Trains in Thailand have a hard time staying on the tracks and the route from Bangkok north to Chiang Mai seems especially prone to derailments, judging by news reports and even a few first-hand accounts on other blogs (like this one by That Backpacker, which actually sparked my memory of the incident in today’s post). Personally, I’ve only embarked on five train journeys in Thailand and four of them were uneventful. Two were even pleasant. All of them stayed on the tracks. One got a little hot.
Apart from all the derailments, Thai trains aren’t generally that bad. Tickets are cheap and the carriages are relatively comfortable, assuming you get a sleeping berth for longer routes. My two pleasant train rides were both in a sleeper car and I got a good night’s sleep both times. It helped that the train stayed on the tracks; I can see how derailing might have interrupted my sleep.
One of those pleasant train rides was my return journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The subject of today’s story was the ride to Chiang Mai a week or so earlier. I was traveling with a friend and while most of the train tickets were sold out, we did manage to get seats on a bit of an unusual train. It was only two (or maybe three—this happened so long ago that my memory is not as clear as I would like) cars in total and did not appear to be a regular train on this particular route.
Some of you may have picked up on the word ‘seats’ above—that’s right, we would be spending the night sitting upright in cushioned, but still fairly uncomfortable, chairs. To make matters worse, a whole row of seats in our vicinity was occupied by a family with 35 or 40 kids, judging by the noise level. Every one of those kids had a lot to talk about and even more to scream about and it took them all night long to say it. It became instantly clear that I would not be getting even a minute of sleep. All I could do was hope that the 10 to 12 hour train ride went by quickly. Obviously, if that had happened, I would not be writing about it right now.
The train stopped constantly. It would sit still for up to 30 minutes then resume its slow crawl toward Chiang Mai. A short while later, it would stop again. This continued throughout the night and no one had any idea why. One stop was different: it lasted much longer and the reason for the stop was soon apparent to all.
At first, it seemed like any other stop and it took a good while for anyone in our car to realize that this one was different. We might have caught on more quickly, if we had been able to hear anything apart from the screaming family of 40. People with window seats did eventually begin to notice a pretty large crowd next to the train. Most were fellow passengers. From that point, the reports reached our car and spread through it quickly. The expressions and reactions told us something was very wrong, but it took a few more minutes for an English version of the update to reach our ears: our train was burning.
Those were the initial words, but naturally, they turned out to be a bit of a panic-fueled exaggeration. The car adjacent to ours had indeed caught fire, but that fire had already been put out. A peek into the car revealed a blackened mess of soot and water. The immediate danger was gone, but it was clear all the passenger would have to find someplace else to spend the remainder of the journey. There was also the issue of what caused the fire and how likely it was that our car might be next, but obviously, that was not addressed.
They did solve the first problem, but unfortunately they did so by relocating the other passengers to our car. So now, we didn’t just have a row of screaming children near us, but people crowded in the aisle all around, with some of them practically on top of us. And we had about 48 hours to go, judging by our rate of progress up to that point.
We did eventually make it to Chang Mai in one unbarbequed piece. Our train did not derail like so many others, mainly because it’s not possible to derail when standing still. There was the small matter of the train catching fire, but I suppose in Thailand, any journey where you arrive in the same vehicle in which you departed is a fairly successful one, especially if you do so uninjured, unscarred or uncooked. The planned 10 to 12 hours stretched to almost 20, but I guess we should consider ourselves lucky we were on the colder of the two cars and didn’t have to stand for over half the trip. Or should we? I couldn’t help but notice an absence of kids among the displaced passengers, which meant that prior to nearly being burned alive, they did get to enjoy a few hours of relative peace and quiet, the lucky bastards.