The best, the most fascinating, train ride, I ever had.
23.08.2011 - 07.09.2011
From Malaysia to Thailand, August 27th 2011
The second leg of my adventure traveling Southeast Asia (SEA) was crossing the international border of Malaysia and Thailand by train. The train from Singapore to Malaysia is Malaysia's train. The train from Malaysia to Thailand is Thailand's train. But on the contrary, the train schedule from Thailand was misleading. For details on the map, please click here.
It was a 20-hours-train-ride from Butterworth in Malaysia to Ratchaburi in Thailand. It was for me a train ride I would not exchange with any flight. It was for me the best, the most fascinating, train ride, I ever had.
I booked my ticket via email with KTM Berhad. I was given a code number. Then I showed the code number at the ticket counter in Butterworth Station, paid, and got this ticket.
Actually I was rather disappointed with KTM Berhad, because when I wanted to book a ticket, I was told to send an email again on July 29th. Firstly, I wondered why have I to send an email again? If the booking is not open yet, can't they just note the train and date I want to book and then send me the code number until July 29th?
Exactly on July 29th I emailed KTM Berhad repeating my reservation. I didn't get a reply until 2 days later. The reply was that the lower berth I had requested were old sold out. Ah... how frustrating.
This is a glimpse of the immigration office at Khlong Gae Station, which I shot in a hurriedly with my cellphone from inside the train.
When crossing the international border from Singapore to Malaysia, we technically checked in Malaysia whereas we were physically still in Singapore. This time, we technically checked out Malaysia whereas we were physically already in Thailand since a couple of time ago.
All passengers were required to get off the train. We didn't need to bring all our belongings. I just brought my handbag and camera backpack with me. When I got back on the train, it didn't look like that the suitcases we had left on the train had been checked. All the officers, the Malayan and the Thai, wore on smiling faces.
I usually get rather nervous whenever I enter an immigration check-in point. Especially when I see those men in uniforms standing or sitting upright with emotionless faces. What I experienced when we got off at Khlong Gae Station was exactly the opposite.
In the afternoon till evening, all passengers sit on seats that faces each other. I shared my seat with a Chinese Malayan family. They were very kind with me. They made me miss my train ride in China. The only difference was that they didn't spit on the floor :D
You see that white flat slanting thing on top. That's the upper berth. Around 9:00 PM, the train crew will climb up the stair, unscrew the upper berth with a certain driver, and make the bed. Lastly, the crew will hang up the curtains.
The lower berth is fixed from the back seats which can be pulled out. Then the crew will put a long mattress along, put the sheet and pillow.
I really enjoyed watching the crew fixing the berths. It looked like playing with puzzles.
This is the sign of seat number on the side of every seat. If your number is number 7, you'll have to sit on this seat and sleep on the upper berth.
The sign on the opposite seat is number 6 and is written "lower berth".
Mine was the upper berth, but the seat I had to sit on was facing forward. On the contrary, the seat for the lower berth passenger was facing backwards. So, during daytime one has the privilege of sitting facing forward but would have to take the trouble getting up to his bed. The other one has to endure headache (maybe) while sitting facing backwards, but will be spared the trouble of getting up and down his bed, especially when he wants to go to the bathroom at night.
That sounds pretty fair for those traveling from Malaysia to Thailand. But on the opposite direction, from Thailand to Malaysia, the one who gets the upper berth ticket will be the one who suffers the most. They won't lift the carriage with a forklift and turn it around like the containers at the seaports, won't they?
Every bed sheet, pillow case, and pillow, were taken out from a sealed plastic bag. One sheet in one plastic bag. They looked pretty clean. This was my upper berth.
In the whole carriage I was the only one who stayed up late with the curtain still opened. Like what Paul Theroux told in his book (I read about this after I had finished this train ride.), from the upper berth is broad view of the world below going by.
I watched the group of Chinese young men playing cards and teasing one another. One of them could speak Thai and seemed to get along very well with the crew, the Berth-Installation Expert. He often act as an interpreter for his friends.
And then there was a middle age couple who looked Chinese but spoke English with each other. They had a very big suitcase that couldn't get either under the seat or on the top rack. So they had to use the upper berth to place their suitcase and the husband who was grand, squeezed in with his wife on the lower berth. Actually I think, he squeezed his wife in. But before they went to bed, the husband had to accept orders from his wife. He had to climb up and down the stair several times to poke into their suitcase in order to get a face towel, and then tooth brush, and then a beauty case. After washing their faces, they both changed into identical T-Shirts. The wife sat cross-legged on the lower berth with her beauty case opened in front of her. With a mirror in one hand, with a finger from the other hand, she applied cream on the critical parts of a woman's face -- a sweeter way of saying "wrinkled". When all the process was done, the husband had to go back up the stair to return the beauty case into the suitcase. Hmmm... I said to myself, why do women have to fight for feminism? Isn't it wonderful to be a woman?
Experience turned out not always to be the best teacher. When I took the train from Singapore to Malaysia, I forgot to prepare in advance for my meals on the train. So I had to buy meals on the train which turned out not tasteful. I'm not a food person. So if I say it isn't tasteful, then it must really be not.
Therefore, before leaving for Butterworth Station, I prepared myself carefully. I bought minced chicken rice from Kopi Tiam for lunch, salmon sashimi from a Japanese restaurant at Penang Times Square for dinner, and Roti Bakar from Kopi Tiam for breakfast. For snacking, I kept some bread which I took from the hotel during breakfast hour. See, how well prepared!
