Saturday, 31 October 2009

How The Trains Made Thailand

Bangkok's Hualampong station - waiting to go northwards.

But for Thais even eternal waiting can and should be fun.

An advert for Tiffy recalls the dramatic era of steam.

The station's busy with men in uniforms and local trains too.

The gateway to Chiang Mai and our train on the left platform.

The plains were flooded and it was still pouring by Lamphun.

At Lampang there was a fine old steam engine on display.

Wheels and couplings speak loudly as we clatter over a culvert.

There's light at the end of many a tunnel up in the mountains.

One of many mountain stations, much loved and immaculately maintained.

Nations are defined by wars and geography but it was its railways that finally integrated Thailand within its permanent borders.

Cat and I have just been on the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the journey back by day has reminded me what an extraordinary feat it was to construct a railway across the plains, through almost impenetrable jungle and mountains and up to the ancient kingdom of Lanna.

We’ve also recently been through the humiliating and barbaric process of applying for visas for Cat, both to go to the UK and also to get a Schengen visa for Europe. There is a link there somewhere!

After millennia of tribal warfare, the Schengen agreement between twenty one European nations now allows visitors to obtain a single visa valid for all these countries. How civilized it is to freely cross borders and how very sad that the UK stood apart and did not sign up to this accord. If only we now had just one visa to apply for on going to Europe.

Ease of travel in a modern world means that strict national borders are needed to separate and divide people, but we’re now so used to this intrusion that it’s easy to forget that the nation state itself is a brand new concept. Likewise, passports are something of a new thing. Italy and Germany are new countries and the United States was quite recently defined by its civil war.

And Thailand as we now know it is new too.

Relating things to my own lifespan, a warring Europe was pacified, the invaders were turned back and an extraordinary reconciliation was begun only two years before my birth. And not long ago Africa was abruptly carved into more than thirty artificial nations by the European powers at the end of the nineteenth century, driven on by the insatiable demands of their missionaries and traders. This all happened a mere twenty years before my father’s birth.

Despite the artificiality of some of the borders thus created, even in Africa the nation state has been extraordinarily successful with remarkably few annexations or secessions. Just like Vietnam’s eviction of Pol Pot from Cambodia, nobody liked it when Tanzania kicked Idi Amin out of Uganda as borders are sacrosanct and must not be violated even for good reason.

Eritrea successfully broke away from Ethiopia and Morocco has been too acquisitive, but the fledgling ‘state’ of Biafra, the biggest ever secession failed and Nigeria, Africa’s giant, remained intact, as does almost all of the late nineteenth century political map of the continent.

Now taught an assertive brand of nationalism, modern Thais may look at a map of South East Asia and believe that theirs is an ancient Kingdom but, as defined by its present borders, like so many other nations, relatively speaking it’s brand spanking new.

So what’s the story and why is this so?

Throughout history, where land is divided by insurmountable mountains, rivers and seas, political entities must of necessity be small and this region was no different in that respect. The old civilization of the Chao Phaya basin, of Sukotai and Ayutaya which lie at the core of Thailand, was closed off by mountains to the west, north and east. Those to the North isolated it from the kingdom of Lanna/ Chiang Mai, while the mountains to the east ensured that the Korat plateau and Isaan looked eastwards and could not be fully integrated by ‘the Thais’ from the west.

Thus the loose ‘empires’ of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, not yet nations with settled borders, were in perpetual conflict as they sought to control the small vassal states around them and to extend their spheres of influence.

The mountains were of course the defining factor. But if you move mountains, everything changes, and that’s exactly what the railways achieved. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn, truly the architect and father of Thailand, construction of the great railways to the south, to the north and east of Thailand was courageously begun.

I’ve previously written of how the feat of cutting a railway over the mountains to Ubon in the east enabled Isaan to be better absorbed into a unified nation… which ironically the current political tensions suggest has not yet been perfectly achieved. (See ‘Last Train From Sikoraphum’ posted on this blog on 14 November 2008)

So now I want to tell you of our long daytime journey back from Chiang Mai by train, a slow and spectacular ride down through the mountains that again reminded me that before 1921 when the railway was finished, Chiang Mai and the Lanna kingdom was another world, a veritable Shangri La, hidden from the Thailand of the southern plains.

