STATE RAILWAY OF THAILAND
"Phil, it's time to renew your visa. You need to ride the Smuggler's Express down to Padang Besar and back on Friday." My leader told me one morning over breakfast. He then went on to explain the train he was referring to was nicknamed the Smuggler's Express because, you guessed it, a large number of the passengers were carrying contraband to the border and back. It was late in October of 1973 and I had been living and teaching in Thailand for almost 90 days. My new visa needed validating. Padang Besar is a small Malaysian town on the Thai frontier 28 rail miles southwest of Haadyai, Thailand.
Price arbitrage for different goods exists between many countries and can promote an underground economy. The basis of the activity between Thailand and Malaysia was the relative price of the basic staple, rice. In Thailand the benchmark price for common rice in 1973 was 4 Baht ($.20) per kilogram. In Malaysia the floor price was the equivalent of 16 Baht ($.80) per kg. Jasmine rice from Thailand sold at a premium in Malaysia. Whole families lived on that spread. Needless to say, with rice importing/exporting a defacto state monopoly, the governments of both countries attempted to control the flow of rice.
The smugglers made their small effort at free enterprise by evading both sets of customs officers, carrying rice across the frontier in 50-100 pound sacks and selling it in Padang Besar and then either pocketing the cash or, if they were more ambitious, do the reverse trip with contraband perfume, small electronic gadgets, or hot cassette tapes, to increase the daily take.
Transportation for this libertarian enterprise was provided by the State Railway of Thailand for a small price. There were 4-5 round trips scheduled on a branch that went to a small town on a nearly dead end branch. Only a single Malayan Railways diesel railcar and a not quite daily international express crossed the frontier.
A bit before the appointed hour, 6:50, on Friday, I walked with camera, lunch, and passport the three blocks to the Haadyai station and bought my third class ticket for local train #425. The roundtrip fare was 5 Baht, roughly 25 cents at the time.
On these local trains to the border sometimes there were nearly as many people riding on top of the train as were riding inside. Riding this super economy class was not without its hazards as spills off the roof were usually fatal.
The train was made up of seven or eight cream and burgundy coaches and a baggage car pulled by a beautiful Japanese built wood-burning Pacific (4-6-2). As the train filled with people carrying large, heavy bags I noticed eyes staring at the camera with distrust. Into the day bag with it. Photographs were not encouraged.
By departure time it seemed that every cubic millimeter of space was filled with people and more were still climbing on board. At the last minute, with whistles blowing and green flags waving, rice sacks were hoisted in through windows and thrown, wiry little men throwing 100 pound bags, up onto the roof. We were off!
A few minutes later the train crew started checking tickets. This was accompanied by lots of clicking from punches and casual conversation as they worked their way through each coach. The crew made an attempt at the first stop, Ban Phru, to clear everybody off the roof but it was futile. As soon as we started up, the roof riders made a dash for their perches. Consciences clear, the crew ignored the problem for the rest of the trip.
My fellow travellers were a cross section of Asia. Chinese, Thai, Malays, and Indian faces. Some old, some not, and about half younger women. All making a business trip to the border. The locomotive never missed a beat as we moved along the well maintained rising track. The gentle locomotive chuffing, light wood smoke pushed up by the smoke deflectors and the musical sound of a steam whistle. A step back in time to 1920s America.
After making several stops at typical cream colored stucco and weathered wood wayside stations the train came to a complete halt in a grade cut. Passengers piled off and scrambling away from the train, leaving only two foreigners and a few other legitimate travelers. Thai Customs officers swarmed through the train inspecting everybody and everything. An unattended bag or two were confiscated. Then words were exchanged with the "innocent" bystanders, 600 people milling around in the middle of nowhere, the whistle blew and the train started to move very slowly. Immediately the train was mobbed by the waiting riders.
As we approached Padang Besar's station and customs post the train slowed to a crawl and the train emptied again. I noticed the border fence was holed in several places. Police on both sides were patrolling with dogs. As the smugglers ran through the fence a few were snagged but the police were overwhelmed by several hundred people dashing through the wire.
At the station I went through the customs and immigration routine leaving Thailand and entering Malaysia. Stand in line, a smile, forms, rubber stamps, a few questions, walk through the barrier, and repeat the process.
I had about one hour left before the train turned around so I cruised the town on the Malaysian side. The rice buyers were close to the fence but away from the marked customs zone, with huge ten-wheeled Mercedes Benz trucks. They seemed to buy as much Thai rice as possible from my fellow travellers.
Padang Besar had only one main market street with a few side streets. It seemed that every shop sold consumer goods that were heavily taxed in Thailand. The main street was packed with people doing deals and hauling gear. Some I recognized from the early morning adventure as they picked their goods for the return journey.
I had my camera out ready to shoot the general street scene when a small Chinese girl walked up, pulled my shirt and handed me a note. The note said, "Please teacher, put the camera away NOW." I did!
On the Thai side of the border there was a small settlement for the government officers, a school, and a small railway shop with a turntable. One of my students worked there for a time. He told me that they mostly did light maintenance on steam locomotives to relieve pressure on the main shop in Haadyai. With complete dieselization the Padang Besar shop was planned to be closed.
The return to Haadyai was much the reverse of the outbound trip. A few foreigners or others that needed official stamps worked their way through the checkpoints along with me. Lots of stamps from both countries, a few smiles and a quick search of my day bag. I was obviously not local and needed to obey the rules.
As the appointed hour for departure, 9:30, came close, the engine whistle gave a blast or two. People began running through the fence again and stood around the train. Customs officers walked the train, and got off. The engine whistled to start moving. At that instant the train filled with all the standees.
At the cut we stopped again and the same charade was repeated. At the last station before Haadyai, the roof riders were cleared off without fuss and we arrived back into Haadyai as if all was normal.
For my naive eyes it had been quite an adventure. The train ride had been beautiful and a stage for drama. Everybody involved benefitted in one way or another, train crew, police, and passengers. The local economy also benefitted.
The train consist made three round trips daily. Each trip equally packed out with passengers. One interesting point was that they didn't really connect with any specific trains on the Malaysian side but were usually full, rain or shine, blistering hot or comfortably balmy. The Smuggler's Express was part of the fabric of life in southern Thailand.
Last Train to Haadyai -The Songkhla Bullet
Phil Abbey - The event first
took place in August of 1973. Written from memories in July, 1995. Revised
July 16, 1999.
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