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The week that was in Thailand news: Let the train take the strain – especially in Thailand!

Bangkok

The week that was in Thailand news: Let the train take the strain – especially in Thailand!

Ever since I can remember I have loved trains. As a school boy growing up in South London the pain of having to actually get an education was softened somewhat by the fact that I would use a train to get to and from school. As I grew into a teen my father gave me the full fare but as I was a pipsqueak of a lad I paid half and saved half. Win-win.

Rather than go directly home after school I would traverse the Southern network with old tickets, running if necessary when suspicious ticket collectors attempted to spoil my fun. I collected every timetable on the Southern Region (the evidence is in two large collection cases on the walls of one of my toilets at my condo in Ratchayothin!). OK…nerd alert.

I also used to have a small screwdriver on my railway ramblings…..just in case it came in handy. These were pre-CCTV days when the mischievous rarely paid for their crimes if they were crafty enough. I remember it was one of the happiest days of my childhood when I found an old shed near Euston station where they sold signs and other railway memorabilia. I could finally leave the screwdriver at home. 

But I was also a bit of a railway snob. I never got into Hornby train sets preferring the real thing and detested those folks in glasses and anoraks (why was it always anoraks?) who mindlessly noted down train numbers at the end of mainline platforms. 

I avoided seeing the movie “Trainspotting” for years until someone told me it wasn’t about wallies but druggies. Great movie!

When I started a job as a reporter in Aylesbury north west of London in the early 1980s the only pleasure of the week was getting on the trains too and from London where I resided at weekends. These were happy days shamelessly paying to the first stop then at the destination from the last station to save money so that I could get back to Asia.

It was possible to go from Aylesbury via overground, underground and overground again to Croydon for just a few pence – so long as one had eagle eyes for those nasty ticket inspectors who I christened “Blakeys” after a character in the sit-com “On the Buses”.

Like the advertising of the 1980s I believed in letting “The Train Take the Strain”, without paying full fare….

Arriving in Asia I became more honest – I wanted to avoid being clamped in irons in one of the filthy hell hole prisons I had read about. One of the principal reasons for starting my travels in India was to ride the famous trains on the world’s largest network. I caught the end of the steam era and traveled on the footplate through the deserts of Rajasthan, went on a sky blue toy train to the hill station of Ooty (Ootcamund) and sipped chai with the natives in third class hunched on the top bunk of countless chug-a-lug expresses. 

In Sri Lanka I marveled at the beauty of the rice terraces as the train Colombo weaved through the picturesque hillsides. In Kuala Lumpur I appreciated the architecture of the main station. As soon as I arrived in Thailand in 1982 at Sungei Golok I got on a train, heard Thai voices for the first time and budged up for people dressed in orange – I knew I was home and was happy that they had trains too! My first memory of Bangkok was the bustle of Hualampong Railway Station, the end of the line. 

Years later in charge of expeditions at Harrow International School I always fought tooth and nail with teachers and parents who wanted to take the students on residential trips by plane. “How boring is that” I always said…..take the train. It was no too hard a sell as the safety of the rail network in Thailand always was in stark contrast to the carnage on the roads. 

Even if we never got to our destination on time! (I cared not as we slowly crept through the paddy fields and countryside of Thailand reminding the bored students that Confucius, probably, said the journey was more important than the destination).

It has always been a safe if time consuming way to travel in Thailand. That trend was somewhat bucked in November 1986 when an unmanned train made up of six locomotives left a railway yard and headed for Hualampong Station where it hit the buffers at 50 kmph. killing half a dozen people. In true Thai style the cleaner was to blame – they had left the brake off 15 kilometers out at Bang Sue.

Over the years I have ventured to every corner of Thailand on trains and it is still my preferred way to get to Malaysia when I go to Scrabble tournaments in that country. Now it looks like a new age of train travel is dawning in the kingdom.

I was living in Sukhumvit when they built the original BTS without once closing the road – a feat in itself, as was avoiding the death of the denizens of the capital during construction. I only remember one taxi driver being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Being a committed motorcycle rider these days I am not often on the BTS or the MRT underground but that could be set to change in the future. Much of the capital is slowly being transformed by a huge number of massive rail projects above ground that will criss-cross the city in the next decade. Many are very impressive developments. 

