The late Robert Mitchum once told me during a radio interview: "Anybody who tells you that ridin' a train is a nice way to see the country has never hopped freight trains durin' the great depression." "The longer the distance," he said,"the better chance you have of bein' bumped off by the guards, beaten up by other hobos, or just plain fallin' off the train while you're asleep."
It is with some trepidation that I climb aboard the express out of Chiang Mai bound for Bangkok. It's about 700 kilometres to the capital and takes around thirteen hours. I check the guard for weapons; my fellow passengers for that gaunt, hungry look of the hobo.
The guard has a whistle, torch, two-way radio, and a bunch of keys on his belt, but no visible arms. My fellow passengers are a colourful mix of "Save the whale" backpackers, and local businessmen trying to save on travel expenses.
Evening is coming on as we pull out of Chiang Mai and trundle off southward. My wife has kindly provided me with some fresh fruit, deep-fried bananas and sticky rice for the journey. I leave them on my seat and head for the refreshment carriage, where I enjoy a couple of cold beers and soak up the conversation. Returning to my seat rekindles childhood memories. It appears that my punishment for coming home late is to be sent to bed with no supper. I notice that my seat is now the lower of two bunks; the curtains are drawn, and an attendant is frowning at me as I approach. Duly scolded I climb into my bunk and draw the curtains.
My watch tells me it's just after eight o'clock in the evening. The last time I was in bed at this time was in my pre-teen years!
Anyway, since there's nothing to see as we hurtle through the night I shall read of "Bill Clinton's connections to the Dixie Mafia" before trying to sleep on this comfortable, but constantly moving platform. I must have drifted off to sleep sometime after midnight, but now the aisle outside my curtained sleeping space is alive with the sounds of coughing, hacking, and the general expulsion of air from every conceivable orifice; it must be morning.
Hualumpong railway station, Bangkok, is like a scene from Star Wars. There are more odd characters on the concourse than George Lucas could have come up with, and I have six hours before my train pulls out of here for Butterworth, Malaysia - - a journey of some 21 hours over 1,200 kilometres of track. Don't worry, Bob, I'll stay alert. The six hours shoot by at the speed of glue, and I'm boarding another "Express", this time from Bangkok, through what the media alludes to as "The Troubled South", and on down the Malaysian peninsula to the port of Butterworth. We have six hours or so of daylight ahead of us, and I am glued to the window until sundown.
The countryside is green, flat and pleasing to the eye, apart from cameos of dire poverty that pass by in the shape of shanty towns alongside the railroad. I am ridden with guilt as I tuck into a dinner of fried chicken, cashew nuts and rice. Aboard the air-conditioned train I am immune to the stench of grinding hardship beside the tracks. Despite my self reproach, the dinner goes down, as indeed does the sun, and we thunder on towards the border.
The seats have become bunks again, and as I slide into mine I can't help wishing that trains had showers. It has now been more than twenty six hours since I bathed! I sleep a bit more soundly on this leg of the journey, and awake to a panorama of endless rice paddies against a dramatic backdrop of limestone hills rising sheer from the lush green plain. White Egrets swoop low over the fields, diving here and there as they spot breakfast among the rice plants. The bunks become seats again, and I eat a breakfast of fried eggs with the consistency of rubber, a cold sausage, limp toasted bread and a cup of tea.
Shortly after, at around eight o'clock, we pull into Hat (Haad) Yai station, and are ordered off the train, complete with luggage, to be processed through first the Thai, then the Malaysian Immigration booths, and allowed back aboard our train. The process takes about half an hour. I catch sight of myself in a mirror and am reminded of Bob Mitchum's hobos.
We head off South towards Butterworth, stopping at several small stations along the way. The British influence on Malaysia, or Malaya as it then was, remains evident today. Train stations are spotless, with hanging flower baskets and orderly platforms. We pass more houses with well tended gardens than we saw on the Thai side of the border; wats are replaced by mosques as we are now in a predominantly Muslim country. At one station, a group teenage girls piles into my carriage. They are each wearing the traditional "Hijab", or headscarf, but being teenagers they are chattering like so many sparrows and all are in possession of mobile telephones. The two youngsters seated opposite me each have a telephone to a respective ear; I am soon convinced that they are conversing with one another! By one o'clock we pull into Butterworth station on the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula. The town is largely industrial with little of consequence for the tourist, and so I walk across a bridge to the ferry pier. The ferries from Butterworth to Georgetown on the island of Penang operate around the clock, with the exception of public holidays. The vessels comprise two decks, and carry vehicles and passengers alike.
