STATE RAILWAY OF THAILAND
"Rhot-fy by Haadyai maa my khrap?" (Has the train to Haadyai come yet Sir?) I asked the Khao Chum Thong Junction stationmaster using my best Thai accent and diction. His plainly spoken answer, sweet music, was "Rhot-fy by Haadyai my maa khrap!" (not come). Having settled that my transport home had not passed by without me, I could relax and wait.
Another thought came as I munched my late lunch. Would the train come? The isolated little station at the junction of a branch to Nakorn Sri Thammarat and the State Railway of Thailand's (SRT) main South Line was not a place to spend the night. There was no place to stay except on the station platform. Looking around I observed that thirty or so people were waiting with me under the protecting roof so the train must be coming eventually. As the rain to poured down all around I continued to eat in peace.
Monsoon rains and heavy flooding in South Thailand had caused washouts and thoroughly disrupted rail and road services in December, 1974. Ronphibun, a small district town a few kilometers north, had nearly been wiped off the face of the earth by a flash flood just a few weeks earlier. The flooding had also obliterated several kilometers of track, weakened bridges, and closed the highway.
Transport services were coming back on line but schedule keeping was weak as crews worked to restore facilities. My connecting train to the mainline from Nakorn, the north bound Nakorn Sri Thammarat - Bangkok Rhot Rao (rapid train) had been two hours late arriving in Nakorn that morning. Despite a quick turn around, it had been very late in departing. On the schedule I had a one hour wait at the junction but this had long since evaporated into the swirling mist and driving rain of South Thailand's monsoon. Hence my concern whether the last daytime train back to my home in Haadyai had come.
A few minutes later there was an nearly indecipherable announcement over the scratchy public address system. As other waiting passengers stirred on the platform, I was pondering over what the garbled words meant. Then I heard a distant steam whistle from the north. Truly beautiful music in any circumstances. A ways off in the distance the single beam of a locomotive headlight cut through the foggy mist and a cloud of steam mingled with a tall plume of oily smoke appeared. My ride was arriving in style.
After what seemed like an endless wait watching the distant shape take form as it drew closer, the train arrived in a noisy, steamy cloud. Steam sizzled as the rain hit the polished green jacket surrounding the firebox. The air was filled with the scent of hot oil and smoke, almost offsetting the wonderful odors of curry, fried chicken, and other station vendor delicacies.
The Haadyai bound rhot tamada (ordinary train) was headed by a wood burning steam engine from Japan. Sometimes locally labeled MacArthurs, these locomotives dated from the early 1950s. They were beautifully maintained by shop forces in Thung Song and Haadyai. The consist was a combined coach, baggage, RPO, express, and chicken coop vehicle followed by two hard seated 3rd class coaches. Very serviceable for its intended riders.
After a few moments waiting to exchange passengers, off load some headend traffic and lose a few dome shaped wicker chicken cages, the train was ready to go. The stationmaster handed up the track token to the engineer and rang his brass bell. Whistles blew and green flags waved, we were off. Since we were running late there was no reason to even think about schedule keeping.
The passengers were mostly farmers on the way home from market in the bigger towns up the line. There were a smattering of students in the ubiquitous blue and white national school uniforms. A few families traveling with small children rounded out the lot.
After over a year in the country I had become accustomed to the ordinary activities of the people. Even the ritual preparation of betel nut for chewing and watching a granny smoking a hand-rolled, corn shuck wrapped, cigarette with the fiery end in her mouth had become commonplace.
I received a few curious stares and some shy smiles from the small fry. Farang (foreigners) were rarely seen on local trains far from large towns. A couple of high-school girls tried out their English skills with embarrassed greetings. They fled when I answered and tried to ask them a question. Generally I was left to my own thoughts and a book in my day bag.
The train soon picked up speed, never too fast, but always steady. The rhythmic chuffing from the locomotive was the loudest sound to be heard. The occasional blast of the whistle at a grade crossing was drowned out by the claps of thunder as we progressed south. South Thailand's Monsoon Season still had us in its grip and wasn't going to let go for a few more weeks. The locomotive was outfitted with smoke deflectors that kept most of the soot out of our open windowed train.
Through the window I could see the wind blow sheets of rain across the timeless paddy fields of green growing rice. I had chosen a seat on the downwind side of the train but sometimes the wind and rain combined to blow horizontally or reverse direction so that water crept in. When it became too wet and wild windows were closed reluctantly only to be reopened when it became too stuffy.
Here and there a sodden black or dark blue shape under a dripping straw hat moved in the fields as a farmer worked in a field or a small child tended the buffalo. Fishing canoes and a few haang yaaw (long-tailed boats ) were working in the flood swollen khlongs (canals), and small rivers as we passed. The small children invariably smiled and waved at the passing excitement.