My area of Ratchayothin is being transformed by the extension of the Green Line from Chatuchak to Rangsit and beyond. After years of traffic chaos we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and I tell my daughters that they will be lucky to be able to use the train when it starts service next year. Property prices have increased and though there are eight condos springing up in the area most of those will not have parking space due to sensible rules.

We are also looking forward to far better retail opportunities in our area – especially in terms of supermarkets and restaurants to service the yuppies who will live in the condos.

The news pages of Thaivisa contain many stories about the progress of train projects both inter-city and within the cities of Thailand. And this week featured so many that it has inspired this piece about Rooster and trains. 

News came about the progress of the dual track from Bangkok to Hua Hin and further south to Chumpon. Railway officials got some of their sums wrong but there is no doubt that journey times will be slashed – frankly on this route it would be hard to go much slower!

New rolling stock has been introduced in Thailand and while progress in transforming an antiquated network has, like the system itself, been painfully slow, there are some ambitious projects in the offing. Another is the rail link that will connect Don Muang – Suwannaphum (my spelling) and U-Tapao via Pattaya. Less definite plans with Japanese and Chinese investment and know-how also suggest railways via Korat and other towns to the north-east and north of Thailand. 

What with huge roads like the elevated tollway to run from north of Bangkok to Korat there are big transport changes afoot in Thailand. These are so visible to many of us that they lend a certain legitimacy to claims from the junta that they are actually doing something to get things moving in Thailand. Whether their hand is in this – or just part of the hands that doubtlessly are siphoning off part of the investment – I know not. 

But to the credit of Prayut’s much maligned regime it seems that some decent progress is being made in transport and the future infrastructure of the kingdom. Lord knows if they can’t do something concrete about the road carnage at least they can improve things elsewhere – in concrete!

This week saw developments concerning the Pattaya light rail network that will be built to meet the tourists on the planned three airport fast train. Sophon quoted an official who said that two companies will be tendering to build the network. The media then printed pie-in-the-sky pictures of a “Pattaya Monorail” and trains in the United States! You had to read the whole story and not rely on the absurd artists’ impressions – the network will probably end up being a tram on road level as there has been considerable opposition to an elevated network in QUOTES (the Queen Of The Eastern Seaboard). 

Methinks something will have to be done about A) the appalling traffic in Pattaya and B) the flooding at the resort before embarking on “Eastern Economic Corridor” and “Thailand 4.0” developments that have no sure footing. Like the 400 million baht beach in Pattaya the best laid plans of the mighty men could be just washed away in a sea of poor planning. 

The train south via Hua Hin will help to open up that area of Thailand. In the past I have heard reference to the area south of Hua Hin being called the new “Thai Riviera”. Pattaya will need to get its skates on not to be left behind. Sure, it has been around for years and offers much more than what is as yet available south of Hua Hin but investors will be eyeing the possibility that Thailand’s tourism figures will continue to rise and the Chinese and Indians may fancy the “Riviera” rather than “old hat” Pattaya and Phuket. 

Who knows the Europeans may yet return to Pattaya one day and join the Thais who will always see it as an ideal Bangkok getaway….especially with a fast train to take the strain of getting there! I might even go back myself….

(This week I shall be spending the weekend in QUOTES as there is a Scrabble tournament in Sri Racha. Come and say “watdee” if you are at “Pacific Park” – I’ll be the only foreigner getting beaten up in his own language by Thais……)

Popping down to Pattaya has the intriguing prospect of running into a foreign resident made famous – well infamous – by the story of the week on Thaivisa. This was the portly and terribly dressed old chap – yes, he blended in perfectly – caught stepping on then pocketing a Thai shopper’s cash that she had dropped at a supermarket checkout.

I spoke to the lady who told me that it was 2,000 baht that was folded together; as it looked like one note the conspiracy curmudgeons of the forum had a field day typically bashing the victim. Most reasonable posters – a relatively rare breed on online forums such as this and Thaivisa’s Facebook arm – laid into the thief. There was everything from “Hang Him High” to the even worse fate of “Deportation” and the dreaded “B” word……no, not buggered in the backside in a Thai prison but “Blacklisted!”.

