One night in Bangkok (and one on a train and one in Chiangmai)
Updated: Jul 5
Bangkok is a city rammed with life and colour, but it would have to wait a little while longer. My new day started with the important job of sussing out hotels for our eventual tour. I was thus taken from one opulent western-style tower to the next. I could have been in any city, but I suppose that’s the comfort blanket westerners require when sampling a tiny bit of a very different culture.
My whistle-stop taster of Bangkok’s cultural tapestry came in the afternoon with visits to its most important temples. Wat Pho is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, at 46 metres long a chilled-out giant in gold plate, apart from its feet which are adorned instead with mother of pearl. Close by is the 61 acre Royal Palace, a kaleidoscope of golden spires, temples and shrines. Within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This most important Buddhist temple in Thailand dates from the 15th century, the Buddha carved into a 66 cm tall block of jade. Nobody is allowed near it except the king and strict dress code applies. Finally, Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha boasts the world’s largest solid gold statue, a seated Buddha at five metres in height. After my guide Kingkarn insisted on taking a photo of his slightly embarrassed guest in front of the Golden Buddha, we hotfooted it to the next nearby temple, a temple of the railways, Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station.
There were and are several means of reaching Chiangmai in the north of the country, both on daytime trains and sleeper services. I had decided to take the sleeper northwards, returning on the daytime train in order to try out both options. In truth I had done my research and had already decided I wouldn’t feature the sleeper train in the tour I was designing. At this juncture I need to say that since my visit new Chinese trains have been introduced with more modern facilities, but at that time there was only a limited number of First Class sleeper compartments, certainly not enough to accommodate a group, and these were basic by European standards. For the majority the sleeper experience was more communal and, feeling adventurous, I had decided not to pay the small upgrade (for westerners) to First Class, opting instead for the real authentic local rail experience that, of course, I wouldn’t dream of unleashing on paying customers.
Hua Lamphong’s ornate façade was designed by an Italian architect in neo-Renaissance style, based on Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and opened in 1916. Sleeper train no 9 departs just after 6pm. All is as per a normal daytime train journey for the first part of the trip until the attendants arrive to push opposing seats together, turning them into a lower berth. A narrower upper berth (the cheapest option) pulls down from the wall. Curtains are then pulled across, turning a normal everyday train carriage into makeshift semi-private sleeper compartments. Across the aisle from my lower berth was a middle-aged German couple. The husband had booked the tickets and, unlike me, evidently he hadn’t done his research. His wife was not happy. My Thai seating companion, by contrast, was used to the scenario, settled into the top bunk and was out like a light judging from the snores. For me, yet another sleepless night on a sleeper train. Needs must sometimes, but if you are someone who struggles to sleep, then you are better to travel during the day when you can see the scenery, before climbing into a hotel bed to actually have some shut-eye. The train chugged through the night across landscapes I would see in daylight a couple of days later, my companion dreamed his dreams on the top bunk and the German woman bemoaned her husband’s slack planning. Western problems. It was an admittedly small price to pay for an adventure, but I was already looking forward to collapsing into a hotel bed, though I would have to wait 24 hours for that luxury.
Emerging from Chiangmai station early the following morning at around 7.30am, bleary-eyed and into the bright sunshine, this was another place entirely. Now up in lush mountainous terrain, Chiangmai is a large city but with a much more laidback feel, clearly appealing to tourists seeking something else after Bangkok’s breakneck pace. The Shangri La Hotel allowed me to check in early, but alas it was just to drop my bag. Boy, did that bed look inviting, but my smiling and eager guide was waiting to show me around another five or six very similar luxurious hotels, before sampling some of the sights that might make it into the final itinerary. Blimey.
The hotels I was shown were the height of luxury, including an extraordinary out-of-town 5* resort with individual villas with their own individual spas. An orchid farm was next on the agenda, where we could walk amidst the most exquisite of flowers, a certain inclusion for the eventual tour itinerary. Our final stop was not so clear cut though. I was looking forward to visiting an elephant camp and seeing elephants close-up. The mahouts (tenders) didn’t appear to mistreat the elephants, but the visit turned into a bit of a circus that didn’t sit comfortably with me. I suppose the gentle giants were bound to have a game of football for the onlooking tourist crowd, but the final trick was for Nelly to sit at an easel, hold a paint brush in her trunk and paint a picture to sell to the awestruck tourists. I could only imagine how that particular skill had been “trained” into the poor elephants for our benefit and left the camp feeling guilty on behalf of my industry. Later, as darkness fell, outside my hotel was an interesting night market in which you could buy a fake version of virtually every western brand, but in truth, it wasn’t as interesting as my lovely hotel bed, particularly as the following day would be spent on board a train back to Bangkok. Night night.
The daytime train of choice would be the Diesel Railcar Express, departing Chiangmai at around 8am, arriving back in Bangkok at around 7.30pm. Carriages are Second Class only, but with reclining seats and ceiling fans acting as air-conditioning. Included in the fare were refreshments and a rice lunch, which were very welcome. Leaving aside the toilets, which reminded me of some of the (in)conveniences I have experienced at non-league football grounds or basement rock clubs, it was a reasonably comfortable experience, with scenery constantly changing outside the window through landscapes as diverse as soaring peaks and verdant tropical forests. The first part of the journey heads down through mountainous country, gaining an insight into rural Thai life, stopping at a selection of rustic hillside communities, with farmers hard at work on their agricultural plains, tranquil backwaters of rice fields and with the occasional golden temple visible from the train. Halting at tiny rural stations, locals would get on and off, usually with a proud stationmaster in pristine uniform ready with flag to signal our journey onwards towards the capital.
This time we were delayed and my arrival was at around 9pm, a full 13 hours after the journey had started. Tired, but hungry from the journey, I dumped my bag back in the hotel room and headed towards the humble restaurant across the road from the hotel. A taxi driver caught me before I could go in.
“Taxi sir? I’ll take you to where all the restaurants are?”
“No thanks. I’m going to that one,” I replied, pointing to the one directly a few feet in front of me.
“That one will be closing now. Jump in. I’ll take you to a really good restaurant.”
I only wanted something to eat before crawling into bed, so ignored my cabbie friend. But just as I was about to push the handle, the door was locked for the night. Tail now firmly between my legs, tummy rumbling as well, I had to walk past the taxi driver again.
“So,” he said grinning a very smug grin, “jump in!”
“No thanks. I’m tired. I’m getting room service,” was my honest response.
“How long are you staying in Bangkok?” asked my persistent new-found buddy.
When I told him it would be just one night, he produced a laminated A4 piece of paper decorated with photos of young women.
“You have one night in Bangkok and you are spending it alone?! Come on, tell me which one you would like?”
When I wearily told him I wasn’t interested he pulled out another laminated A4 piece of paper, this time decorated with photos of boys or young men.
“Aaaah,” said he, giving me a knowing wink, “I see, well, how about one of these?”
When I finally dodged the cabbie to cross the road to the sanity of my hotel room, behind me I heard the same voice concerning himself that I seemed stressed and, of course, offering to sell me a calming joint. This was a truly unique moment in my travelling life, to be offered a taxi ride, a meal, a female prostitute, a male prostitute and drugs, all at the same time from a mobile one-stop-sex-and-drugs-shop. This was also the only time I have ever ordered room service. In my safe western-style luxury hotel, watching the lights of the boats bobbing up and down the Chao Phraya river.