Most parts of Phak Thai, the long southern stem of Thailand reaching down to Malaysia, had received more than their share of rain in the past three months. At each small town there was evidence of flooding in lower lying areas. The streets were seas of red mud and the chickens had moved up to the roofs of houses. There is a good reason why most buildings in monsoon country are raised up off the ground on stilts.
In several seemingly isolated places railway maintenance-of-way crews were busy repairing or preventing damage. We seemed to crawl over every bridge. Each crossing was accompanied by creeping speed, squealing brakes, whistles blowing and red and green flags being waved before resuming our normal speed. At one village only the station, perched above the settlement at track level on a long, raised, embankment had a dry floor. A sea of local motorbikes were parked around the platform to avoid floodwater.
Because of our late departure from Nakorn Sri Thammarat, my planned return home had slipped from about 6:10 pm to approximately 9:00 pm. The universal unwritten rule about late trains becoming later was in evidence as we waited for a seemingly endless number of northbound freight and passenger trains to clear at various small stations. When you've lost your slot in a carefully crafted schedule, you wait and wait. At each station where we waited people would get off to buy food and kibitz with the locals. Most passengers seemed to have extended relations at every village.
The local train I was riding was short enough to fit into each passing loop while the longer trains with freight and passengers bound for Bangkok were too long for us to pass except at a major station. The Bangkok bound trains were timed to arrive in the morning, in time for business or to connect with other services. The local wasn't connecting anywhere and as long as we arrived in Haadyai before it was too awfully late nobody would be badly put out.
Hunger began to gnaw at me as we waited yet again for another northbound train to clear at a small station. My own food stocks carried from the early morning departure had anticipated return in time for a late dinner. I still had water but it was time to eat!
Out the open window on the platform vendors provided an amazing variety of food choices. Chicken, fried, broiled, boiled and roasted in several flavors and wearing orange, red or dark brown skins was available. Freshly roasted pork, fatty and red from the bar-b-que sauce smelled delicious. Thailand's fiery pungent curry, with and without meat, added tothe aromas. Also to be had was a variety of fruit seen only in Asia. Where else can you find seven types of bananas? I picked a bowl of rice topped with spicy broiled chicken, freshly sliced cucumbers, a small bag of mangosteens and a small bowl of curry. I always carried my own spoon and a fruit knife. The now empty seat opposite became my table and I dined!
Soon the track came out of the mountains and began crossing the flat plains. Every so often there would be a stark, straight sided outcrop of chalky white rock, karst is what a geologist friend labeled it, sticking straight up from the plain 100-200 feet. Many of these pinnacles were seemingly unclimbable from a distance. As the train approached, a sharp eye could sometimes see a Buddhist stupa or a statue at the top. Sometimes even a monk's saffron colored robe or two and a rope ladder could be seen. From previous journeys I knew that one of these hermit's perches could only be reached by a bosun's chair winched from above.
As dusk approached, we came to the last tiny station before Phattalung. I was sitting nearly alone in the last coach which had emptied as the afternoon wore on and passengers dropped off. As the train departed one of the trainmen and a railway police sergeant appeared at my seat. They appeared anxious to communicate with me but obviously didn't know how. My own command of the Thai language was adequate for most things so I spoke first. "Sawat de Khrap. Ow a-lie na khrap? Poom kow-jy phasa Thai dy nit-noy. Phoot cha-cha, poom kow-jy dy!" ("Hello sirs, what do you want? I speak a little Thai. If you speak slowly I will understand!") I still remember the look of relief on their faces that was followed by smiles. They told me that I needed to move forward to the first coach because in Phattalung thieves would try to swarm the train to steal whatever wasn't nailed down. I quickly moved forward and found a seat next to a window. The crew helped all the passengers move their belongings out of the aisles and tie them securely.
The only sizeable town between Nakorn Sri Thammarat and Haadyai, Phattalung was a small changwat (provincial seat) still noted for occasional banditry on the surrounding highways at night. As we stopped, the train crew formed barriers at both ends of the coach while the two railway policemen took station in the aisle. After helping everybody that wanted to get off with their bags they checked tickets before letting anyone enter the one protected coach.
Amid the hub-bub of stopping and interchange a few youths tried to get in through the windows. The railway police officers were quick to stop them with a few firmly placed taps of discouragement and strong words. Some younger urchins managed to squeeze through and tried to throw a bag or two out a window. An wizened old grandma took care of them with a shout putting the fear of the Devil in them. That sent them out through a convenient window with nothing to show for the effort.
After a few minutes for watering the engine (steam engines are thirsty beasts), topping up the wood box, loading people, and buying food through the window, the station bell rang and we whistled off out of town on the last leg of our journey.
The rest of the evening was through the now darkened rural countryside. Here and there the glow of a pressure or kerosene lamp marked a small house. The small wayside stations were passed stopping only for a flag and sometimes slowing to exchange the mail and track tokens on the fly. The only sounds were the train's chuffing, the whistle and the continuing rain as we rocked along above flooded fields and through groves of rubber trees. Most of the passengers were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train, engine chuffing, and the steady patter of rain.
