Night train to Chiang Mai

I had an acquaintance arrive from Spain, he was an ex matelot who had last been to Thailand on a grey funnel line (Royal Navy) touring the Far East. This of course was when we still paid rent for Hong Kong and maintained a flotilla there. He had no idea what he wanted to do or see, apart from the usual over indulgence navy ratings seem to enjoy.

There had been anti-government protests occupying major road junctions in Bangkok for over a month and swarms of protestors touring Bangkok as many had never been to the capital before.

We spent three days in Bangkok to start with allowing him to get his body clock synchronized. I always stay at a three star hotel near the Skytrain just off Sukumvit road, the central road through any town, it has a pool and only costs £20 a night for two including breakfast. My criteria for city hotels are clean, quiet and friendly and this ticks all the boxes. We started in a lazy way by taking the express river bus to the Royal Palace and nearby reclining Buda. These vessels are about sixty foot long and ten foot wide and travel at twentyish miles an hour. They are boarded by the stern deck and if you are quick you can stand right at the back with an uninterrupted view of Bangkok unlike those sat inside behind spray covers. It's a great experience as they approach the piers at a frightening rate only going astern at the last moment. The boats stern wash then catches up making getting on and off like the old fashioned fairground "cake walk". There is no time to hesitate as everyone is in a rush, mainly the boat driver. Everything is organised by the conductor blowing different blasts on his whistle to tell the helmsman what to do making boarding a noisy confusing rush. This twenty minute cruise costs eighty pence return, now that's good value.

Suitably templed out I took him to the famous Pantip plaza the next day. This is a seven floor IT centre with hundreds of small stands selling everything you never imagined you wanted. I bought my iPad there for over a hundred pound less than I could get it in the UK plus I got the 7%  VAT back as I left Thailand to fly out to Hong Kong, the tax rebate paid for the air fare!  My friend had his Samsung tablet fitted with new batteries, replacement screen for the cracked one and a screen saver for less than thirty pounds.

The next day took us to the MBK centre where you can buy anything. Same set up as Pantip but has restaurants , eating plazas, clothes (£2 a tee shirt) , phones, trinkets, more clothes (buy a pair of jeans and they cut the legs to length as you stand in them then hem the legs , again £2 a pair) ,typical Thai handicrafts and gifts, the list goes on. The place is about the size of a football pitch and eight floors and so easy to get lost in.

With more clothes than we could carry my friend packed a " not needed on voyage" suitcase which we left with the hotel for a few weeks for forty pence a day ready for "the off"  the next day on the night train to Chiang Mai.

I had gone on my own to the main railway station, Hualamphong, the previous day to book the sleeping berths. The first and second class sleepers seem to be fully booked every time I attempt to travel this line. I booked third class aircon carriage as I normally travel this class and find it more than adequate. The fares vary from £30 for First class ( two to a cabin) £25 for second class (four to a cabin so sharing) or £14 third class for bunk beds with a curtain very much like the US trains in the thirties. The important thing is all bed linen is fresh and third class is near the buffet car. It's supposedly one of the ten best train journeys in the world but I would question that by the next morning.

My travelling companion decided that a taxi would be better to the station from our hotel despite my advice that the roads were barricaded by anti government protestors. I couldn't resist pointing out one hour later that the underground would have only taken ten minutes. Still we had the chance to meet the protest guards and view several barricades as we did u turns.

To the train then, a lot later than planned but without the trek from the metro to the main station. For anyone interested how tunnels are made the seven kilometer walk from the metro, maybe I’m exaggerating a touch, is filled with photographs that make stopping to get your breath back and wipe the sweat from your eyes a pleasant interlude. We boarded slightly later than I'd expected but the booked seats, with a table twixt us, weren't occupied. Stashing the rucksacks in the racks and taking anything of value in my newly purchased "man bag" we waddled off to the buffet car for a cold drink. The buffet car was a bit more refined than the one on the train line to Lao but still had the windows open. Several hours later we returned to find our beds made up, rucksacks still where we'd left them and lulled by the rocking and rolling of the train nodded off. I had learnt a while ago that sleeping on a train requires your feet facing the engine as the jolting stops at stations can compress vertebrae whereas if you adopt  feet first it leaves you feeling as if you are standing in low gravity. Not so my friend who faced where we where heading and by morning had become several inches shorter. They have floods in Central Thailand where this train runs and in the rainy season it's common to have stretches washed away, this leads to hasty repairs that give the rails a very uneven run. In some parts it's akin to lying on a trampoline with someone bouncing it and other times like being on a giant pogo stick. The rails are only 15 foot long and the gauge narrow so it's quite a noisy bumpy ride. The narrow gauge encourages the carriage to sway quiet alarmingly as well. The net result is arriving with mixed emotions of relief at surviving and interest to see how many carriages are still on the tracks. Having spent a lot of time at sea I used to find myself standing somewhere shoreside and involuntary swaying as the balance mechanism had got used to compensating for the ships motion. Getting off in Chiang Mai I had exactly the same condition! As we passed the engine driver I cheerfully wished him good morning and mentioned that the carriage we had been on had spent most of the night running on the sleepers, or so it seemed!

At Chiang Mai station passengers are met by a barrage of "baht bus" drivers all touting for business and they charge an extortionate fare from unsuspecting tourists , a fare that should be 50 baht becomes 350 or £1 to £7!  I instantly haggled the driver down to 150 baht and once he agreed added on "for two". The station is a fair walk from the town so if you have young legs, mine got old a while ago, then walking and getting lost is an option. With us duly packed in to the baht bus the driver sauntered off looking for more victims as the bus doesn't leave unless it's full and after twenty minutes of waiting so did we , only we found one nearly full and got the same deal.

In to Chiang Mai then and hotel for night as tomorrow we explore north to the border with Burma.

•  Read North from Chiang Mai

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Steve Francis

Thailand tour guide

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