A lot of time people feel the need to get out of Bangkok and catch a break from the constant buzz of traffic, the crowds, the highways, and the cement. Oh God, the cement. Some people go to great lengths to catch a break, like a friend who will gladly travel all night in a crowded minivan and half a day on a boat to spend one night on a beach. I’m a bit
lazy more pragmatic, in that if I leave town, it needs to be easy, cheap, fast, and worthwhile. A few months ago I managed to do all four when I hitched a ride on a special State Railway of Thailand (SRT) tour that took passengers from Bangkok to Chachoengsao on a train pulled by a genuine, old fashioned steam locomotive. But don’t worry if you missed it – these are regularly scheduled trips, and the next one is on March 23, 2014.
Growing up in Canada, trains weren’t really a big deal. The Motherland is too big for trains to be anything other than an expensive sightseeing gimmick, and the cargo train that rolled through my little farm town everyday pulling a kilometer of cars behind it was more loud and annoying than interesting (except when we put coins on the track to be pancaked, that was sweeeeeeet). Even the word trainspotting was totally unknown to us until Trainspotting came out in 1996. But, if movies have taught me one thing, it’s that to people back in the day, trains were big, loud, high-tech, and rather romantic. It was with this in mind that I headed to Hualumphong train station a few months ago to check out an old fashioned steam locomotive in all its steampunk glory, and takelet it pull me (and everyone else) into parts unknown. (all pics by @nontgor, full album here)
Okay, not unknown. We were heading to Chachoengsao, a province directly east of Bangkok. Basically, the SRT has arranged a series of these trips out of town to 1) show off some pretty awesome hardware, and 2) help reinforce the idea of trains in Thailand as a fun, easy, legitimate form of transport. Let’s be honest, SRT hasn’t had the best year safety- or PR-wise, so these trips come at a good time.
The locomotive that was going to be pulling our train was a Pacific model, number 824. From the brochure that everyone got when they boarded (in English, Thai, and Japanese):
Manufactured by the Japan Association of Railway Industry, the 30 steam locomotives, No. 821-850, were designed with 4-6-2 wheel configuration, known as Pacific, providing four leading wheels on two axles, usually in a leading bogie, six powered and coupled driving wheels on three axles, and two trailing wheels on one axle, usually in a trailing truck. Locomotive no. 824 officially ran in 1949-1950.”
The specifications were pretty impressive as well
- Maximum weight of engine: 58,000kg
- Maximum weight of tender: 38,900kg
- Water capacity: 15,000L
- Fuel capacity: 4,200L
- Length over buffer: 19.3m
- Steam pressure: 13kg/cm²
So after taking many pictures, we took our seats and were off. Beyond the novelty of seeing the locomotive up close, the actual train ride was…well, just a train ride. Although it did give me a bit of a Back to the Future III thrill to look forward, hear the “chugga-chugga-chugga” of the pistons and hear an actual steam whistle…that was really cool, actually. Here’s a short Instagram video I took – it was certainly nicer to hear than the “BRRRRRRRRAMMMMMM” of a modern diesel locomotive:
The SRT had arranged visits to several interesting areas in Chachoengsao, and so we stepped off the train and right onto a waiting tour coach to see some sights. Wat Sothornwararamworaviharn was quite impressive, and a Chinese temple we spent some time at was neat. Lunch on the river was provided at a pretty decent restaurant, some shopping time, and then it was back to the train for our trip back to Bangkok.
One thing that was very interesting to see was just how many people are into old steam trains. The schedule is published by the SRT well ahead of time, and on our way out of Bangkok we saw a large number of people at most major intersections camped out with cameras. Apparently, these are the non-heroin addict trainspotters I keep hearing about.
At any rate, it was a nice day out of town and an interesting method of doing so. It would be great for kids – many children were wide-eyed with wonder when they got to see and touch the locomotive up close, especially when they were allowed into the…cockpit? Control booth? Whatever…the place where you drive the train from.
Between March 23-28, the SRT will hold the 117th Railway Anniversary Week, with games, shows, photo ops, and more trips on another giant steam train. The nice folks at BK Magazine have a good writeup of the upcoming trips here, and if you read Thai you can always head to their official website here. Yes, they have an English page too, but it’s a bit rough around the edges – a search for “steam” returned “Result Of the word “steam” Number found “0”List” so…good luck with that.
Anyway, it was a nice day out organized by the SRT. Thai agencies get a lot of crap sometimes from jaded or cynical foreigners (myself included) and some of their plans truly have you scratching your head, but at least the SRT is putting a bit of effort into a new project that’s a definite draw for historians, tourists, and locals alike.
I talked briefly to Kanrawee Thongpull, SRT’s Acting Director of Public Relations and Tourism Service, who said “In Thai the word for train is rod fai (รถไฟ), which literally translated is “vehicle of fire” because these loud, smoke-spewing steam engines were the origin of the word. Imagine the emotions and excitement of the people who saw these giant machines coming their way, and how the world subsequently opened up to them. These trips will hopefully allow us to cherish the history of the railway in Thailand and all that it’s done in the development of the country, and to help us experience a small bit of the excitement of those early days.”
There are plenty of worse ways to spend a day in Thailand, so give them a call and book a ticket on the next train out. If you miss the event in March, the next one after that is scheduled for August 12, 2014, which is Mother’s Day in Thailand.