Friday, 14 November 2008

Last Train From Sikoraphum


The station's antique wooden sign

Waiting, waiting.

There's a peacock pride in the station's appearance.

Points switches installed by the original German contractors.

Station buildings a hundred years old.

Going home from market with a new sickle for the rice harvest.

The train arrives at last.

Green flags and military precision.


After a horrible day cancelling our TOT satellite internet contract and emptying my wallet in the process, I felt like having a day out. There were a few takers for a train ride to nowhere, especially as it happened to be free, so we all piled into the pickup and headed off to Sikoraphum.

The railway workers have been on strike in support of the demonstrations against the government but now they’re back at work again and the bosses are punishing them by making train rides free. I guess the idea is to attract people back to the railway and incidentally to make the strikers work harder coping with crowded trains.

The idea was for us to take a train from nearby Sikoraphum to Si Saket and back but on the way there Cat suggested we go the other way to Surin instead as it’s not so far.

Just as we arrived at the station a train to Si Saket was just rolling in. Only a few seats were filled but we stuck to our plan and didn’t get on board. Cat went and bought some grilled chicken while I wielded my camera.

Sikoraphum and its railway line.
Sikoraphum is notable for its 900 year old Khmer temple and more recently came back to prominence when the railway line was cut through a little over a century ago. What’s charming about the town is that it has hardly changed over the years. The centre is a series of narrow streets and Chinese shop houses, all well kept and bustling but without the demolition and disruption that usually comes with relative prosperity.

It’s hard to believe how remote Sikoraphum must have been before construction of the railway. A millennium ago it was not so remote though, looking to Angkhor, the great centre of the Khmer empire. Only a few hundred kilometres away, the journey would have been relatively easy passing through a gap in the Dongrak hills at Chong Jom and across level ground to the capital.

With the decline of Angkhor, the political balance swung East across the plateau towards the Mekong, which allowed river access to the great capitals upstream. Then as Laan Chang declined, the region became beholden to the kingdoms of Thailand, but how very far it was from their capitals in the Chao Phraya basin.

Bangkok was impossibly distant and for government officials visiting the fractious North East the ascent onto the plateau was extremely difficult. In 1891 King Rama V therefore ordered construction of the railway, a huge and herculean task to integrate Isaan into his modern kingdom.

Laying the tracks northward across the plains progressed well but after Saraburi came harsh mountains where the German contractors faced many hazards and risks. It was only in 1900 that the railway reached Korat not so very much further on, during which time forty Germans and over 500 Chinese workers are said to have perished.

Pushing on through Buriram, Surin and Sikoraphum and at last to Ubon was then relatively quick and a remarkable vision was finally achieved.

Saraburi today is now only an hour or two out of Bangkok by road, so it’s hard today to grasp the significance of this feat of modern civil engineering. Sikoraphum, once far away on another planet, had become accessible in safety and comfort on an overnight train. This was a huge leap into the future, though since that time the railway has been allowed to slip gently back into the past.

Today the line to Isaan is a delightful time warp and a lack of investment in the railways has preserved it in a pleasant state of sleepy decay. The old station signs are as they always were, the wooden buildings, the track and systems substantially unchanged. It’s all much as I remember the small station in sleepy Warwickshire village from which I used to take a train pulled by a puffing tank engine a few miles to school… and that’s a good few years ago.

The heavy levers for changing the points that the German contractors installed are still in use, a polished brass bell hangs above a decorative fountain and the long platform is clean and well kept. In fact it has an almost military feel and the staff look sharp in brown uniforms, their toe caps gleaming as they wave their green flags to send the Bangkok train on to Si Saket and Ubon.

All is now anticipation on the crowded platform as the Surin train is in sight down the line. We’re on our feet as it rolls into the station, an elderly diesel engine drawing tatty carriages that must be at least fifty years old.

Then I realize to my dismay that it’s packed out with people. It’s going to be standing room only, damn it.

We move down the platform to avoid the worst of the crush and try to make it up the steps at the end of carriage, but the corridors are jam packed with people. It’s almost like the Indian sub-continent with bodies hanging off and not a spare inch inside. Offering free rides has certainly brought out the travelers

We don’t have to go anywhere today though, as we’re here to enjoy ourselves. A battle like this isn’t going to be fun so we admit defeat and scramble down onto the platform again and watch the green flags waving as the train moves slowly out of the station.

Shall we have a good look round the market instead, I suggest. There’s some nice pictures to be taken among the fruit and veg, but then it starts to rain.

Clearly this wasn’t our day, though savouring the retro mood of the station in Sikoraphum was like stepping back fifty years.

It’s a rare and special experience that can make me feel like I’m twelve years old again.


Copyright: Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 2008

3 comments:

Mike said...

I am probably one of the few farang who enjoy travelling on Thai trains.

I just love the atmosphere, the clutter on board, the beautifully maintained small stations and the the smartly turned out station staff.

I have befriended the local station master at Nong Hin (2 trains stop each day) who is also a keen gardener and it always makes me laugh when a train is due and he rushes round to change from his gardening clothes into his uniform.

pongo said...

Mike, some very descriptive and evocative comments there on the antics of your local Station Master. Well done! Your fellow at Nong Hin sort of reminds me of Perks, the Bernard Cribbins character in that wonderful old British flim, 'Brief Encounter', or am I confusing it with that other great railway film, 'The Railway Children'? Anyway, it's good to know that Hick is a 'Train Spotter'. I always suspected that he was...Pongo.

Camille Lemmens said...

Andrew,

This is a lovely post! I love the places in Thaialnd where time seems to stand still.
Some local Thai museums are like that as well. Here on Samui there's a local musuem in Lamai and I just love the atmosphere and things on display there.