Thailand: Third Class Trains and the River Kwai


Exploring Nong Khai

A walk through the wild-border town of Nong Khai gives you a brief introduction into life in rural Thailand. Broad streets of tin-roofed shops greet a selection of commercial American-style boutiques and traditional Thai restaurants sit alongside chic boutique cafes.

The sparse population of the town gives it an eerie dormant vibe. The constant gaze of hawk-eyed locals makes things uneasy, as though the presence of a foreigner invokes a quasi-uncertainty. A river separated Laos from Thailand, yet the two nations couldn’t be further apart culturally speaking.

Train from Nong Khai to Bangkok

It was not quite sunset as the train pulled up into the station. A selection of carriages straddled the train tracks as the passengers boarded the train in three separate classes: Those in Class A, the most luxurious were expected to savor an evening of comfort second-to-none, those in Class B, would share that comfort with fellow-passengers in a selection of dormitories, while the locals would reside in Class C, reserved for the poorer of the travelers. I choose a seat in Class C.

The cheapest and most adventurous ticket consists of a hard-wooden seat as though it was something out of a 1950’s classroom. The narrow wooden benchseats were attached by bolted steel rods to the ground. Air-conditioning was not of paramount importance and so rusted windows sat idly open as a gentle tropical breeze licked the skin of the passengers as it crossed over them.

The toilets for our voyage consisted of a hole in the ground at the back of the carriage with no facilities for washing hands or sanitary items. This was bare bones, as extreme as travel can get in this part of the world.

A twelve-hour journey on the trail from Nong-Khai to Bangkok consisted of travelling mostly by night. A few stops were made along the way as the greyscale of the countryside passed us by. The gentle clatter of the train as it crossed over iron-wrought rail tracks was the only noise that spoke that evening.

During the journey, I met a British man, 50’s, who resided in Thailand with his family. He was not the purveyor of positive things to say about the country but his thoughts on life in the nation were of interest. His knowledge of the sport of rugby lead to an interesting discussion seen as my home turf were experts in the game.

Closer towards the bulging capital a series of gentle looping hills started to rise up over the landscape. The firm blanket of ever-present darkness spilled over into the nightlife but gave an animated view of the emptiness of the countryside before the arrival of poorly constructed edifices blocked their view, and before long we were following an endless sea of industrial, commercial and residential buildings.

The Sprawling Metropolis of Bangkok

The journey to Bangkok wound up around 6am as the city was waking from its overnight slumber. A cascade of taxi drivers and tuktuk drivers burst through the terminal in a sea of grossly-patronizing animation.  In spite of the discomfort, the 12-hour journey from Nong Khai to Bangkok is worth the journey, and in third class lends you to the world of intrepid travel in an Asian country.

Bangkok was monolithic. Broad veins of grey highways stretched across the pancake rippling landscape for miles on end. The vision of a bustling metropolis met by the wanderlust vision of an oriental landscape broadened the mind and saturated the senses.

The tourist district was over-run by vendors selling a multitude of options from succulent and juicy chunks of pineapple and watermelon to trite souvenirs as endless rivers of people crossed the dotted cityscape parting ways with their baht as they funneled through the crowd of predominantly western tourists.

The Dark Side of Commercial Thailand

Thailand has mastered the art of tourism. The nation thrives on a sickly-sweet tar-like version of the industry and as such the dominance of commercial tourism has sullied the nation. Westerns come from the four corners of the globe to escape the daily grind and with it they drag their expectations with them.

It’s particularly important to understand that this has a major impact on the environment and cultural footprint of each nation – Thailand has become a victim of the dark-side of commercialism.

Although Intrepid Planet does not endorse commercial tourism, we decided to partake in an experiment to see the effects of such on Thailand’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry and the monumental strain it has placed on the nation.

The tour taken was one that would showcase some of the local best of’s. This included: River Kwai, an Elephant ride, and a well-known local waterfall.

