To start at the ending, let me say that sometimes resistance to authority is involuntary, even in times of military coup.
Our train was scheduled to depart Bangkok at 2:45pm, so we had a leisurely morning by the pool to reflect. Happily, the warnings of death and deprivation from torrential rain, floods and mudslides in our path disappeared without incident or explanation. Not so happily, at least not for Cambodians working illegally in Thailand, the junta announced a crackdown on these entrepreneurs. Nobody was sure what that meant, but neither was anybody waiting around to find out, the result being a surge in ticket sales of anything moving people towards the Cambodian border. We were headed in the other direction, towards Malaysia; Penang to be specific.
I will take this opportunity to remind you that these writings are not intended to be “guides”, but rather one man’s opinion, namely, mine. This approach frees the author – me – to say some horrible things about a destination. I’ve never seen a Frommer’s, nor Fodor’s, nor a Lonely Planet guide open with “Before visiting here, think again.”
Yet, as for Bangkok, before visiting here, you really want to think again. I am pleased to have taken the trouble to visit, as I enjoy chaos, and I am not to put off by filth, both of which are distinguishing characteristics. Having said that, there are some wonderfully breathtaking things about the place.
Of course, the palaces and temples are not least on that list, but for me, first and foremost is Bangkok’s food. There’s a reason every city in the world has a thousand Thai restaurants – and not one of them holds candle to even a mediocre foodservice establishment here. Each meal brought numerous fruits I had never seen before in concoctions I had never thought of eating before. Even the “English Breakfasts”! My brief visit may change the way I cook, even the way I THINK about cooking, as much as my first visit to New Orleans did. A real game-changer. I’ve got some research to do.
Also, Bangkok’s Sky Train is one of the world’s best values in public transport, if good value in public transport is measured by fare paid divided by length of journey. (That one is for you, Roger.)
On the subtle-but-bizarre side is Bangkok’s obsession with nauseating soft rock which is piped in everywhere. (…did you happen to see, the most beautiful girl, that just walked out on me…) By comparison what you hear in an Australian or American supermarket is Pearl Jam. (…and the lights all went out in Massachusetts…) The truly differentiating factor is the tendency for the victims, from taxi drivers to executives, to sing along, aloud. (…send your camel to bed…) Mister Donut frequently sponsors these interludes.
The original plan for this trip was to hit Bangkok and Singapore, both of which we’ve visited before, but equally both were due for reinspection. It occurred to me that a cruise might be the answer. Alas, there was nothing in our timeframe (June/July) that met our duration requirements (7 days, max). Those of you who have read my best-selling “Smiling Kodiak Takes a Cruise” will not be surprised to know that I find lengthy sojourns with the bourgeoisie to be tedious if not intolerable, despite my own bourgeois credentials.
I came across The Eastern and Orient Express, an ultra-luxurious train from Bangkok to Singapore run by the same folks who run the Orient Express through Europe – the train of Agatha Christie fame and notoriety. Although murder could not be guaranteed, I am now old enough to have a reasonable expectation that I will die young enough such that paying for such a voyage will screw only my heirs, who are under a misapprehension if they expect otherwise. It cost $8,000 for four nights – including a promised trip across “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”. I booked it.
Then I got to thinking. Hadn’t they blown up that bridge, despite some of Sir Alec Guinness’ most mediocre work? Wouldn’t there be an insufferable amount of whistling? I realised I’d never spent more than one night on a train, and while I love overnight train travel, four nights might be a bit of a stretch. I recalled the other luxury train trips I’ve made where they force fed us as if our livers were destined to produce foie gras.
Furtively, I looked for reviews of The Eastern and Orient Express online, finding only gushingly positive feedback inexorably linked to the fact that those who wrote the reviews had spent so much money on the trip they were psychologically unable to consider for the briefest of moments that anything was less than perfect. Four days with THOSE people? I might be able to guarantee a murder after all.
