Saturday, January 15, 2011

Steam Train to Chachoengsao

Saturday 4th December was a day for various modes of public transport. I caught the BTS sky train from Wong Wien Yai as far as Sala Daeng and then took the MRT underground to Hua Lamphong, where I met up with Khun Vasana and Khun Jamras, long-time family friends.

They had invited me to join them on a day trip to Chachoengsao, travelling there by train and then touring the area by coach. I arrived shortly after 7.30am and the station was buzzing. I cautiously grabbed something for breakfast (I say cautiously since from my experience of travelling with Thais, there’s usually a surplus of food!) Then we met up. Hua Lamphong is a big station, built in the early 20th century, apparently to an Italian design – see the station's Wikipedia entry for details.

On this occasion there were some exhibits on show to co-incide with celebrations for H.M. King Bhumipol’s birthday on the 5th. As we made our way down the platform, we passed some royal carriages. There seemed to be quite a lot of activity, with excitement among a large group, many wearing pink (the current colour for showing support for His Majesty). They were congregating around the train, chatting and clutching cameras.

Why the fuss? It was because the 8am departure this morning was not the usual diesel service, but a steam train! The train itself had many carriages. The tour that we had joined had been allocated three of them, towards the rear, leaving several carriages to the front – I think they were for employees of the State Railway of Thailand. When we pulled out, it became evident how many had come to wave us off, including members of the Government’s Transport Department. I though it would be fun to capture the departure on film:

The train puffed its way eastwards and throughout its ponderous progress amidst the urban sprawl, people watched on in fascination and amusement. Unlike the Skytrain, the railway lines cling to the ground and so they thread right through streets, across roads …

Bangkok Traffic at rail crossing

… and over canals …

Rail bridge across a Bangkok canal 1

Rail bridge across a Bangkok canal 2

Whereas in Britain, homes are kept at some distance from the railway track and - at least – people aren’t supposed to wander onto the track, these restrictions are not observed in Thailand:

Life by the Railway

Some people find this kind of sight discomforting – makeshift buildings of corrugated iron in such close proximity to the railway line indicate material poverty and invariably you come across stray cats and dogs. It’s a very common scene in Bangkok; it’s right next door to where my relatives live in Thonburi. Yet there’s still a sense of life and liveliness – opportunities for hawkers, space for games of football and so on – aided by the climate.

Chachoengsao lies about 50 miles to the East of Bangkok, but it took 2 hours to reach our destination, even though we were hauled by two locomotives. But no-one was complaining about the very leisurely journey! Eventually we arrived and hoards of people scrambled to the front to get a closer look of the locomotives.

Steam Locomotive (State Railway of Thailand)

Steam engine at Chachoengsao

The drivers seem to be getting younger every day…!

Young Driver in the Cab (Steam Engine 824)

The trip continued with a tour of some impressive temples, starting with Wat Sothorn Wararam Woraviharn, said to be the oldest temple in the province. It is dedicated to Phra Phutthasothon or Luang Phor Sothon and visitors can go and pay respects in a new marble hall, whose construction was supported by the royal family, with HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn presiding over its consecration.

Wat Sothornwararamworaviharn

We proceeded to visit other temples, including Chinese temples, but there was one other that is immensely popular, Wat Saman Rattanaram, which is famous for its statue of Pink Ganesh in a reclining pose:

Pink Ganesh

But the temple also had a very beautiful Buddha image in what I assume is the Uposatha Hall (uposatha is a Pali term designating holy observance, in which monastics intensify practice; ordinations and other important ceremonies take place in the Hall):

Wat Saman Rattanaram

One of the last places we visited was a sand sculpture exhibition. I think it had originally been set up mainly by some Western artists, but since its establishment, many local Thai artists have got involved. The following sculpture shows Kuan Yin, a Bodhisattva embodying Compassion:

Kuan Yin

The wonderful thing about this tour was that at the end of the sight-seeing we could really look forward to the return journey as it was again steam-hauled! To round off a varied and enjoyable day, right towards the end of the visit, tour staff came round with souvenirs. I wonder what we might get in Britain? A badge perhaps? A golf cap (actually we were issued with Thai railway authority golf caps)...? For this tour to Chachoengsao we received an amulet of Luang Phor Sothon. :-)

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