I’ve always loved trains.
For years, I traveled by train to go to school, to come back to my parents when I was studying at the University, for the pure pleasure of traveling.
A train ride in Thailand was on my list, while I was planning my trip. I thought it would have been an unusual and adventurous experience. But… where to go? I found my answer by chance while reading about the Amphawa floating market.
There isn’t a train station in Amphawa, but it is easy to get there by songthaew from Samut Songkhram, after a stop at the picturesque Mae Klong Railway Market.
Locals know the market as Talat Rom Hup (“Umbrella Pulldown Market”) because street vendors close their umbrellas to make way for the train that almost touches the stalls and the goods while slowly rumbles towards the station. A show attended, every day, by hundreds of tourists and yet it’s still authentic and exciting.
The names of the world
Take a random map, and you will see names of places repeating over and over. From the many Springfields that hide the multifaceted metropolis of “The Simpsons” to lesser-known locations, this aspect is common to many countries.
To make things worse, in Thailand old and new names overlap. Thus Samut Songkhram is also known as Mae Klong. What now is Samut Sakhon, once was Maha Chai, which is still the name of its train station, while the Ban Laem station is in Tha Chalom.
In Thonburi, a suburb of Bangkok, the Wongwian Yai BTS station is about fifteen minutes walk from a place with nearly the same name and where this adventure begins.
The small Wongwian Yai train station feels like a million kilometers away from the gleaming shopping malls in Siam Square or Pratunam.
Early in the morning, monks in orange robes receive offerings from the sellers between smoking grills, steaming cauldrons and stalls that serve food in a blinding backlight.
The young conductor has a cream-colored uniform. Time seems to have stopped in his office. Pastel colors on the walls, a large desk covered with dust, a green phosphor monitor, and the buzz of a dot-matrix printer.
«10 Baht» he says, smiling, as he hands me a ticket printed on perforated paper. Then he gives me a map and shows me the way. I can’t get lost.
The Mae Klong Railway
The railroad from Bangkok to Mae Klong was built, early in the last century, to connect the markets of the capital to the fishing ports of Samut Sakhon (Maha Chai) and Samut Songkhram (Mae Klong).
The route is divided into two sections: from Wongwian Yai to Maha Chai, where the rails end. There you cross a river by boat and walk, a few minutes, to reach the Ban Laem station, in the sleepy fisherman’s village of Tha Chalom, from where the second rail section gets to Mae Klong.
Founded as a private commercial line, the railroad was nationalized in 1942. Twenty years later, the Pak Khlong San station was closed to reduce traffic congestion in the capital. Wongwian Yai became the new terminus.
Wongwian Yai – Maha Chai
The commuter is on the tracks. Latecomers quickly buy their tickets and board. Someone carries heavy cloth bundles, which probably hold goods purchased in Bangkok or to sell elsewhere.
A whistle, to announce that we are ready to go.
The train is slow and swinging. The noise of the expansion joints is deafening.
1985 is the date engraved on a metal plate affixed to the wall behind the hard plastic seats, together with a sign in English that reads: “Latest revision”.
Another label informs that is IT IS DANGEROUS TO LEAN OUT OF THE WINDOW: a warning that you should take literally.
As we pass through Bangkok, the small commuter almost touches the trees, the roofs, the houses. Leaning out, even with a hand, is severely hazardous. People in their backyards, take a break and look at it. Someone smiles or greets, as you do with a friend who passes by every day.
From here, you see the city in a different perspective. Scenes of everyday life replace streets teeming with people.
A group of women makes soup in a sort of outdoor kitchen, where woks and pots are piled on the ground as in a car cemetery. A man is wiping a big black fighting rooster, with a bright and perfect plumage.
So far, I supposed nothing could subdue the traffic of Bangkok, but now it’s idle, impotent, behind the railroad crossings.
The narrow tunnel of houses causes strong air blows. A newspaper flutters away from the old gentleman who sits in front of me. Other passengers are all Thais. They take the train every day to move from the city to the countryside or to get to the markets. Some are very curious. They often look at me and smile.
