. This time spent in the monastery is meant to gain merit for the parents’ future life, but sometimes I think it is more a form of summer school, just to keep the sons out of trouble.
The young monks enjoyed the distraction of two bicycling farang and had many questions for us. One was particularly fascinated with Stuart’s iPhone. We visited for about fifteen minutes, drank some water that they offered, and then continued.
Along the ride, I was making great efforts to stay hydrated. I had my 2-liter Camelback water pack with me. But what I forgot was that staying hydrated is only half the battle. After a while the water was warm and my body temperature was climbing.
After some 60 km, as we were working our way back around the loop to the provincial capital, I had to stop several times to cool down, buying ice-cold water at some stores and not just drinking it but holding the bottles to my neck to bring my temperature down. Truly, by the end of about 80 km, I was frighteningly close to heat exhaustion.
We made it back to the station about fifteen minutes before the return train, thoroughly wiped out from the ride. The trip back was spent mostly staring, zombie-like, out the windows. The good news was that this return train had a cargo car so we didn’t have to manage our bicycles during the ride.
Along the way, we had fun with some “hanging out the door” shots.
We also saw some exciting sights like large bonfires next to the track. I guess burning is the most effective trash disposal option out here in the middle of nowhere.
By the time I returned home some 14 hours after leaving, my legs were red. Not with sunburn, mind you: I had been very liberal in my reapplication of sunblock. The red was from the dust of the volcanic soil in the northeast region. Riding the road had left me covered with it from head to ankle!
All in all, it was a fun trip. Exhausting, yes, but sometimes it is pushing yourself to the limit that helps you know what you really are capable of. Here’s a video of the trip, mostly focusing on the train portion of it.