Train to Kanchanaburi

I had already braced myself for resistance and consequential complaints the moment I started pitching to my friend, Ray, about my plan for us to take a train from Bangkok to a place called Kanchanaburi. “It’s just a 3-hour train ride, I promise it’s going to be fun!” Like most people, the idea of a non-air-conditioned train in a tropical developing country did not sound fun at all to him. But Ray was busy with his PhD and he wasn’t into planning trips. I, on the other hand, was the one visiting him and with the propensity to plan my holidays. He reluctantly agreed that I could go ahead and do all the planning, and I knew he was hoping I wouldn’t line up anything too adventurous and inconvenient as I usually did.

During my PhD, Ray had visited me in Singapore 3 times, which was why when he told me he was moving to Thailand to do his PhD, I didn’t think twice of booking a ticket to visit him. To properly set the story of our adventure, one must know that Ray is almost my complete opposite. Like our MBTI personalities read, we have nothing in common but the propensity for introversion and judgement. Otherwise, Ray is the paragon of logic and practicality (ISTJ) whereas I am the queen of emotion and feelings (INFJ). We’ve known each other a little over a decade, but I’m not sure when we actually started to become friends. I do remember it began with him amiably bullying me when I was in college. I couldn’t completely blame him, I had a propensity then to be childish, a prude (in his words), rigid (again his words) and a geek (and again, his words). I arrived in the most notoriously radical (and brilliant, forgive me for the school pride) university in the country after coming from an exclusive Catholic all-girls school. It couldn’t be helped, especially when I was already timid even then in high school. Ray was ahead of me by a year – we met at the university’s pre-medical society where he was a member before I became one. We were the only engineering students during our time – he was in mechanical and I was in chemical. The reason why we were in a pre-medical society is a story too long to be recounted here, but being in the same college meant we had a few things in common. Our organization was previously what you would label as a confraternity and our initiation rights, although onerous and demanding, was the basis of our strong bonds within. On his final year, he became the president of the society while I was effectively the vice-president. He ruled with efficiency and competitiveness whereas I troubled myself with building inspiration and ensuring accommodation. Naturally, we had a lot of arguments. Surprisingly though, those arguments never spilled into our personal relationship as after graduation, it became clear that our friendship (also with another person, Renee) was one of those cliques that endured despite the end of school.

I left Singapore on a Thursday and arrived in Bangkok on a Friday. I had paid an extra 90 USD to avoid telling my boss that I got my booking wrong for almost 4 months and thus failed to notice that the original flight was scheduled on a Wednesday. I didn’t have holiday leave left to clear anyway, everything else was pegged for Christmas. So much for buying ahead. Bangkok was a place I had been to twice before. As I was coming from a place also known for shopping and eating, I wasn’t keen on staying in Bangkok. I also thought it would be nice to force take Ray on a rendezvous in the countryside as his PhD woes had taken a toll on him over the last few months. Fresh air might do him well. I knew he was more of the holiday-to-relax traveler rather than the holiday-to-adventure, but I was too starry-eyed with my vision for this holiday – it had to be a mixture of both. I arrived in the older airport, Don Mueang, and took a Grab to Ray’s student apartment. During the ride, I was gripped with the realization that the last time I was in Bangkok 5 years ago, I had no Google Map on my phone, Grab had not existed, and mobile data was not cheap (or even available – at least for my social spectrum). I wondered how I planned the last holiday we had as a complete family here and I thought about digging the itinerary I had sent to my mom’s email. Unfortunately, that would have been deleted by Yahoo already.

Half of my luggage was Ray’s cookies and chocolates. That was another thing we didn’t have in common: he had a serious liking for sweets, whereas I went for more of the savoury items. I also had a tendency to eat fast while he preferred to lounge about as he snacked. “I hope you don’t eat like that when you’re out on a date”, Ray chided me. “Of course I don’t. What are you acting surprised about, I’ve always eaten fast”, I answered. “I thought you would have outgrown it by now. Clearly not”. *laughter* I was also adventurous in my food choices, whereas he admittedly describes his palate as unrefined. That was what he said the morning I volunteered to make breakfast at the hostel we went to. I asked him whether he liked the way I seasoned the omelette, with thyme or did he prefer it without. He told me he didn’t taste any particular difference. After unloading all his “pasalubongs” and giggling at our reunion after a long time, we had about an hour left to sleep before preparing for the 7:50 am train ride.