«Ticket, please». I raise my eyes. The conductor suddenly straightens himself out, click his heels describing a small arc with his toes, brings his hand to the head and salutes. He wears an elegant uniform that would make him look like an army officer if the ticket punch in his left hand did not reveal his identity.
As the city thins out, it makes room for a timidly urbanized countryside that retains some industrial feature. Banana trees growing along the line replace houses. Branches constantly hit the train, swinging, disrupting the air. Some leaves fall into the railcar.
You pass through villages where suburban condominiums alternate with modest houses, made of prefabricated blocks, built among the vegetation, the canals, or on the edge of semi-deserted streets.
After about an hour, the traffic increases, the streets widen, and you wedge again into the houses.
The train runs through a final stretch where street vendors, standing too close to the tracks, move away and let it through.
The convoy slips in a long and narrow shelter.
The rails seem to be there by chance, closed on both sides by booths displaying various goods. The journey apparently ends here.
Maha Chai, today also known as Samut Sakhon, is a real surprise to me.
So far, this was only a place where I had to change trains, but there’s something I was not expecting.
As soon as I go out from the station, I’m thrust out a chaotic crowd where pedestrians and scooters, carrying whole families, share every millimeter of available space.
It’s one of the biggest and most important fish markets in Thailand.
Most of the fish you eat in Bangkok comes from this port town at the mouth of the Tha Chin River.
Shellfish, live fish, floundering in white plastic boxes, large crabs stacks that create rough and sharp textures. The smell is strong, of sea and spices.
I buy a bag of dried squid, flavored and reduced to thin strips that Thais eat in soups or as a snack. It tastes good.
Down the busy market, you find the pier. A boat is ready to reach the opposite bank, where a giant golden Buddha stands on the roof of a temple.
Large cargo ships, flocks of seagulls and a cool breeze are a sign of the sea nearby.
Ban Laem – Mae Klong
The train between Ban Laem and Mae Klong is a mix of languages: French tourists, Germans, a young American couple, an Indian family, several Chinese.
Everyone is charmed by the landscape, broad and flat, with rice fields and salt marshes, spaced out by tracts of dense tropical forest, networks of Khlongs and ponds where houses occasionally emerge on precarious platforms supported by poles.
A region of water and fertile land, blessed by large rivers and countless canals.
The train rides through the countryside and stops at every station that, often, is nothing more than a canopy.
The convoy slowly rumbles and regularly whistles to state its presence.
The level crossings are increasingly infrequent. Sometimes, on the road, someone stops the cars and let the train pass. Other times, for that mysterious force that rules drivability in Thailand, traffic jams develop on almost deserted roads, the commuter stops, if the rails are occupied.
Sometimes the train rides through a thin strip of land shared with the only road that crosses scattered rural villages and disturbs their daily routine with its weighty presence.
It’s nearly possible to touch the houses, to share people’s lives.
Children, on foot or bike, chase the commuter, screaming and laughing. They greet and reply to greetings from some passenger that tackles the fate and extends his hand out the window.
While we are stopping at one of the many stations, I look outside and can’t hide my embarrassment of being in front of a woman who has just come out of the shower and covers herself with a large white bath towel. She is familiar with that presence, smiles and keeps on her business as the train is leaving
Gradually, taller buildings replace the vast and even horizon again. The number of level crossings increases. The traffic becomes chaotic and messy. An exciting atmosphere spreads through the train. Passengers flock to the windows and set up their cameras.
The Mae Klong Railway Market
The arrival at the Mae Klong Railway Market is a breathtaking moment. On the ground, tourists are photographing the train, greeting, smiling and sharing the excitement of taking part in a show where you are both star and spectator.
The train whistles constantly. The market umbrellas have been closed and the stalls, many of which are built on small rails, have been moved away just enough to clear the way to the train that slowly proceeds.
Many goods are left on the tracks. The large metal wheels almost touch them: fruits and vegetables in bright colored textures, seasonings, fish, and roasted toads pierced by bamboo rods.
I turn to the back of the train. Vendors are opening their umbrellas again, pushing the stalls to the tracks and what, so far, was an almost magical vision, turns back to a common and sunny market in Samut Songhkram, the capital of the smallest province in Thailand.