COCONUTS BANGKOK WEEKENDER: Bridge Over the River Kwai

Photos: Evan Duggan

We’re standing at the ticket window at the Kanchanaburi train station. My friend Nolan and I are planning to catch the 10:35am to Nam Tok for the day. It’s a mildly famous route that crosses the historic Bridge Over the River Kwai at the edge of town and takes passengers on a scenic tour that grips the limestone cliffs along the river and meanders north and northwest through green farmland and small villages.

Nam Tok, the destination for many of the railway weekenders, sits at the edge of Sai Yok and Srinakarin national parks.

We’re having a man’s weekend. It’s been raining non-stop, making trips to the local waterfalls and wildlife sanctuaries just a little too wet. Instead, we’re appraising the local liquor and the local trains.

We’ve already been drunk twice, so it’s on to the trains.

There are a few seats left on the 10:35, the woman at the window tells us. We each hand over our THB100 and she gives us two State Railway of Thailand (SRT) tickets.

‘’Oh,’’ she adds. ‘’The train is delayed. It won’t depart until 11.’’

At around 11:30 a train rolls into the station. We’re directed on to the ‘’special cabinet’’ — a length of about three train cars fill-packed with bulging, red-faced Aussies and some young Chinese tourists. The Thais are shown to a length of separate cars which join up with the rear of the train. The whole arrangement feels subtly like apartheid in South Africa.

‘’What would happen if we insisted on sitting with the Thais,’’ I ask Nolan. He’s not sure about what would happen.

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The Aussies appear to be part of a tour group: they have little green stickers on their shirts and one of them — a great big woman in khaki shorts, a tilly hat and a crocodile teeth necklace (that last part may have been my imagination) — is talking more and louder than everyone else.

See yells — no less than five times — that the side of the train in which she is seated is the best side because it has the premier views and she orders the others to take similar positions.

I’m no longer wondering whether it’s permitted to sit with the Thais. I’m now hoping that it is.

The train departs at roughly 11:45. The ticket says we’ll arrive in Nam Tok in two hours.

A man selling beverages out of an iced bucket comes over. He has cans of Leo in the bucket mixed with cokes and other things. I’m intrigued at the prospect of combining the drinking and the trains.

‘’How much for a Leo?’’ I ask, reaching for my wallet.

‘’75 baht,’’ he says.

I halt.

‘’Oh, that’s expensive,’’ I say.

He shakes his head and demonstrates, by lifting the bucket with both hands and grimacing, that it is really heavy, thus requiring premium prices.

I’m not fooled.

Two hours later, after several stops, the train is mostly empty, but we haven’t arrived at Nam Tok yet.

‘’Can I see the tickets?’’ I ask Nolan. ‘’I think we should be there by now.’’

The tickets clearly indicate the voyage will take two hours.

Nolan starts triangulating our location on his Samsung while I keep an eye on the station names as we whip past them.

We’re now approaching 2.5 hours since we left Kanchanaburi town. Then we’re closing in on 3 hours.

‘’We must have passed the place already,’’ Nolan says. ‘’Or this schedule is just fucked.’’

The perpetually money-losing SRT doesn’t just struggle to keep their schedule on track; they’ve been increasingly struggling to keep the trains themselves on track.

So far this year, 114 SRT trains have de-railed, according to the Bangkok Post.

That’s compared to 89 derailments in all of last year.

The state-owned enterprise, established more than a 117 years ago, faces a spate of problems including aging, dilapidated tracks; poorly marked or un-barricaded road crossings; management tangles; and budget shortfalls, the Post reported recently.

The derailments, many of them resulting in injuries — including to several foreigners — have been surging in recent months. The Post said most of the derailments happen in and around Phrae, Lampang, Nakhon Ratchasima and Nakhon Si Thammarat

Bewilderingly, as part of its action plan to combat the rail problems, the SRT recently held a merit-making ceremony to boost morale for its staff and attract better fortune along the tracks.

‘‘Personally, I believe Thailand has survived several bad incidents because of divine protection. The SRT should too,’’ SRT chief Prapat Chongsanguan was quoted as saying.

Some superstitious critics reportedly blamed the recent problems with the SRT on damage to a 48-year-old painting at the SRT’s headquarters. Prapat said he was trying to find a restorer to repair the artwork.

A curious strategy, wouldn’t you say?

If the wheels on my Mazda kept falling off, I don’t suppose I’d look up my friend’s ass for answers, or comb for inspiration through Pablo Neruda’s most romantic poetry.

I might, however, consider checking the lug nuts.

But we haven’t missed the station, and we eventually arrive in Nam Tok, several hours later than the scheduled arrival time. We don’t have enough time to check out the town or the local waterfall and make it back for the return train, so we down a couple cans of Leo near the station and then take our seats for the return voyage.

‘’How old do you think this train is?’’ Nolan asks, looking around the car. ‘’I hope it stays on the tracks.’’

FIND IT:

From Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is roughly a two-hour drive. Buses depart from Bangkok’s Southern terminal every 15 minutes (4-8pm) and cost between 84-99 baht. From the Mor Chit (Northern terminal), buses depart every 90 minutes (until 6pm) for 120 baht.

For train enthusiasts, Kanchanaburi is situated along the Bangkok-Noi—Nam Tok rail line. The ride from Bangkok Noi station takes about three hours (sans derailment, of course) and costs 100 baht for foreigners, which is the same price for any one-way journey along the much shorter leg of the same route between Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok.

Kanchanaburi train station is centrally located about halfway between the downtown core and a strip of guesthouses and small bars — which fill up with white-haired farang by 11am — near the river.

A version of this article appeared on The Bangkokist. www.thebangkokist.com

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