In the last few decades air travel has given us seven league boots and made the world smaller but the railways had a far greater impact than that. As a major breakthough in transportation, they redefined much of the political world, allowing access to outlying areas that could now be integrated politically and commercially exploited.

Not least of all this is how it happened in Thailand. It was the railways that were the essential means to make the nation what it is now.

The financing and construction of the Thai railways was a modern marvel of political will, organization and engineering. Crossing the plains was easy but surveying a route through the mountains, building cuttings, embankments, bridges and tunnels, especially a long one through the Khun Tan mountain, must have seemed an impossible project. At last the dream was achieved and served its purpose, though now the line is desperately in need of modernisation and has been left to gently molder in the shadow of its past glory.

Thus as the Chiang Mai train slowly approaches a tiny station high in the northern mountains, the station master is in his old clothes, busy manicuring its immaculate garden. He snaps to attention and rushes off to buff up his boots and to put on his best uniform and peaked cap. Just in time he grabs his green and red flags and makes it onto the platform as the train rumbles in.

Yes, they still wave their flags and they ding a big, polished brass bell to send the trains on their way. It’s just wonderful and nothing, but nothing seems to have changed. Steam has been exchanged for diesel, but the Thai railways still offer a perfect time warp for any nostalgic lover of the world’s quaintest old railways.

Not only travelling hopefully to Chiang Mai is fun but arriving’s even better. As always I greatly enjoyed the city and although it’s changed and grown, the atmosphere is much the same inside the moat as it was when I first visited and stayed in the seventies. The rice fields and mountains are still there too and rural life goes on much as it always has done. And so also do the trains.

The railway is thus the perfect link to help you to slow down and to take you from the madness of Bangkok to that other more gentle world of Chiang Mai. Even Bangkok’s Hualampong Station where your journey begins has been nicely restored and it retains its fine architecture and a polite otherworldliness.

It is always vibrant with people and activity but for Bangkok it’s strangely calm and orderly. The central hall is packed with people, but they just sit on the floor with their luggage surrounding them and they serenely wait as if forever, something the Thais are always so good at doing.

Perhaps they’re pleasantly anticipating the slow ride out through the slums and the shanties built literally feet from the passing trains, out through the sprawling city and onto the endless rice plains. After the long run across the plains, when Chang Mai is not so far away in distance but still a long way in time, their train will abruptly leave the rice fields and climb slowly up into the mountains.

It makes slow progress and you can see the train ahead of you as it rounds the sharp curves. You can feel the extraordinary steepness of the gradients as the train clatters over bridges and culverts. Its single track is but a precarious thread, dwarfed by the mountains and threatened by the encroaching jungle, more like a narrow gauge mountain railway than the important artery that first united Thailand.

In less than a hundred years though the railway has become insignificant and almost an irrelevance. Governments have repeatedly failed to modernize and to invest, caught in a power play with the railway unions who strike to preserve the privileges and inefficiences of an outdated system. It will take strong and determined leadership to give upgrading the railways the priority it deserves, which suggests that nothing much will change in a hurry.

In the meantime I’m not personally complaining about that.

Nothing for me could be better value or fun than a round trip on the train from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai and back. I’ve done it several times before and I hope this time won’t be my last.


POSTSCRIPT… I’m no historian and have done no research whatsoever to write this piece so if you find it’s riddled with inaccuracies or can tell us more about the story of the railways, do please leave a Comment on this blog.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog November 2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Andrew Hicks Is A Bastard! - Official.

My two modest books about Thailand have fared quite well at the hands of reviewers in the media but I do have some ‘issues’ about book reviews in general. Often, I think, they’re pretentious, ridiculous and corrupt.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about the overblown extracts from media reviews printed inside the dust jackets of novels by the top selling 'Johns', Grisham and Irving. It wasn’t professional jealousy that got me onto this topic, just my observation that the obsequious quotes that get splattered all over ‘international bestsellers’ are often the utterest of utter crap!

[See ‘Dear John, I’m Confused’ on this blog at 17 October 2008.]

