With all the modernization coming up, rail-tours will also probably fade into history. Relaxed, convenient, and comfortable, they are well worth trying before that happens.
By Imtiaz Muqbil,
Visitors to Thailand do not often think of traveling around by railway, but they should think again. The State Railways of Thailand has put up a range of tours on its website, which offer quick one-day trips and a few overnight trips to numerous cultural and natural-beauty spots around the kingdom.
Although all tours are in Thai, they are very convenient in one important aspect – transportation to and from these spots is taken care of, leaving the visitors free to consult their guidebooks and mobile-phone apps to fill in the details. Language poses less of a problem than logistics. Here is the website: www.railway.co.th/home/
The best places to visit by rail are Bangkok’s neighboring provinces of Kanchanaburi (home to the famous “Bridge over the River Kwai”), Nakhon Pathom (home to the Great Pagoda) and Petchburi (home to the popular beach resorts of Hua Hin and Cha-am).
There are many advantages to taking a rail-tour. You never face any traffic problems, usually the biggest nuisance when traveling by road. The trains are clean and comfortable. You get to mingle with local people (some of whom are more than eager to have a shot at practicing their English), eat local food from the station stalls and enjoy the scenery of the countryside. The cost is also remarkably inexpensive.
Bangkok’s main railway station from which the trains depart, Hua Lumphong, is conveniently connected to many of the hotels in inner Bangkok by the MRTA underground service. The only downside is that many of the train-tours leave early in the morning. However, this allows more time to be spent at the tourist spots. Those who are still sleepy will have no problem catching up on lost sleep during the journey itself.
Here is the choice of recommended one-day trips:
Petchburi, Cha-am, Marukatayawan Palace: Highly recommended as it includes a visit to this fabulous early 20th century palace. Built between 1923-24, the palace was commissioned by King Vajiravudh to serve as a holiday villa. It consists of sixteen teak buildings raised by concrete pillars and linked together by a series of walkways. Well worth visiting.
Kanchanaburi Rafting: This is a good tour because it includes a rafting component down the spectacular scenery of the River Kwai as well as visits to the JEATH war museum and Allied war cemetery.
Erawan Waterfall and Srinakarin Dam: Great for nature lovers, a trip to the largest and most beautiful waterfall in western Thailand. Includes stops at the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Allied war cemetery.
Prasart Muang Singh Historical Park: This comprehensive tour to a historic stone castle dating back to the late Khmer period also takes in a stop at the Great Pagoda of Nakhon Pathom and a visit to the Bridge over the River Kwai.
Note that the tours operate on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Tickets are available in both aircon and non-aircon compartments. Bookings can be made on the phone. There is an information call center hotline at 1690 and an English service is available during working hours on weekdays.
So far, rail-tours have proved extremely popular with backpackers and adventurous experience-seekers. It is advisable to NOT take a railtour during a long-weekend period. The rush of domestic holidaymakers can be a bit disconcerting.
Visitors will also be fascinated by a visit to Hua Lumphong station, one of Bangkok’s primary architectural landmarks, which is also located within walking distance of another popular tourist spot, the Chinatown area.
Opened in June 1916 after six years’ construction, the station has a distinctly Italian Neo-Renaissance style architecture, thanks to the involvement of Turin-born Mario Tamagno, who, with countryman Annibale Rigotti (1870–1968), designed a number of early 20th century public buildings in Bangkok, including Bang Khun Prom Palace (1906), Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in the Royal Plaza (1907–15) and Suan Kularb Residential Hall and Throne Hall in Dusit Garden.
Hua Lamphong serves more than 130 trains and approximately 60,000 passengers each day.
Thailand’s railways have a fascinating history. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) ordered the first state railway line from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima in the Northeast to be built in 1981. The first leg of this service from Bangkok to Ayutthaya was opened on March 26, 1894.
Steady development was made in the following decades but systemic inefficiencies led to two different rail-gauges emerging. The East Bank System used a standard gauge of 1.4435 m while the West Bank system was 1.00 m gauge. Unification of gauges to the meter-gauge began in 1920 and took 10 years to compete, bringing it in line with the railways in neighboring Malaysia, Burma and Cambodia.
During World War II period (1941-45), the railway buildings, lines and bridges as well as rolling stock and workshops suffered extensive damage nationwide. Reconstruction began after peace was restored. Today, the Thai railway network has a total route length of 4,041 km. The State Railways of Thailand is the largest state enterprise of Thailand in terms of manpower with a total staff about 26,412.
However, it is also one of the most chronic money-losing operations, saddled with huge debts. Like most railway networks in developing countries, it was designed to serve low-income people and has been forced to keep fares low, even though operating costs have gone up significantly.
Major changes are in the pipeline. Considerable amounts of money have been spent on improving Thailand’s airports and highways over the years, and railways are next, especially in order to bring the country in line with the emerging Trans-Asian Railway network.
Plans also call for construction of high-speed rail links between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
With all this modernization coming up, the rail-tours will also probably fade into history. They are well worth trying before that happens.