5:30 am, I woke up as scheduled. I announced “Mawnin” to Ray the moment I got up. It was my way of annoying him – with words that were weird and didn’t make sense (like “aftii” for afternoon and “nuhnyt” for good night). He rolled over in his mattress and, surely, was already hating my decision to leave that early. We got ready to leave soon after and rode a cab to the Thonburi train station. Ray had sent me photos of the train station a few days before when he inquired if it was possible to book tickets early. It wasn’t necessary, as much as there wasn’t any facility/app to do that – the train wasn’t going to be full, they said. He told me he was scared upon seeing the train, I dismissed him with an “it’s just for a few hours”. Ray had told me that his professor had shared that the railway was more than a century old already. It was evident – but we weren’t strangers to old trains. There was a train almost like this in the Philippines, we didn’t ride it regularly but we’ve been on it for short rides. The state railway of Thailand was an open railway, one that didn’t have fences bordering it – and a train where you could readily jump on or down from if you had the courage/need to do so. The toilet was the quintessential open hole on the ground, it didn’t reek of any smell at all.

P1120890Thonburi station at Bangkok

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P1130212River Kwai

Before (happy) and after (not amused anymore) the 8-hour train ride

The train left just a little bit later than scheduled (surprising when you consider how the Thais seemed to regard time). We got a seat each to ourselves, and it was more comfortable than we had expected. Ray had initially expressed dissatisfaction that the seat angles were 90 degrees with 0 degree of possible recline, but we soon realized that it was more comfortable than having to ride in a cramped van. Save for the heat, the entire ride was actually enjoyable. The views would not deserve a “spectacular” (from us, being from the Philippines), but they were certainly a welcome respite from the city. There were fields, mountains and beautiful rivers. There wasn’t any buffet car, but several vendors repeatedly plied the aisle, alternating different baskets of food. There were mangoes, pineapples, sausages, fish balls, noodles wrapped in paper, fried chicken with sticky rice, rice-banana cakes, boiled eggs, drinks and what-not. I bought mostly fruits and queer-looking items while Ray bought 3 sets of fried chicken with sticky rice (one he unfortunately dropped on the floor). It was such a relaxing ride that Ray actually found himself enjoying it. I was relieved – I was saved from possible scolding. When we were about 2 hours into the ride, I launched my plan and asked Ray if he would consider traveling to the end of the line (Nam Tok station) and just going back to our Kanchanaburi stop after. “It’s just a few stops away and the reviews say the views are breathtaking. It’s the only way we can see the Death Railway.” “I’m pretty sure it was white foreigners who wrote those reviews”, Ray countered. That was true, what was breathtaking and exotic to Westerners in Thailand would most likely be something we had similar back home. I reasoned that with our schedule, it wouldn’t be possible to cover the Death Railway (one of my our objectives) if we didn’t go ahead with the train ride. As we were already there and Ray was quite amused with the ride, he agreed. Unbeknownst to us, the train ride to the end of the Nam Tok and back to Kanchanaburi was another 4 hours – giving a total of 8 hours on the rail. Due to expected inefficiencies, the ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi took 4 hours rather than 3. Thankfully, the view didn’t disappoint and Ray only started getting seriously bored 2 hours before we reached Kanchanaburi again. During the trip, I had made a stronger realization how Ray was only interested in things that he could draw facts/conclusions from, being a “sensor” than a “feeler”. I would announce and point with wonder “birds”, “corn field”, “river”, and what-not as I stared into the window. While at first he looked out and ended up not being impressed, later on he just smiled at me in response with an I’m-sure-whatever-that-is-is-of-no-interest-to-me look, while not bothering to look. Upon reaching Nam Tok, we had to buy new tickets to go back the opposite direction (both ways were ~3 USD each). The conductor told us the train was only stopping for 10 minutes, yet the ticket counter took more than a minute dispensing a ticket to every person on the cue. Ray asked me to stay inside the train as he took it upon himself to buy. Thankfully he got them just a few minutes before the train left and we both laughed at how we knew he would have just come running back to the train if they sounded the horn while he was in line.

