Off the rails
During a recent vacation, my friend and I decided to take the night train to Lamphun. I hadn't had a long train ride for perhaps two decades. She got on the train at Hua Lamphong while I waited at the Don Muang station, located just opposite the International Terminal of Don Mueang Airport.
While taking a pedestrian overpass from the airport to the station, my husband, who sent me to the station, and I noticed an elderly woman with her belongings. She had a carry-on bag in her right hand while holding a woven backpack and heavy-duty canvas bag in her left. She seemed to be having difficulty adjusting all bags before taking a ramp of the overpass down to the train station.
At first, we were reluctant to lend a hand. We walked behind her and saw her stopped halfway, catching her breath. At that moment, we decided to ask if she needed help. I thought she was Thai, but she said "Thank you" and bowed.
"Are you a Japanese?" I asked. She said "yes". Then I asked where she was heading to. She said Chiang Mai.
"Perhaps, we may ride the same train. I'm heading to the North too," I told her. She smiled. Later I learned that she was from Osaka and was travelling alone to Chiang Mai for a long stay. I told her that my husband and I had plans to go to Osaka soon. She smiled.
When we reached the station, I returned her luggage. We didn't know which platform we should wait on for a train. I went to the ticket kiosk to ask an officer. When I returned, I saw her dragging her luggage while crossing two railway tracks.
I admired her strength in travelling by herself. I smiled and bowed to her when we walked past her to find a seat. I saw her showing a ticket to a passenger and he nodded his head. I went to assure her that we were waiting on the right platform.
Ten minutes passed. I heard an announcement in Thai that the train heading to Lop Buri was about to arrive. When the train stopped, the woman from Osaka approached us. She asked if it was her train.
"No. It's not this one," my husband told her. Then she showed us her ticket. It was we who were surprised, because her ticket stated that the train would arrive at the station around 8.35pm. At that time it was only 6.15pm. I was 40min ahead of my train's scheduled time, but for her it would be 2hrs or more because the train is rarely on time.
When we told her that she had to wait for 2hrs, she did not understand what we tried to say. We showed her the time on my phone and the arrival time of her train on her ticket. She looked confused. I wish I'd had an app, to translate our message into Japanese.
Then I thought about Google Translate. I showed her the message in Japanese. She was shocked. She said long sentences in Japanese and I heard the phrase "two hours". Her face showed some disappointment. I guessed from her complaints and gestures that she did not know what she should do for two hours at the train station.
This is really true. Facilities at the train station were of very poor condition. There was limited seating. The seats on the platforms are wooden benches. There are no comfortable chairs, no air-con room for passengers, no coffee shop, and no toilet. Every passenger risks their lives breathing the polluted air of Bangkok traffic. The air sometimes mixes with the aroma of deep-fried chicken from a nearby pushcart vendor.
I told her via Google Translate that she may wait at the airport before the arrival time of the train. She pointed to her luggage, which seemed to be too much for her to drag up the overpass ramp and down again. The train station does not have a locker where passengers can leave their bags.
She sighed and asked about Mo Chit bus terminal. We tried to cool her down and let Google translate for her the notion that travelling by train would be safer than by bus, and that Mo Chit was not close by. During rush hours, the traffic was a nightmare.
She sighed again. She sat down and just looked at the road and then said: "two hours". She murmured something in Japanese while another train arrived. It was not yet hers.
I felt pity for her, and felt, too, that our train service was so poor. What a shame. The State Railway of Thailand can't provide enough basic facilities for passengers, not even an announcement in English.
When my train arrived, an officer announced its arrival in Thai, and another officer came to the platform and said out loud again and in Thai that the train was bound for Chiang Mai. (It was 10min later than scheduled.)
I went to her and said goodbye. She pulled my hand and said: "Not go, not go," and laughed. After I got on the train, my husband phoned me to let me know that he asked the officer at the platform to inform her when her train would arrive at the station to make sure that she wouldn't miss it.
I believe that in our lives nothing happens coincidentally. I hope when my husband and I visit Osaka next month, we can find someone to guide us when we get lost at a train station too. And, at least, we hope Thai train facilities will improve some day.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.