I love trains. Not like love trains. I don’t perch myself on bridges and underpasses and count them or mark down their times and carriage numbers, but as a means of journey they are at the top of my list. It goes beyond the simple nostalgic romanticism for simpler, slower days. It allows a different type of travel especially compared to buses or planes.
Planes are nice and clean and they work but they are essentially like sitting in a small room without moving for anywhere between 1 and 24 hours. If someone asked you to sit still in a room for 24 hours you’d say they were mad. And buses…well that’s just a lottery and a minefield. There are too many factors at play that are totally out of your control. The variables are:
- Quality of the bus and seats
- Temperament and skill of the driver (or low desire to live as seems the case in SE Asia)
- The quality and nature of the road
- Other road users
- All and any other environmental factors (traffic, road works, festivals, animals, rain, sleet, hail etc etc.)
Any one of those small factors can turn a beautiful sojourn into a lunch returning sweaty palmed nightmare.
But trains….well most of those factors are taken out of the equation. No traffic, no bends, no driver variables and an almost melodious homogeneity to the “road”. Straight, unwavering, smooth.
Which leaves you with only one thing to do which is look out the window and think and watch. Time passes more quickly and one of the coolest things is laying your head down to sleep with the rolling, the rattle and the clanks while you are still hurtling towards our destination. It’s almost cheating.
Something about it reminds me of driving when I was young in those good old days before seatbelts were truly compulsory. We would be returning home late from the other side of town maybe a family reunion or some old friend of mum and dad’s who place in the picture I never entirely understood. I would watch the repeating patterns of yellowed street lights sweeping across the door frame. Then sometimes I would undo my seatbelt and slide down into the footwell behind the drivers seat and just listen and watch. See the detail in the carpet, feel the warmth of the steel around me, smell the vinyl, soak up the different sounds that came through all muffled and changed. And I would look up and see the street lights again but this time further away and maybe I would try and guess how close we were to home by the sequence of bends in the road.
So here I am again but the picture is a little different. I am on the night train from Penang, Malaysia and we are somewhere South of Bangkok on the Thai peninsula. I have just waved goodnight to my wife across the aisle and my smallest daughter is trying valiantly to fight off sleep because she is afraid that she may get lost if she wakes alone in the night on the top bunk and cant find us. I am on the lower bunk and I think the last awake on the train.
It is an aging old thing but still comfortable. It is a little loud and the Thai railway seems to run through every town there is so we cant get above about 60km/h. Crossing bridges sounds like a jet engine taking off suddenly all around you but somehow I think I will still sleep. I will close my eyes and feel the roll and sway, feel the life of my little fellow travellers to my left, and above and slightly behind me. Another border crossed, another stamp in the passport, another currency, another language, another world. Another little indelible stamp in our children’s minds. So in 30 years they might be writing a travel blog with the words…”Something about this reminds me of when I was young….on the train at night from Penang to Bangkok….”