We arrived at D Hostel at around 4:00 pm covered in grime and sporting dishevelled hair. I was looking forward to this booking as it was supposed to be a lake-view room. True enough, the place was surprisingly beautiful. We got the most expensive option which set us back by a mere 25 USD a night. The room was bare but we had full-length windows fronting the Kwai River. There was air-conditioning finally, and the entire hostel was tastefully designed: industrial minimalist with a touch of violet, dried flowers. If the hostel had been a disappointment, I was sure to hear it from Ray – again, I was saved. D hostel exceeded even my own expectations. I arranged for a taxi (they call it a taxi but it was more of a tuk-tuk) in 2 hours to take us to a river-side restaurant I had picked for dinner. After taking a much needed shower and rest, the taxi brought us to the wrong restaurant, albeit still beside the river. I couldn’t do much in the situation as the use of English was still limited in the area. As I struggled to try to hand-signal to the waiter that I wanted something on the other table, Ray looked at me with an “You’re on your own” expression. He sniggered as I gave up in frustration and started complaining that the English menu did not include everything on the Thai menu. “Girl, I told you not to expect them to be proficient in English, why are you getting frustrated?”. I realized he was right, I should be enjoying the fact that they didn’t speak much English – but I wasn’t enjoying the fact that it meant a whole chunk of the menu was inaccessible to me. If anything, we ended up spending less than I planned for dinner as the place I really wanted to go to was much more fancy and thus costly.

P1130233view from our room

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P1130260dinner at the wrong unplanned Thai restaurant

After dinner, Ray needed to finish an academic paper. I accompanied him by sleeping on the hammock fronting the river as he worked on a nearby table. The cold wind soon gnawed on my bones and I told him I’ll go to the room ahead of him. When I woke up the next morning (to his snoring), I was happy that Ray reported he had finished his paper. I wouldn’t have if I were him – working on a vacation was not something I do/could do. As a consequence, he had only gotten a few hours of sleep. “You can sleep in the car”, I grinned reassuringly as he groaned and refused to get up from bed. D hostel requires/allows you to cook your own breakfast at your own time. They provided eggs, bread, milk and jam, in addition to the usual coffee, tea and other condiments. When Ray found out about this the other day, he asked me if I think we could cook some eggs for midnight snack – to which I disagreed because I was the one assigned to cooking between us and therefore the one most likely to get reprimanded if that wasn’t the case. I made us breakfast that morning and we left the hostel at 7:30 am with a hired vehicle to drive us to Erawan waterfalls (45 USD Kanchanaburi-Erawan-Kanchanaburi). It was a little over an hour to the Erawan National Park and our driver brought along his wife. Ray and I sat at the back, him making jokes and me giggling in laughter for the most part (we both love sarcasm to help you imagine the kind of humor we share). We laughed at how the situation was like “mom and pop” driving us on a road trip. In some stretches of the road, you could see the beautiful river and mountains. We reached Erawan almost 9 am and started our climb up to the multi-tiered waterfalls. Although the easiest to reach, our favorite would be the 2nd level – where you can swim with “flesh-eating fishes”, as some blogs have unpleasantly described. It was akin to going on a fish spa where fishes nibbled on the dead skin of your soles, except the fishes were much, much bigger. Anyway, if you swam into the center, the fishes were bound to ignore you. I dragged Ray into the upper levels as much as I could, while he complained along the way. To be fair, as he had also insisted, while he complains, he still continues with it. He just needed to be vocal about being tired. After reaching the 7th level, we brought up the concept of “diminishing marginal return”, a.k.a. “you’ve seen one waterfall, you’ve seen them all – in this case we’ve seen 7”, so we decided it was time to head back to lunch at the park entrance.

