That most venerable matriarch of south-east Asian rail travel, Bangkok’s much-loved Hua Lamphong station, is about to be shunted into the sidings. Next month the grande dame will in effect be handed her redundancy notice by the opening of upstart Bang Sue, a spanking new airport-lookalike rail hub, 8km to the north.
The anodyne Bang Sue Grand Station, with 26 platforms over four floors, will be the largest in the region and a key player in future rail plans — but it represents a sad day for lovers of great railway cathedrals. For the past 105 years Hua Lamphong, the airy neo-Renaissance creation of Italian architect Mario Tamagno, has suffused the Thai rail travel experience with something approaching the sacred.
Its marble floor and huge, vaulting arched roof, with stained-glass windows at either end, have bestowed a sense of peace on the expectant congregation inside, with its liberal benediction of saffron-robed monks. Pale, sepulchral light rinses the concourse as far as a ticket barrier.
The station was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn, a Europe enthusiast who first brought rail transport to Thailand in the late 19th century, and it was partially modelled on Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof. For many a traveller from overseas, discovering the east for the first time, its balustraded threshold has been a magic portal: board a sleeper in the heart of Bangkok’s pungent maelstrom, and wake up among the rainforested tribal mountains of the north, or the golden beaches and tropical islands of the south.
For most of its existence, the station has barely changed, a sanctuary in a fast-evolving world. Bangkok’s massive tiger economy was accelerating rapidly when I first embarked on a train here, back in the early 1980s. The streets outside were showered in soot from a cacophony of tuk-tuks and overloaded city buses that kangarooed from one traffic light to the next — yet inside the station, all was calm.
Back then, the booking office had its own pace. It sat in one of the side arcades, where you queued at the inquiries desk for the relevant docket, then at the appropriate desk for your reservation, before being reunited with your paperwork at the payments desk. Each clerk, wearing a State Railway of Thailand tie, sat beneath an appropriate hanging plastic sign: “north-east”. “Special tours”. “Foreigners”. Each had a heavy ledger, a set of stamps, an ink-pad like those from a child’s printing set and a cumbersome black telephone with dust on its knotted cord.
In those days, the busiest period was the early morning arrival of the night trains from up country, when the station would become a hunting ground for unscrupulous labour market dealers. Their prey were the wide-eyed daughters of rice-farmers or fishermen’s sons, clutching the name and address of some “uncle” written on a scrap of paper.
Foreigners were, and still are, largely oblivious to such undercurrents. For the most part, the station seemed safe and almost Japan-like in its cleanliness and orderliness, while the trains themselves were elderly but well-run.
Overnight departures set off from Hua Lamphong with the last of the evening sun, plodding ponderously through slices of trackside life. A tuk-tuk driver’s home on an old sofa under a tarpaulin. A net-throwing fisherman standing chest-deep in a grey khlong (canal), chain-smoking against the stench. Level crossings bisecting boulevards bulging with angry traffic, impatient at being delayed by such an old relic.
Attendants would pass through the train as darkness fell, bearing piles of fresh linen, and converting seats to beds with well-practised flourish. Meanwhile, outside, uniformed stationmasters at the tiniest of country halts would salute our passing with their green flag outstretched.
At some point I would graduate to the dining car, which back then was all linen tablecloths and orchids and woks crashing in the kitchen. There’d always be a group of military in the corner, getting pie-eyed on Mekhong rum.
That long, slow, traffic-blocking departure through downtown was Hua Lamphong’s catch-22: the trains hindered urban development, and urban development hindered the trains. Bang Sue Grand will no doubt be exempt from all that. Its devolved location is designed to allow the airport link to connect directly to the rail network, and the deployment of newer, faster trains already bought from China.
My most recent departure from Hua Lamphong was 18 months ago, heading for Chiang Mai. The booking system had gone digital, and there were massage parlours and convenience stores in the side arcades. The vast majority of passengers were tourists like me, preferring the charisma, and the economy, of a sleeper. Sadly, the dining car had lost its linen and orchids, meals were all pre-prepared, and you could no longer buy alcohol, but it was still a lovely way of feeling the countryside bump by.
Boarding at Bang Sue will make the experience more sterile, but the curtain won’t finally fall on Hua Lamphong quite yet. Bang Sue is to take over all the long-distance routes, mostly with new trains, while some of the old rolling stock (particularly those with straight-through toilets) on commuter routes will remain at Hua Lamphong until November. Thereafter the station is expected to become a stop on the commuter Red Line, currently in development, as well as a museum for railway memorabilia.
Of course, there’s always the chance that the transfer of power will be pushed back, as these things often are. If so, and the pandemic permits, I’d be very tempted to make a last excursion, to savour the night train to the mountains or the sea.
Andrew Eames is the author of ‘The 8.55 to Baghdad’ (Corgi Books)
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