Before my very own book, “My Thai Girl and I” went to press, I thought of soliciting ringing endorsements from top authors such as J.K. Rowling (who was at my very own University of Exeter) or Dan Brown (who wasn’t, though he taught at Philips Exeter) and then I could stick them on the back cover. But frankly I couldn’t be bothered. Nobody would believe anything they said anyway so I decided to write my own glowing endorsements instead.

Thus “My Thai Girl and I’, according to the back cover, is, “One of the funniest books I’ve read all week”, “A feast for feminists”, and “Hicks at his best”.

No buyer will be swung either way by any of this, so why not make a spoof out of it! And as few book reviews are ever truly independent or free of an agenda of some sort, the majority of them come across as total rubbish.

Except that book reviews can occasionally be genuine!! And it’s a big exception!

The very best are independent reviews posted on the web and my favouite is one written by an Aussie fireman called Eric.

I don’t know him from Adam but he’s got a great blog at and I’d recommend it to you as a rattlingly good read.

You see fireman Eric came to Thailand and as Thai ladies like firemen and as Eric fell for a Thai lady, the rest is hysteria. In the strange way we Western males sometimes have, just like me, he felt compelled to write a blog about his utterly unique romantic experiences in the Land of Increasingly Foolish Smiles.

And, despite being kind of busy, he managed to read “My Thai Girl and I”, not once but several times. The story in my book rang bells for him and, it seems, he liked it quite a lot.

Then in an independent and uncorrupt way, he couldn’t restrain the urge to write a review about the book and to post it on his blog.

I am not dismayed by this, despite being a modest person who shuns the limelight, but I shall now paste in his review below in order to showcase the snappy and readable quality of Eric’s writing.

For me, this review is lit crit of a very special kind. The web can be cruel and anonymous but when I get an accolade like this, I value it very highly. That someone has enjoyed my book means a lot to me.

Thanks Eric, you Aussie bastard!

So here’s a fireman’s review of “My Thai Girl and I”.

Complete and unexpurgated!

03 September 2009

Andrew Hicks Is A Bastard! - a book review.

I’ve never done a book review before, so this is something very new for me, but this is one book that I cannot help but share with everyone.

The book in question is, of course, “My Thai Girl and I”, Andrew Hicks’ tale of woe, happiness, frustration and bewilderment as he goes from being a divorced sixty-something retiree to the husband of a ball of energy and “Thai logic” half his age – the enigmatic Cat.

I first heard about Andrew’s book on the ‘net’ – as one seems to hear about many things these days – and, after having a look at the website and reading Andrew’s blog, I decided that it was worth a read. I finally managed to pick up a copy from Asia Books’ at the airport in Bangkok at the end of my recent trip to Thailand. I only wish I’d found it earlier.

Despite my best intentions, and having promised myself I would only read one short chapter every evening, I read the book in three late-night sittings – I simply couldn’t put it down – before handing it to one of my mates to read. Now I’ve got it back (only a week later) I’m reading it again and finding it even more enjoyable the second time around.

This is Andrew's second book written about Thailand. His first book, "Thai Girl", a best-seller in its own right, is something altogether different, telling a fictional tale of a young traveller who meets, falls in love with and, ultimately, loses a Thai girl. You can find out all about "Thai Girl" on the same website, here, a little down the page.

We start our journey with Andrew as he takes a breather in Phuket, one of the more well-known tourist locations in Thailand, as he undertakes a journey of self-discovery following the end of his former life as a corporate Lawyer and Lecturer in Law, brought about by the twin barbs of early retirement and divorce.

As happens many times in life, a chance encounter becomes, in relatively short order, a life-changing experience of a kind that defies explanation – unless you’ve had the same happen to you. Andrew purchases what must go down in history as the most expensive piece of papaya in history – the first step towards the slippery slope leading to the insanity that is known as life in Thailand.

“My Thai Girl and I” chronicles not only that first encounter, but Andrew’s gradual introduction to life in a small village on the rice-growing plains of Isaan – Thailand’s poorest and most remote region. Throughout the book he details the storm that exists around him, as he tries to sit calmly in its eye and learn to “go with the flow”, meeting some of the most colourful characters on the face of this earth and, somehow managing not to go completely insane, slowly adapts his rigid western values and thinking to something closer to the Thai way.