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Upon getting back to the vehicle, I told our driver that we were ready to go to “Hellfire Pass”, as we discussed the day before. He insisted I didn’t say that and I insisted I did. Again, Ray left me to argue my side as he told me he was done with trying to explain in vain to his own set of Thais his many concerns. I gave up Hellfire Pass and agreed to proceed to the Death Railway at Wang Pho instead. The track between Wang Pho and Lum Sum is accessible to tourists, even if the regular train actually runs through it. When our driver dropped us off at Wang Pho, he explained to us in his limited English that he’ll meet us at the other side after we cross the tracks. I happily and excitedly agreed, and Ray and I got down and proceeded to the railway. It was scorching hot by this time and upon reaching the railway, we saw that the “other side” was farther than we expected. “There’s no way I’m crossing that”, Ray flat-out said. “But he said he’s meeting us there”. “I don’t care, I’m not crossing. We’ll just have to tell him to go back to where he dropped us off. Nobody’s crossing don’t you see?”. True enough, we didn’t really see anyone else crossing the entire length to the other side. There was no use arguing with him. It didn’t help that the track was above a river and if the train did arrive (and it did – a few minutes after we turned back), we had no idea where to jump to. Although it would have made a great story had we encountered the train and survived, it was a story Ray did not allow. Fortunately, our driver drove back to Wang Pho and we proceeded to apologize profusely. He didn’t seem that worked up and he started driving us back to River Kwai.

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When our driver stopped at River Kwai, he expected us to go to another part of the railway track. But I wasn’t interested in that segment, and though I tried to explain earlier that we wanted to skip this and go back to the hostel already, Ray told me that it might be best to just go with the motion of going down as amends to having made him drive back earlier. We went down and feigned crossing the street towards the railway, and started walking back to the nearby market when our driver went ahead to the parking area. I ended up eating pad thai at a street stall, while Ray bought a bag of the popular Thai coconut rolls. After a few minutes, we called our driver to tell him we were ready. Ray offered them some coconut rolls, surely our earlier offense was already forgiven.

When we got back to D Hostel that afternoon, we looked forward to just lounging in the room. As there was a lot of catching up to do, Ray and I couldn’t stop laughing in between the different things we talked about. Being my usual self around him, which was me being the real weird me, Ray jokingly announced that “We really need to find you a boyfriend because I don’t have patience for this”, but took it back a few seconds later saying “Oh no, you can’t get married and leave me like Bes”. Another round of laughter from the both of us, but truly that was one of the sweetest things he’s ever said to me. While Ray’s humor was centered around making fun of me, I didn’t really mind it and on the contrary, it was even more amusing to me. I certainly made fun of him as well and the reason why we get along is that he enjoys it too. That was the kind of friendship we had, despite our many differences in opinion and perspective. We accepted each other’s quirks and built on those differences as complements. While we usually bring up contradicting arguments on serious matters, we’ve been friends long enough to know how to accommodate the other person’s views, and in that way grow towards understanding another perspective as well.

We went to the local night market for dinner that day and I ended up buying black rice and a few vintage, ceramic plates. We left on a van at 7:00 am the next day as Ray had had enough of the train ride going to Kanchanaburi. It was for the better as well since I had a plane to catch that night and taking a van gave me the chance to go to Ray’s university (Thammasat) using the river taxi.

I left Bangkok that night with a full stomach of gas from laughing – I don’t think I had laughed that much or that long ever. A lot of my “emotions and feelings” from this trip has been written into a personal letter for Ray (who I actually call “Rhubz” in real life, derived from the word “Rabbi” – yeah I’m/we’re weird), and sadly a lot of the inside jokes were not written in this post for they would most likely lose their humor without context. Nevertheless, Kanchanaburi was an unexpected gem of a travel, considering how near it is from Bangkok yet still how amazing the experience was. Only if you take an 8-hour train ride of course. And only if it was with the same company. Thank you, Rhubz, for this truly memorable experience! đŸ™‚

If you want to watch how we really were in real life, this other video is our behind-the-scenes. Proof of non-stop giggling over the weekend.

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