However, when the other passengers started ordering for their dinner from the train, my mouth started to water. Each dish were prepared nicely and covered with plastic. They did not just looked clean, but also enticing. I regretted I had my meal already.
These dishes are the other passengers' dishes which I shot from my private-top-bunker using my 200mm lens. Tralalala... they never knew.
When all the berths were made and all the curtains were pulled closed, I was still enjoying Paul Theroux in his Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
The view I witnessed during sunrise on the way from Nha Trang to Hanoi by train was thrilling. The rolling mountain rocks and vast river crossing the deep valleys I witnessed on the way from Kunming to Chengdu by train was so much like the Chinese paintings I used to see when I was a kid. And this time, I witness another kind of splendor. All 3 train rides had their own uniqueness of beauty.
Thanks to the Chinese woman from the lower berth who let me sit on her berth to capture these pictures. I didn't asked, but she signaled me to sit across her. It was still early morning. The Berth-Installation Expert had not come to transform our berths into seats again.
The lime stones reminded me of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
The friendly Chinese Malayan family got off here, in Hua Hin. It's a beach town. For a brief moment, our train rolled along the beach. I watched, admired, dreamt (visiting this place)... and forgot to shoot my camera.
This kind of coconut trees I later found abundant also in Cambodia. To me they look like Dad's ear pick but in a giant size.
The cloudy morning sky gave me a little color to draw with my camera.
I arrived almost half an hour before schedule.
I forgot that there was a step below my seat. I stumbled and my suitcase fell on my feet. Hence, I sprained my right ankle. The group of Chinese young men chorused an "Oh!" but just stared at me.
Fearing the train would move on soon, I struggled to get up on my own right away, pull my suitcase, and walked to the door. My right ankle felt like fire.
To make matters worse, right when I was getting ready to step down the train, a Western woman came to me and asked,
"What station is this?"
"Ratchaburi," I answered.
Suddenly we heard a loud cranking sound and the train moved forward. I half jumped down the train and let my suitcase tumble down the stair.
Limping, I walked several meters and found a bench. An old lady looked at me furiously. She was right in front of me when I jumped down the train. She called everyone who passed by and pointed at me. I understand none of her talking, but I can guess strongly that she was asking help for me.
While I sat on the bench with one hand holding my right ankle, another old lady came to me. She held my right leg up, pulled, and bent my foot several times in and out.
I tried to get on my feet. I could stand and walk, although with a slight pain on my right foot. The baht I had in my purse were all big notes and I was traveling on a rather tight budget. I said 'thank you' several times to the old lady and she smiled back. I felt bad I couldn't give her anything. I took out my handmade fridge magnet and handed one to her.
"This is for you. This is my country," I said. I knew she didn't understand what I was saying, but she understood I meant to give it to her.
She held my fridge magnet with both her hands, looked at the picture, then clasped both her hands with the fridge magnet in between. She bowed her head to me many times. I uttered 'thank you' -- from the bottom of my heart.
I'll never forget this moment all my life.
Meanwhile, the train kept still in front of us. Uh... if had known, I wouldn't have jumped off the train.
Ratchaburi Station turned out to be a tiny station at the countryside. No taxis, no buses, a few motorcycles. I went back into the station and handed Maikaew Resort's map to an officer.
"Excuse me," I said. "Do you know how to get here?"
The young officer giggled and turned to an older officer. The older officer took my map and looked. He nodded.
"Do you know this place? Is it far away? Is there a bus or taxi?" I asked.
"No bus, no taxi," he answered.
"Can I rent a car?" I asked again.
"Wait a minute." He reached out for his cellphone.
"So?" I asked anxiously. "I can rent a car?"
"How much will it cost?'
"Yes, seven baht."
I was happy and surprised all together, because previously, Maikaew Resort had offered me 500 baht for a pick up from the station. But then when I said I would not be staying overnight at the resort, I didn't get any reply back. Now, 500 baht compared to 7 baht, isn't that awesome... but weird?
I wrote the number '7' on a piece of paper. "You mean this?"
"Yes," he nodded.
My heart almost leaped when he took my pen and added two small zeros next to '7'.
"Oh! You mean seven hundred?"
"Yes," he nodded again.
"Six hundred," I bargained.
He kept silent for awhile. "Okay."
"When will the car come?"
"Errr... fifteen minutes."
But just within 10 minutes, he waved his hand to me. "Come!"
He grabbed for my suitcase and carried it with him. I followed from behind. I saw an old truck at the parking lot. Is he getting me on this truck?
But he passed by the truck. I sighed. Next to the truck was a sedan. Oh well, this is it, I said to myself.
But he passed by the sedan. I wondered. Next to the sedan was a Chevrolet Colorado. A young pretty lady got off the car. She shoved the pile of dolls on the backseat to give space for my suitcase. The car didn't at all look like a car meant for public use.
Her name was Chit. She couldn't speak English. She had my map on the dashboard in front of her and paid close attention to it. It was quite a long way. Occasionally we went into sharp turns and every time she turned, the map would slide to my side. Every time that happened, we would both laugh out loud.
Until then, I never realized how much laughter means. I suddenly felt amazed of how God had think of creating human beings with the capability to laugh. I can't imagine how it would be like if in an occasion like this we couldn't laugh. How dull and boring it would be. She doesn't understand my language and neither do I understand hers. If we didn't know how to laugh, she and I would just look straight into the street in front of us. Then, when the map slides aside, I would push it to her side and look straight again. She would turn her head to the left to reach for the map and look straight back again also -- all the way long. Oh, how a laughter can spice up one moment! How good laughter works as an interpreter!
I arrived at Maikaew Resort safe and sound, in one piece, happy.