Speculation was rife about the nationality of the thief and on Friday all was revealed. He was a British tourist who had been in Pattaya for two months. He was sorry and returned the money to Jeab who told me that she suspected that he had seen himself or been seen by friends on social media.

For me much of the interest in the story concerned the fact that he stepped on the money in his fancy and fashionable open toed sandals before “craftily” secreting it in the pockets of his designer knee length shorts. 

As head of Thai at Harrow I had introduced Thai manners into the curriculum and in presenting this topic I always like to compare the habits of different nationalities to get my points across. Like Arabs burping after a meal and my French relatives  snogging me when I was a shy teenager visiting Le Mans. So it was that I posed the question to teenagers in my class about what you might do if you dropped a ten baht coin and it was rolling towards a hole.

Thais in the class winced when I said if this happened in a foreign country anyone would stamp on the coin and no one watching would bat an eyelid. An observation confirmed by Britishers in the class who failed to see the point – until the penny, literally, dropped when they appreciated the Thai propensity for not associating one’s feet with anything except the floor. Especially as coins depicted the head of the monarch!

As usual the prevalence of video in terms of CCTV, handheld and deliberate clips made up much of the news that filled Thaivisa in the last seven days. 

Potentially in more doo-doo that even the Pattaya pensioner was Yan Marchal who sung his way to a police warning. He posted a video of him singing a clever – and well pronounced – Thai version of the NCPO’s  “Returning Happiness to the People” complete with words like “dictatorship”. Many posters thought he had signed his deportation warrant but tech police and the NCPO themselves were quick to point out that it didn’t look like laws had been broken. 

Methinks that someone in power had a hand in this clemency mindful of the fact that Thais were laughing and it is early in the life of the new government. There is plenty of time later for them to be declared a laughing stock! 

Unidentified cops lingered outside Mr Marchal’s house before he sensibly decided to take down the video. He’ll never forget the day he got the best part of two million “likes” AND remained in Thailand!

The word “karma” was everywhere following the case of a Thai man in Rayong who last week had been caught on CCTV bashing a nurse at Pluak Daeng Hospital. Within a week he was back in ER as a victim of a serious motorcycle accident. Supakorn Khumrak will probably appreciate more than most that the Lord Buddha moves in mysterious ways. 

Top drama of the week featured a Chinese woman caught relieving herself in the carriage of an Airport Link train bound for, appropriately enough, Swampy. Next day a railway official “revealed” to Sanook that signage on the system about toilets was only in Thai and English hinting that had it been in Chinese this “Yellow River” could have been avoided. Perhaps it’s time for the adoption of universal non-verbal signage: a few steaming turds and puddles of pee with a red cross through them might do the trick!

We’ve all been caught short at one time or another in our lives though most people try to avoid the ignominy of a public shaming – a tricky things in these days of Big Brother watching our every dump.

I remember once fleeing from a packed bus in the Bangkok rush hour and vaulting the high wall of the adjacent Lumpini park. The startled passengers would have been right in their assessment that this farang was not practicing the high jump, but had had one too many chilies in his mid-afternoon Som Tam. 

On another occasion I ran the last hundred yards to an office building after not waiting for the change from a motorcycle taxi guy, a Rooster rarity. In a frantic dash I was waved to the “hong nam” where I was only a bit too late. Determined not to miss my English teaching lesson to a group of prim and proper office ladies on the top floor I dumped my soiled undies in the trash and cleaned up. Sorted…or so I thought.

I managed to get through the lesson without incident though I wondered why the odd lady was smiling when I turned round to face them after conjugating verbs on the whiteboard. At home later examining my pressed slacks I wondered how to say “brown patch” in Thai. But at least the ladies AND me got something out of the event.

A valuable lesson. 

Finally, from Khon Kaen came news that a “plastic healing card” on sale for about 1,000 baht was helping people get pain relief. All you had to do was place the card on a painful area or put a glass of water on it and consume the contents.  

Honestly, how gullible can people be; anyone should know that true pain relief, according to Mrs Rooster, can only be found in the use of a similarly shaped but entirely different piece of plastic. 

My ATM card. 

Rooster

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