It has now been more than forty hours since I enjoyed a shower; I smell like an overripe durian; my eyes look like two beetroot in a snow bank, and my teeth itch! A stiff sea breeze wafts my body odour across the port rail where it engulfs a seagull, causing the poor bird to plummet into the water in some distress.
The trip to Penang takes about fifteen minutes, and the first impression of distant Georgetown is that of a mini-Hong Kong. Upon arrival, I take a taxi to the Cathay Hotel, a white-painted old colonial mansion on Leith Street. I find that despite being in my 64th year I am much younger than the hotel's staff. A thoroughly pleasant and very helpful crew of wrinklies soon show me to a large, airy bedroom, complete with cold shower and roof fan. The room is spotless, as is the entire establishment, and after enjoying a shower I head out to explore Georgetown.
Steeped in colonial history, Georgetown was run by the British as a trading post, and a refitting point for the ships of the East India Company as they plied their trade routes to and from China. Today, although liberally sprinkled with modern five-star hotels and office blocks, much of the colonial architecture remains intact. Stately schools sit amid manicured lawns, museums and civic buildings bear testament to the infrastructure put in place by the British. The town has large and thriving Chinese and Indian communities alongside that of the Malays themselves.
Note: Must change my cologne!
The next morning sees me properly rested after a night in a bed that doesn't pitch and sway. I head out to visit one of the more important Buddhist shrines in Malaysia, Wat Chayamangkalaram (Temple of the reclining Buddha) .Buddhists from all over the country come to visit this temple, where the third largest reclining Buddha in the world is housed. The massive statue, measuring over 100 feet from head to toe, is adorned in gold leaf with sea shells for eyes, finger and toe nails. Across the street is a beautiful Burmese temple. Down the road is a magnificent Muslim mosque, and along the street a bit is a magnificent Christian church dating back more than a hundred years. The cross- cultural atmosphere in Georgetown is in itself a major attraction; Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist live side by side in near perfect harmony.
I take a bus to the south of the island to visit the war museum at Bukit Batu Maung, a fishing village close to the airport. This 70 year old former British fort was turned into a museum to allow people to see at first hand what life was like for those who defended Penang against the Japanese during the Second World War. There are many of the original kitchen tools on display, gun emplacements with the original weapons, torture chambers used by the Japanese to extract information from the British, Malay and Sepoy troops captured there.
I take the bus north again, this time bypassing Georgetown and heading to the world famous Batu Ferringhi beach with its miles of golden sands washed by a crystal clear ocean. I decide against joining the scores of lean, tanned bodies on the beach; I don't want these Greenpeace people showing up and throwing buckets of water over me as they try to manoeuvre me back into the sea. As the sun dips toward the horizon I step into one of the many fine waterfront bistros and enjoy an early dinner of spiced seafood grilled over charcoal, and a modicum of Australian Cabernet Savignon.
I make it an early night as I must catch the 14:20 express out of Butterworth tomorrow afternoon, and I want to visit Penang Hill early in the morning. My last day on Penang begins with breakfast at an old Chinese street side eatery at the corner of Leith and Muntri streets. Here, while I browse through the local newspapers, I enjoy a bowl of noodle soup and pork dumplings, and a large mug of char (Chinese tea). Since I'm a bit pushed for time I take a taxi to Penang Hill and ride the small funicular to the summit. The views across Georgetown are stunning, and the air is so clear that I can see quite clearly the shipping in the strait and the port of Butterworth beyond.
I return to the hotel and after a quick shower, check out and head for the ferry. I could have taken a taxi across the 13 kilometre suspension bridge, but I don't have the time. I climb aboard the train to be told that this takes a slightly different route to Bangkok; we cross the border at Keluar and head for Bangkok via Hua Hin, Petchaburi, Ratchaburi and so on to Hualumphong station.
We reach Keluar in a few hours, and after the formalities at immigration climb aboard the train and ride into the gloaming. Dinner comes and goes seamlessly, and once more our seats become bunks and it's off to bed with the final chapter of Bill Clinton and the Dixie Mafia.
I awake somewhere between Hua Hin and Petchaburi where the train has come to a halt at a signal. Several shabby huts lie in a muddy culvert. Just yards from the track, a young mother, withered beyond her years, is bathing two children at a stand pipe. Behind her is the luxurious clubhouse of a local golf course. On the first tee is a flight of four players taking practice swings. I imagine they'll cover the 18 holes and be eating a sumptuous breakfast in about three hours from now. I wonder what the young mother will be feeding to her children. It is indeed an ill-divided world.
Upon reaching Hualumpong station I make a major decision. My back refuses to take another twelve hours on a train - I'm off to Don Muang airport to catch the 12:40 flight to Chiang Mai By just after two o'clock I am luxuriating in a hot shower at home.
I think Bob Mitchum had a point.
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