Haadyai was reached about 9:30 pm. Over three hours late. The rain had become a fine foggy mist as I walked two blocks to my home. I was happy, tired, and filthy from smoke and travel dirt. What had been planned as a sedate twelve hour excursion had turned into a more lengthy adventure. The almost boring on time performance of the morning journey north to Nakorn Sri Thammarat had become a much more interesting return trip home. After a quick cold soapy shower I fell into bed and was asleep before I could recount even one detail of the journey. My journal entry for the day's activities stopped about dusk.
I lived in Haadyai, Thailand from the August of 1973 until July 1975. I worked as an English teacher in Mission Hospital and an adjunct faculty member of Prince of Songkhla University. Haadyai was 945 rail kilometers south of Bangkok and about equidistant between Singapore and Thailand's capital.
During this period the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) kept most of its well maintained American and Japanese built steam locomotives concentrated at the depots of Haadyai and Thungsong. Diesel locomotives were used for the mainline passenger express and through freight trains to Bangkok and the local passenger service between Haadyai and Songkhla. Steam, both wood and oil fueled, was used on most local and intermediate services throughout the south. For a railfan born too late for North American steam it was a step back in time.
The State Railway had tried to completely dieselize during the late 1960s but had run out of money. Haadyai had lost its roundhouse but not the turntable. Steam was serviced using modern shop facilities designed for diesel equipment. As late as 1975 SRT was still performing heavy maintenance on its steam fleet and converting some locomotives from oil to wood fires.
The railway was the largest single employer in town. Most railwaymen and their families lived in company housing. There was a definite pecking order. Most of the housing was adequate by local standards. Some, for the more senior officials, was quite nice and located in a separate tract. All Railway staff wore uniforms. Engine crews and shop workers wore dark blue while khaki was the universal color for everybody else. Gaads (conductors and trainmen) had prestige and authority and weren't afraid to use it. I saw more than one passenger put off a train at a remote station for misbehavior. Military veterans wore their ribbons with pride on their railway uniforms.
It was a railroad in transition much like American railroads of the 1950s. Telegraph train orders and track token dispatching was being supplanted by telephones and radios. Elephants worked side-by-side with modern maintenance-of-way equipment removing wooden ties and inserting new concrete and steel. Elephants were also sometimes seen spotting boxcars around the yard at small stations. Ancient wooden bridges were being replaced with concrete. Steam locomotives were fast giving way to a bewildering range of European and Asian diesel products. Kerosene switch lamps were still in use in the more isolated stations as the electrical grid provided far from universal service. Railway passenger fares hadn't been adjusted since the 1950s making rail travel a bargain for travelers. I spent many nights when traveling to or from Bangkok on business in classic non-air conditioned open section sleepers sharing conversation and sometimes food with other passengers. Rail service was reliable and well used. Timekeeping was usually ontime baring a good reason. The equipment was good to excellent. Buses were faster, more expensive, less reliable, accident prone, and far less comfortable.
The railway's older sleeping cars had been built in Japan. They were adequate but had been built for Japanese needs. The Thai railways had taken the Japanese designs and designed a new batch of sleepers to meet their own standards. These newer cars were excellent, with abundant storage racks, more numerous electric fans, better lighting, and more easily cleaned restrooms. Air-conditioned equipment in 1974 was rare, confined to 1st Class, and only available on true express trains.
On my last visit to Thailand in 1985 there were new air-conditioned 2nd Class sleepers and coaches on some trains. These were quite comfortable. My only complaint was that the windows were sealed. It cut off the outside smells and made buying food at stations more difficult. Getting out of one of these straight into the suffocating humid tropical heat of a Thai Summer was a real shock to the system.
Old schedules from 1975 show the fares to be very reasonable. A rountrip to Bangkok to Haadyai, 1,890 kilometers (1,138 miles), cost about $24.00 including a bed. A lower berth cost 2nd Class (roughly $7.50) plus approximately $3.00 for the lower berth and $1.5 for extra fare. The upper berth was cheaper at the equivalent of $1.50 including bedding. The roundtrip excursion from Haadyai to Nakorn Sri Thammarat, 366 kilometers (227 miles) roundtrip had been about Baht 40 or $2.00 in reasonably adequate 3rd Class without any extra fare.
I have made many rail journeys since my adventure of that day in December, 1974. No words spoken on any trip before or since have meant as much as the stationmaster's "Rhot-fy by Haadyai my maa khrap!"
The Songkhla Bullet - Smuggler's Express
Revised July 16, 1999 - Phil
Abbey - From Journal in May, 1995
Comments to email@example.com
Steam Locomotive Photos by Author 1973-1975
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