Michael Batson

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Travelogue

Hua Lamphong and the Siam Railway - 30 March 2013

In the Pathum Wan District near the geographic centre of Bangkok sits Hua Lamphong, the city’s premier train station. Officially, it’s known as the Bangkok Railway Station, but nearly everyone calls it Hua Lamphong or “Who Lam Pong” depending on your pronunciation.
 
Hua Lamphong was once the grand old lady of the Siam Railway. These days it’s rather lost amongst Bangkok’s notorious traffic congestion and nearby building works for yet more traffic.
 
The beauty of Hua Lamphong is that it’s a rail hub for both Bangkok and Thailand. Eventually it may also be at the centre of extended rail travel for much of mainland Southeast Asia and on to China.alt

The station is run by the country' natonal railway and was opened in 1916.
 
You can get to Hua Lamphong from Banglamphu, Bangkok’s main backpacker haunt by taxi, moto (bike), tuk-tuk or best of all; by public bus. The 53 bus is the most fun. Red-striped and made of industrial plate steel with bare wooden floor boards, the 53 is an Isuzu built like a tank with a clutch to match. The fare seems to be 8 baht regardless of how far you travel, the tickets dispensed by a conductor with a tubular coin retainer also used to neatly clip each ticket.
 
The 53 does a circular route passing through Banglamphu along Thanon Phra Athit following some of Bangkok’s canals to Hua Lamphong and back to Rattankosin Island and the Grand Palace via Semnang Market. Semnang is a dizzying maze of lanes and was once Bangkok’s red light district or, as it came to be known, the Green Light District after the green lanterns hung before “tea houses” which passed for brothels and various opium dens.

altRecent developments have meant Hua Lamphong is now not one station, but two. Since 2004, the old station has been connected to another train system, the MRT, Bangkok’s metro or subway. The MRT moves a quarter of a million people per day, still a fledgling number compared with the sheer volume of the city’s road users. The MRT allows you can change to another rail system, the elevated railway line the BTS or Skytrain, which also connects to the ARL, or Airport Rail Line, all the way to Bangkok’s sparkling main international airport, Survarnabhumi.
 
Hua Lamphong MRT station is a cross between a shrine and a museum. Photos are banned and all passengers must pass through a metal protector and perfunctory bag search to enter. The long passage way is a series of displays tracing the history of public transport in Bangkok. Each portal has an enlarged archive photo and a blurb arranged in chronological order. The last curve into the underground station proper is like passing through into a throne hall or church, much like a shrine.
 
The story of Hua Lamphong is an international affair. Thais are fond of saying their country was never colonised, and while that may be true, their territory has been carved up and conquered. Their history over the last few decades has been one of often acquiescing to foreign interests to a degree, usually as part of wider events, in order to preserve national sovereignty.

The history of rail in Siam was one such pragmatic example. Confronted with competing colonial interests in the region, both British and French, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) the father of Thai railways, decided instead that the Germans would build the first state line in 1896.
 
The previous decade had already seen the Danes build and run a tramway from Bangkok to Samut Prakan. Dubbed the Paknam Railway, it was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. Eventually, the tramway network in Bangkok extended almost 50 kilometres, operating until it was closed in September 1968 as the car came to rule, and Bangkok was turned into Southeast Asia’s version of Los Angeles.alt  

Hua Lamphong was built by in Neo-Renaissance style; Piedmontese meets Siamese. The facade of the building was designed by Italians and the main hall by a German, Karl Döhring, who supposedly based the design on Frankfurt Railway Station. There is, however, some confusion on who built the station, with other sources claiming this was down to the Ducth.

Then there is the history of the Chinese. Integral to commerce in Thailand, it was the Chinese who also provided the bulk of the labourers in the construction of Siam’s first rail lines.
 
From afar Hua Lamphong looks a celebrated structure, a resplendent white reflecting the sunlight, and draped in the royal colours of yellow and light blue. Thai national flags flutter, overlooking the small traffic island and pedestrian crossing, which was once a garden long surrendered to the demands of the motor vehicle.
 
Up close the façade is looking a little jaded, suffering as many buildings do from the dilapidating effects of Bangkok’s heavy humidity. It’s not just the climate the building has battled. During World War II the Allies tried to bomb the station but hit a nearby hotel instead.
 
Inside, the central waiting hall is dominated by a display of reverence to the present Thai royalty. At the end of platform one you will find Rama V Monument, commemorating the ceremony, nailing the first spike in March 1891.
 
There are 14 platforms, 26 ticket booths with two electric display boards. Hua Lamphong serves over 130 trains and approximately 60,000 passengers each day. Since 2004 the station has been connected by underground passage to the subway system with a station by the same name.
 
The inside of Hua Lamphong now resembles an ‘aircraft hangar undergoing renovation’. The station once boasted a hotel aptly named the Station Hotel. In the bygone days passengers could lean over the balcony, watching trains coming and going.
 
Today passengers sit on rows of blue plastic seats either side of the large portrait of the Thai king. There is a row of seats for monks only and three saffron-robed monks were chatting amongst themselves.
 
altThere is a terrace with a coffee shop selling Black Canyon coffee with matching umbrellas, looking rather out of place indoors. Locals intermingle with foreigners of all description. There aren’t enough seats so some people just sit of the floor. Above the information office is a large LCD which bombards you with sight and rows of speakers to hit you with sound. There’s a Thai Railway Police booth near the main entrance. There’s fast food, foot massages and a food court for Thai meals.
 
