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On trains and time

Backpackers in South East Asia insists on getting buses everywhere. People look at me in surprise and confusion when they have assumed I’m getting a bus, and I tell them I’m getting a train. It’s inexplicable, trains are clearly the better mode of transport, and in most of the countries fully available, ridiculously cheap and infinitely preferable. I got the train from Bangkok to Ayuthaya for 15 Baht (about 37p), when a bus costs roughly triple the price. I mean, it’s all relative, but even so. But it’s not just the cost, it’s the whole aura and experience of train travel that makes it superior. On trains, you can see into people’s back gardens, see how they really live, on buses, all you see is motorway and the backs of other cars in inevitable traffic jams. Trains have atmosphere. I got the bus to the Cameron Highlands through necessity (there are no trains), it was air conditioned and throughout the journey they played the film of Conan the Barbarian, which is a terrible film, but completely unavoidable when played at loud volume in a contained space. On trains you can walk around, look out the window, read a book without feeling sick, you can even sleep if you pay for a berth which folds out into a bed practically the size of a actual bed. On a bus you are stuck next to someone who, somehow, immediately falls dead asleep, your legs cramp up, sickness is risked and misery always achieved.

Thais take trains. Of course they do, it’s cheap and fun. So when travelling by train, you’re not travelling with a group of people exactly the same as those you went to school with, you’re travelling with the people you flew halfway round the world to see. A train journey is part of travelling, a bus journey is simply something to be endured. The Lonely Planet makes some sniffy comments about how quick the buses are comparative to the trains. This is clearly absurd. I have one engagement in the next two months, a flight out of Bangkok at the end of June, there is nothing I have to get to, nowhere I have to be. It’s one of the whole joys of travelling, one that surely the majority of people share seeing as most people seem to have given up jobs or suchlike to come here. Yes my train from Authyaya was half an hour late, but it was not the end of the world. And, in that half an hour, I saw a goat picnicking with a family, I saw people drying chilis on a roof in the sun, I saw a man in a towel, shaving into an enormous terracotta bowl.

Although, saying that, I could do with moving on from Bangkok. I was here for 5 nights, before a brief jaunt to Ayuthaya, then three more nights, waiting for the capricious Indian embassy to tell me whether I’m allowed into their country or not. In travelling terms, I’m practically living here.



3 thoughts on “On trains and time

  1. i like the way trains in far away places seem much more negotiable, as to where it will stop, how long for, when you can walk across the line, standing in the way until you get horned at, whether the doors will be shut on leaving (not that i do try to negotiate any of those things, being too much the domesticated european). a couple of carriages stopped at a station that isn’t much more than a bus shelter in an unfenced farmer’s field, with villagers crowding around it on all sides, is much more human than a virgin pendolino even if it does take a bloody long time to get anywhere.

    Posted by greg | May 15, 2011, 4:16 pm
  2. I love trains. Some of my best travel memories have been on trains – from doing to Interrail rite of passage trip from Athens to Munich, to being on a train in Morocco as the sun set during Ramadan and sharing the breaking of the fast with people in the compartment, to waking up on a bunk to the early morning stillness on the Indian plains, or going through the rain forest on a train in Costa Rica – it’s all trains. It may be hot and sweaty at the time and it can be frustrating, but it’s the romance that you remember. However, there is little romance in catching the 07.17 Enfield Town to Liverpool Street train every day – although you can see into people back gardens and there are sometimes interesting people – but best not to catch their eye.

    Posted by Tim | May 17, 2011, 8:20 pm
  3. well exactly. In Thailand you had to walk across two lines of track to get to the right platform, then the train opened it’s doors on both sides so that everyone crowded on at once. But it’s much more interesting than a bus where everyone is Western, shirtless and looking for the next bar.

    Posted by Harriet | May 21, 2011, 12:22 pm

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