The reader is drawn in to the exciting, illogical and heart-warming string of disasters, joys, projects, travels and events and, before long, is eagerly turning the page to see what happens next.

Some of the stories are amusing, others side-splittingly funny, whilst the occasional sadness of small-village life creeps in elsewhere. Throughout it all, the reader is left wondering what kind of world this is, does such a place truly exist, and where can I find it?

This is the story of the REAL Thailand, far away from the tourist traps and plasticised smiles and tacky fa├žade that westerners think of as Thailand. This is the Thai’s Thailand, the one you won’t find in the glossy tourist brochures or on the TV adverts, the one that few people ever get to see, and we are fortunate to have this rare insight offered to us in the eloquent format which makes “My Thai Girl and I” mandatory reading for anyone who has an interest in Thailand as it really is.

If you’re thinking of travelling to Thailand for something more than bars, beaches and Bangkok, you simply can’t do so until you’ve read “My Thai Girl and I”, lest your brain explode as you try to process the world around you. Even if you’re not going there, “My Thai Girl and I” is a ripping yarn, bloody funny and written for the likes of you and me.

This is one of the few books I have read – one amongst thousands – which left me feeling that it had been written specifically for me. On each page I felt as though I was sitting across a table, cold drink in hand, as Andrew imparted his wisdom and experiences to me, sharing with me the emotional lows and manic highs of his new life. It became personal, poignant and answered many of the questions I had about life in the real Thailand. Written by a mate, for a mate.

Thanks, Andrew, for writing this book for me.

So how does this make Andrew Hicks a bastard?!!

There’s several reasons.

Firstly, Andrew is English – that makes him a bastard from birth. (Remember, I’m an Aussie)

Secondly, he’s living the life that I want. Andrew is laying out, in plain English, the blueprint for the life and lifestyle that I have been dreaming about, so I’m jealous. No matter how you dress it, he and I both know that he’s lucky, a “lucky bastard” as we say here, so there’s the second strike on the bastard count.

Thirdly, many of my friends have suggested that I eventually turn this blog into a book. I don't need to now - it has already been done and "My Thai Girl and I" is far to close to what anything I'd write would look like. Change the names and the town and I think it'd look identical.

Fourthly, did I mention that he’s English?

Finally, you can join the ongoing story of Andrew, Cat and their insane life by visiting Andrew's blog, "Thai Girl", 'The Exotic Adventures of a Literary Sexagenarian' (that means someone in their 60's). Add it to your favourites and you won't be sorry.”

The “Thai Girl” Blog September 2009

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Still Stalactite Thirty Years On!

Staying in Ralph and Mee's house in the mountains was magic.

Waking up to a sea of clouds made the long journey worthwhile.

Papa cooks breakfast in his bamboo house nearby,

and Mama and her sister enjoy the meal in their bamboo house.

A walk to their tea garden washes away the stresses of the city,

while Papa picks tea leaves under the jungle canopy.

This village tree is a single banyan which puts down tap roots.

Slaughtering a pig seems to be quite a big event,

and everyone is there, anxious for a slice of the action.

We visit the Chiang Dao caves and feed the fish in the temple pond.

And I recognise a stalactite I last photographd thirty years ago.

Tourists to Thailand rush to the sea and islands but for me the forests and mountains are an even greater draw.

Cat and I have just come back to Bangkok after a short holiday in Chiang Mai and it’s been amazing. Walking through the tea plantations high in the mountains, the light falling soft and dappled on the manicured bushes is an uplifting experience. This magical place could hardly be more different to the endless flat rice fields that surround us at home in our north eastern village in Surin province.

We stayed with Ralph and Mee in their modern home in Mee’s Lahu village high in the mountains above Chiang Rai. We arrived in pouring rain but awoke the next day to the vista of a sea of cloud seen from the upstairs balcony.

From then on our stay was a succession of great experiences.

Mee’s parents live there with them, cooking and eating in a traditional split bamboo room right next to the house. Their life retains many of the traditional routines of their mountain upbringing and every day in season they take the long walk to their tea garden to pick twenty kilos of leaves each.