The River Kwai Museum

The River Kwai casts a dark shadow over Thailand’s recent history, when Nazi allies Japan began to invade the territories of South-East Asia, they embarked on a violent and sordid reign of terror over locals and military personnel from the opposing side. The Japanese created Prisoner of War (POW) camps where hard labor broadly speaking included building a railway east to Myanmar in what termed as some of the harshest conditions.

Prisoners were often forced into work from the early hours to the late evening with little in the way of sustenance. This lead to famine and malnourishment where prisoners often collapsed and died from exhaustion or by starving to death.

Today, a museum exists in place to remind visitors of the sheer density of the impact of war. An open park where trinkets of the war and of life during the period sprinkle memories of what prisoners were subjected to. A casket of human remains foretell a story of horror where mere numbers have been reduced to nothing but calcified artifacts.

The famous bridge sits outside of the river Kwai but next to the museum where you can walk across and view the Thai landscape close-by. Machines from helicopters to weapons all sit on display at the gallery.

Elephant Tourism and Boat Ride

The next stop involved a boat tour down a river. Something that was rushed and unashamedly cheap in tone. We stopped beside a river for what would next be considered a guilty rendezvous at an elephant riding village. The village itself consisted of a few wood-pile houses that straddled a small deforested field and where elderly woman tended to the crops while dabber young men tended to the local economic venture in the way of elephant riding for tourists.

Elephant Tourism is one of the most controversial features of the industry in South-East Asia where young calves are often separated from their mothers at a tender age and put into the business of giving clueless tourists rides, which causes great stress to them. Often the calves are subjected to torture by their handlers which consists of beatings and other shocking acts of neglect. It is highly recommended NOT to pursue elephant rides, and to instead invest your time in witnessing the animals in their natural habitat or at an ethical animal conservatory. There are options for the latter in Chang Mai.

The cattle-prodding of the Thai tour guides as you rushed between touristic sites in prompt intervals can be quite nauseating and frustrating when you want to savour the experience of your destination. After a brief lunch on a boat which included a near fatal drive in a crammed mini-van with angry Australian tourists when our tour guide, who was suffering fatigue nearly drove across the dividing line was a simple fare of buffet food.

After our lunch we were due to take a tour on a train but since it was out of commission, we were introduced to the spectacular train route instead. The tracks cradled the pin-shaped peaks of the rural landscape. Idyllic tin-roofed cottages molded into the riverside and represented a melancholy view of the lens through the eyes of Thais.

For its horrifying history, the train route was picturesque and could conjure up thoughts of bliss.

Erawan Waterfall and The Highway Home

The final stop on this rotisserie tour of the Bangkok countryside lead us to a well-known waterfall that was popular with the local populace and also was made famous through a film – Erawan waterfall was the perfect way to complete our tour even if for an hour.

Thailand’s former king was revered and the posters positioned every 100 metres or so along the highway was a reflection of that relevance. Something that didn’t distract the view once the mountains came into view. Small, perfectly manicured pyramid shaped peaks rose from the mirrored-flatness of the countryside below. Soon, houses and industrial buildings replaced fields of grains and maize and highways gained new lanes and more traffic.

The experience of the tour left me somewhat jaded and defeated. The sickly aftertaste of a day spent being thrust around like an old sweater being bounced around a washing machine as the water and suds suffocates it. It’s a reminder that doing pre-planned tours like this was not for me. It left me with a strong desire to unearth more intrepid tour companies that left less of a footprint at my expense and more convincingly gave me a local’s perspective of the world around me.

To Be Continued in Thailand

Thailand is a nation of many superlatives: the most superb beaches, grand metropolises, lushest mountain regions, and succulent and aromatic cuisine, but what about tourism? How has that defined the country? I will come back to Thailand one day in search of something more uniquely Thailand. Something that cuts under the glossy surface of the textbook tourism industry, something that truly defines this nation and sets it apart from its neighbours.

For now as I make my way through the ultra impressive grand terminal at Suvarnabhumi Airport onward to a new destination which will be embarked on a new continent I will be left to ponder what that is.