Near the ticket booths there is a sign urging Thais to stop corruption. Overlooking platforms 3 and 4 are a row of Louvre windows that make up the offices of the station administration staff. A sandwich board in English displays all the destinations for trains leaving Hua Lamphong. All services run ‘Baily’ with a “B” instead of a “D”.
 
Thailand’s rail network reaches the borders of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.  The total network route is 4,041 km all measured from the mile zero marker in front of Hua Lamphong.  A few new lines are under construction. When completed they will add another 800 km. others will replace portions of rail lines running through Bangkok.
 
The Thai network is a light rail system, consistent with neighbouring countries, though these days Cambodia is railway’s missing link.
 
Train travel is slow. It can take over an hour just to get through the various road intersections and out of Bangkok. Most of the national network is single-track only, and then there’s the lack of bridges, meaning the most direct route is not always followed.  
 
The original German built lines were a 1.43m gauge but this didn’t last. Later the British built the railway southward towards Singapore and chose a metre gauge to fit with the existing railway in Malaya.

It was then decided to convert all existing standard gauge track in Thailand to metre gauge; a huge operation that took 10 years, from 1920 to 1930, and a lot of money to complete. Now Thailand and all its neighbouring countries are running on metre gauge track.
 
Most regional lines were completed in the early 1900s. The rail line to Korat and on to Ubon Ratchatthani is Isaan was open to traffic in 1900, quickly followed by the start of the northern line to Chiang Mai going as far as Lopburi. In 1903 the line to Petchaburi on the west coast of the Gulf of Siam, which became the southern route to Butterworth in modern Malaysia.

By 1951 the whole network passed into the hands of the State Railway of Thailand by which time most of the present network had been completed. Diesel replaced the steam locomotives, though some of the steam antiques machines can still be seen up and down the network across Thailand; there’s one on display outside Korat station.
 
The line from Bangkok north is via the 1300m Khun Tan tunnel, the longest tunnel in Thailand. Built by German engineering, the tunnel works relied on the labours of an army of opium-addicted Chinese workers. It was a brutal build claiming the lives of more than 1,000 workers and the chief engineer, Emile Eisenhofer. A tomb honouring the dead sits at the tunnel’s entrance greeting every train.
 
Railways changed the face of old Siam. From the 1920s, they brought increased access to the north. The new rail line offered Chiang Mai people a quicker, safer, more reliable, and for passengers, much more comfortable, way of getting to Bangkok. Previously, the trip to Bangkok took six weeks by elephant and by boat. When the rail line to Bangkok first opened the journey from Chiang Mai still took several days largely as it was considered too dangerous to travel at night so passengers stayed overnight in hotels along the line.

The Thai railway has some notable features principally the railway bridge at Kanchanaburi, a three-hour trip from Hua Lamphong. The Bridge on the River Kwai is probably one of the most well known and most visited railway bridges in the world.

The Japanes began work on the railway in July 1942 to connect Thanbyuzayat with Nong Pladak in Thailand. The 415km link was completed in October 1943, and was built by Allied POWs, Asian slave labour and others. More than 70,000 workers are said to have died due to Japenes deprivation and cruelty..
 
Regionally, east of Thailand rail links are being expanded. In Cambodia, rail is being “rehabilitated” which means replacing the decaying lines laid by the French and building new ones with money from the Asia Development Bank and AUS Aid. The Chinese have proposed a new 405km line to transport iron ore from north of the country to the Gulf of Thailand. One day there may be a rail system from that runs unbroken from Singapore through Bangkok to Kunming in China.

From Hua Lamphong, the Eastern & Oriental Express runs to Singapore. It’s rated among the World’s Top 25 journeys for its ‘exceptional beauty, service, dining and off-train experiences’. Separatist unrest in the Muslim-dominated three southern Thai provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, has slowed some tourism but the trains have kept rolling.

The rail link to Laos goes as far as Nong Khai. To get from there to Vientiane across the Friendship Bridge requires a tuk tuk not a train. Train travel to Cambodia stops at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. The old line from Phnom Penh only runs as far as Sisophon 48km from the border, but stopped running altogether in 2009.
 
Northwest of Thailand, Myanmar is building rail lines as part of plans for several special economic zones along their shared border. The railroad and accompanying highway would cross a 100km stretch of the old Death Railway, starting from Thanbyuzayat, the old railway terminus on the Myanmar side, to the Three Pagodas Pass on the border with Thailand.
 
This section of the railway in eastern Myanmar was largely abandoned after WWII as the area was controlled by armed insurgents associated with ethnic minority groups. Restoration of the route became possible this year after the new Burman-dominated Myanmar Government signed armistice agreements ending decades old conflicts.

While slower that other forms of travel, Thailand’s railways are relatively comfortable and inexpensive. They are also safer than travel by road, and far cheaper than travel by air. I find the side-to-side motion less wearisome than the up and down bouncing along roads. You can stretch out, get up and walk around and sleep, not vertically as on a bus, but stretched out in a bunk. You can see the countryside by day, and sleep by night.

Whether you’re doing the overnight trips from Hua Lamphong to Chiang Mai and back, or heading to Nong Khai or north to Bangkok from Surat Thani, arriving by train is far easier on body, soul and your wallet.

Comments  

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