The village is vibrant with life, at night the children playing in the open area by a vast banyan tree and in the day workers go off on their motorcycles to pick tea. Life is much as it is everywhere in a rural community with small shops, a pork butcher and noodle stalls but unusually for Thailand there are three Christian churches.

On our last day Ralph took us down to the valley to visit the Chiang Dao caves, one of the largest limestone cave complexes in Thailand. After we’d fed the massive fish in the temple pond at the approach to the caves we went inside and were hugely impressed by the echoing caverns.

While I was photographing one of the stalactites I suddenly recognized it as an old friend. It was not the caves themselves that I remembered but the photo I’d taken of this river of limestone three decades ago. On thinking back I soon realized I’d been here just a month or two short of thirty years ago.

That time in the seventies the rice harvest was already coming in and the workers were out in the heat of the fields, swathed in clothes to keep out the dust, threshing and winnowing the rice by hand, tossing it on bamboo trays and blowing away the chaff with big fans. The rice was then hauled away on ox carts for storage in their wooden barns, all so very different to how it’s now done in the twenty first century.

Back in Chiang Mai we drove through crowded streets out of town past the university and the temple of Wat Suan Dork, which is now totally hidden behind rows of shops. On that first visit to Chiang Mai the Suan Dork temple was then a sleepy place. It was outside the urban area and into the the countryside.

We also ate at Aroon Rai, a well know eatery on Mool Muang Road. I told the middle aged waitress I’d been there thirty years before and that, as I remembered it, there'd been no bleak concrete building as now and we’d eaten outside in a quiet garden. Yes, I was right, she said, as she’d started working there just three years before that time.

Worryingly I’d forgotten about the Chiang Dao caves but had remembered the restaurant! This time I’ll have to get back there to both of them sooner than thirty years on.

Yes, Chiang Mai has changed. It’s bigger and brasher, though in many ways it feels very much the same… hot, busy and chaotic but so welcoming and I think I’ll always want to come back.

Now I have to survive being in Bangkok again before we go back to the village, still thinking of the peace of the family tea garden in the mountains.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog October 2009

Thursday, 1 October 2009

No Bamboo In Bamboo Land

Living in the back of beyond in rural Isaan, apart from English newspapers and farang food, there’s not many things you need that you can’t get hold of quite easily. Although there’s bamboo everywhere, including in our back yard, there’s a strange shortage though of stuff made from bamboo.

Yes, you can get pre-Ikea knock-down chip board furniture everywhere and fold-down steel kitchen tables that are totally hideous. But if you want attractive bamboo or rattan furniture for an exotic Eastern look you might as well forget it!

For the locals of course, wicker or rattan smacks of the past and they much prefer fifties chip board chic, but the strange thing is that functional bamboo furniture can be seen everywhere. It’s quite nice and all the little grass roofed eating places in town use it… but can you buy it here?

Not a chance?

After we’d built the house, I’d always wanted a decent bamboo table and chairs so we could eat out on our downstairs verandah, but they’re simply not available anywhere. This puzzled me so I worked on the problem as intensively as a CIA spook for three years until I discovered the truth. Bamboo furniture comes from a bambooish sort of place in Ubon province about three hours away and you can only get it there. Apart perhaps for a few roving pickups loaded to the sky that come round the villages, you can’t buy it here.

Ultimately therefore, three years on, despairing of my old jeep, I had to buy a new pickup and drive to Ubon and find the bamboo shops myself in order to fulfill my farang dream of eating off bamboo furniture.

This minor frustration was recently mirrored in a severe marital tension that has occurred between me and my sweet though straight talking wife, Cat. Just before leaving for a trip to see my family in England the rains began early and it seemed that the gutters round the house were blocked with leaves, probably from the eucalyptus from next door. The result was that they were overflowing in the worst of the downpours and water was cascading down the front of the house and onto my valuable bamboo furniture and precious antique ox cart.

“Cat,” I say to her desperately, “We must get gutter man in to unblock the gutters”.
“Cannot,” says Cat. “In Sangkha not have gutter man.’
“But we only need someone with a ladder who can get up there and do it in a few minutes.”
“But in Sangkha nobody have ladder. I ask already at all the shops.”

I quietly seethe in frustrated disbelief, silently accusing Cat of not being bothered about this disaster and telling me what she wants me to hear.