The final straw was “The Man in Seat 61” (www.seat61.com), a site I’ve used often and with good results to plan train and ferry trips around the globe. We could travel from Bangkok to Singapore in 3 nights, in first class compartments of a reasonable standard, with stopovers as we saw fit, for well under $500, total! I cancelled the Eastern and Orient Express reservation.
The upshot of this is that we had mentally prepared ourselves to piss away $8,000. Once we took the cheaper option, in our minds we had $7,500 to go. Genius! We vowed to live it up, with nice hotels, restaurants, tours – whatever! Other than the “normal” train trip, plans were made accordingly.
It hasn’t been as easy as expected. For example, staying in a very nice hotel, as we did in Bangkok, makes it very tempting to do just that: stay in the hotel! While we got past that temptation, my middle-class mores cannot bear, say, $500/night for TripAdvisor’s #1 hotel when #2 goes for $250. I struggle to pay a fancy restaurant 1,000 Baht for a Thai green curry chicken dish when the street hawker outside is selling the same, perhaps better, for 50 Baht – and in a more exhilarating and interesting environment.
Not surprisingly, the three-night bargain train trip to Singapore fell in a heap before we even left home. Nights two and three, from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, and then Singapore, offered no first class sleeper accommodation (due to “refurbishment” they claimed), so that portion was replaced by a flight directly from Penang to Singapore, nixing KL, with an extra day in Singapore. No horror there…
Today, though, we found ourselves the only passengers in the drab first class sleeper coach leaving Bangkok towards Butterworth, the mainland station a short ferry ride across the Straits of Malacca from Georgetown on Penang Island. For reasons that can be surmised if not pinpointed, the State Railway of Thailand stopped selling tickets of any sort over the web some time ago. Thus we had purchased ours through an international agent, and we were aware that due to some quirk, our carriage would go only so far as the Malaysian border at Hat Yai. There we’d join the upright second class citizens for the remaining leg to Butterworth.
Before leaving Bangkok we discovered that, contrary to numerous assurances, we were unable to purchase tickets for the final leg until we actually arrived at Hat Yai. There, we were assured, we’d have twenty minutes to get off the train, baggage and all, to purchase tickets, and reboard.
Of course, the train ran late. Of course, “Meals included” meant “the train has meals for you to purchase at additional expense, cash only”. Of course, since we were leaving Thailand, we had only twenty times more Baht than we expected we’d need. Of course, the cost of the dinner was three times what they told us when we ordered it. Of course, when we went to purchase the tickets for final leg at the ticket office in Hat Yai, they cost four times the price quoted by the web site of State Railway of Thailand.
These predictable circumstances led to some drama. The only passengers in the first class coach, we were the only passengers that needed to buy tickets, and the timing didn’t allow for a surprise visit to an ATM. Nevertheless, visit the ATM we did, then got the tickets. Soon we were exchanging passionate gesticulations with various railway and security staff—hard to tell which was which – on the platform.
Then the train began to move.
“Get on!!” I barked, Frank Lee doing so with two of our three bags, the station staff barking “No!! No!!” Undaunted, I ran along side the train, right out of a Hollywood movie, flinging our last and biggest bag up the stairs at Frank’s feet on board. As I struggled to step up the stairs onto the increasingly speeding train, a uniformed officer grabbed my shoulders and pulled back. “NO!!” he commanded.
Luckily, the Thai are a small people.
“But I MUST!!” I pleaded, ripping myself from his grasp, successfully boarding the train.
The train was empty, save a few on-board staff, who looked at us quizzically.
“Sit!” they commanded, pointing to the empty seats. Relieved, we did so. Outside whistles were blowing, men were shouting. The train screeched to a halt.
Oh my god, what have I done? Did I just resist a border official in the middle of a military coup? Oh my god, what have I done?
“Off!” the train crew commanded, pointing to the opposite side of the train from whence we had made our illicit entry. The train pulled away, leaving us on the tracks in an Auswitz-like setting, standing aside another uniformed officer, a baggage car, and some workers.
The officer explained something to the workers, who burst out laughing, who looked at us, shaking their heads.
The officer explained. “You board wrong train. Your train come back for baggage, you board then.”