Joe hugged his bag to his chest and looked from the floor to the ceiling fan and then out of the window. At the age of 65 this was his first ever train journey: after retiring he had decided to treat himself to a week in Bangkok followed by an overnight journey home to Malaysia. Fishing a tiny Pentax from his breast pocket, he slid over to the window and put one hand to the glass, his eyes following each rusted rooftop and billboard as it sailed past. His tangible delight reaffirmed my own love for train travel. No matter how many trains I boarded, windows I peered through, or doorways I sat in, each new journey was like a present waiting to be unwrapped.
Within an hour the dust and concrete of the city had given way to waterlogged paddy fields lined with palms so bent they grew in diagonals, criss-crossing at the waist. Passengers slipped into comfy pyjamas and spread woollen rugs across their knees. They peered into the baskets of vendors hawking chicken and steamed-up bags of sticky rice, and slurped on carrier bags full of rambutan – splitting open the hairy red cases to reveal white, lychee-like fruit.
As the afternoon blurred into evening, un-read books lay face down on snoozing chests and outside the sun twinkled off the paddy, turning it to sheets of gold. At each station a gold-framed, mural-sized painting of the Thai king loomed through the window, flags and flowers adorning his figure. Shivering in the air-conditioning, I wandered into the vestibule and stood on the hinge of two carriages as they slid around, crashing against each other. Muggy air seeped in through the cracks and once I’d thawed out I swayed down the corridor following the deep aroma of fried fish and lemongrass to the dining car.
Here was the hub of activity: French tourists in baggy T-shirts smoked through the open windows of the wood-panelled car; a Malaysian student sat sideways in a booth, his iPhone playing Selena Gomez; and waiters in waistcoats arranged red trays on white table cloths. For 170 baht (£3) four set menus offered a main of fried pork in oyster sauce or stir-fried seabass with celery, with a side dish of duck red curry or chicken green curry with jasmine rice and three firm pieces of pineapple for pudding.
Stuffed, with my lips tingling from the dregs of chilli pork broth, I lingered until the sun had gone and the sky had darkened before winding my way back to my berth. Bedtime soon approached, and the guard arrived to push down the seats into one large berth, wide enough for two. This should have lent itself to a wonderful sleep had an attendant not called through the curtain at 6am to hand me a tray of steaming chicken congee sprinkled with diced spring onion and crisp shallots. But it was so delicious that all was forgiven and it was hard not to be drawn in and shaken awake by the scene outside the window of farms and lakes and villages setting up for the day.
At the Malaysian border of Padang Besar the train was stripped down to two carriages and passengers disembarked for immigration checks and luggage scanning – where I found Joe. Bleary-eyed and disheveled he wandered over with a coffee in hand and I asked him how he’d found his first train. “Oh, it’s special, it’s really something,” he replied. “I don’t know why I waited so long to do it. But I’m going to keep on doing it now.”
You can buy tickets for train 35, the International Express, from Bangkok to Butterworth, at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station. You can also reserve tickets from https://12go.asia/en which charges a £3.50 processing fee, and then collect them at the 12Go.asia counter at Bangkok station. A second-class air-conditioned sleeper costs around £25 one way.