So it seems that Surin folk don’t do ladders then. When they built our house all those five years ago they did it without a ladder, instead standing on upturned paint tins and climbing painfully up the wooden scaffolding. And nobody in all the builders merchants in town knew of a gutter man, insisted Cat, even though they all sell guttering. And certainly nobody, but nobody in Sangkha has a ladder.

Seriously, Cat tells me, nobody has a ladder because they’re always made of bamboo and bamboo stuff’s made in Ubon and not in Surin.

So we flew off together to England leaving unblocked gutters and torrents of water falling down the front of the house. When we got back, like the mowing, nothing of course had been done about it.

I tackle Cat head on asking her to get it sorted and get one of those ‘kill-at a thousand-paces’ laser looks.

I’ll go and cut some bamboo from around the pond and make a ladder myself if I have to, I tell her. I’ll charter a helicopter to drop me onto the roof. I’ll clear the gutters if it’s the last thing I do… and given the height and the steep pitch of the roof, indeed it might be.

Then Cat’s brother Saniam, taking a break from helping us to cut the ‘lawn’ goes somewhere and walks back about five kilometers to the house carrying on his shoulder a short bamboo ladder. He tells me through alcoholic fumes that he’s going to stand the ladder on the low kitchen roof, climb up and over the top of the house and dig out the gutters for us.

I contemplate scraping his remains off the path at the back of the house and decide to put a damper on the whole thing. Drunk in charge of a ladder is not a good idea Perhaps tomorrow he’ll be sober, I fantasize, but no, it never happens and I soon notice that the ladder has gone.

Then one day I hear Cat’s frantic voice loudly calling me from the back of the house. It must be an invasion from Cambodia, World War Three or the pig’s escaped again. Then I hear what she’s saying to me.

“Andrew, gutter man come. Run, run quickly!”

I’m out of the house in a flash and at the gate and sure enough there’s a modern pickup with a ladder on the roof coming down the soi. Like many Isaan tradesmen, the man who does gutters drives far and wide looking for work, announcing his arrival with an intrusive loudspeaker that can be heard for hundreds of yards. Cat had heard him coming. This was the answer to my prayers.

But shock, horror… all he had on top of his truck was a short bamboo ladder!

Just like Saniam’s plan, this he perched precariously on the kitchen roof and in bare feet scaled up and over the house to clear out the gutters and repair a few leaks. I watched him climbing down again, the foot of the ladder stood on the steep slope of the kitchen roof. It was shocking to see the risks he was daily exposed to through his own casual attitude to life and death. And who would have to pay hospital bills or compensation if he fell? It would be me! Like when a motorbike runs into the side of your car, that’s just the way it works around here.

I’ve written before about the pleasure Cat takes in gathering wild food in the surrounding countryside. I’m quite proud too that we’re self-sufficient in obtaining our own drinking water and have so far lived to tell the tale. While many farang friends buy bottled water, releasing thousands of plastic bottles a year into the wild, we drink real organic rain water.

For six month it rains heavily and a peripheral purpose of the gutters is to channel the sweet water into the three vast ceramic storage vats we have around the house. These usually last us out over the ensuing dry season, so it’s a system that saves both the planet and my satang.

Of course the roof water’s safe, I tell myself. The air’s clean as there’s no industry with only the methane farts of buffaloes to pollute it, and I’ve never had a tummy problem from it.

But then while gutter man was still working away up top, I went around the house and saw the mud and gunge that he’d scraped out of the gutters, dropping it in heaps to the terrace below. I was truly horrified. We’d been drinking water filtered through the leaves and dirt of the five and more years we’ve been living here.

And why this extraordinary negligence with our well being and health? Essentially it’s because this is Surin and not Ubon and here they don’t make bamboo ladders. So that’s why until now we’ve never once managed to get the gutters cleaned out.

What might be a good idea would be for me to get in the pickup, drive the three hours to Ubon and buy a ladder so I can do it myself in future.

But no, I’ll buy ten of them at a good discount and I’ll cruise round the town and villages selling them. Then that way the ladder famine in Surin will in part be relieved.

While I’m at it I might as well get some tables and chairs and sell them too!

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog October 2009