A RIDE ON THE MAEKLONG RAILWAY IN 2006
This article was originally published in April 2006.
PART ONE – A RIDE ON THE MAEKLONG RAILWAY
There are two kinds of trips that I love doing but don’t often get a chance. These are boat trips and train trips. Well, this weekend I had a chance to do just that and I must tell you that I had a great time. For quite a few years I have heard stories about the mysterious Maeklong Railway that runs from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram, south-west of the capital. The railway is not part of the national network and you won’t find any of the train times listed on the timetable at the State Railway’s website. Not only that, but there is only one narrow track which is broken about half way by a river. Here you have to disembark and cross to the other side by boat. Then, at the far end you will find that the train tracks double as a market! It all seemed to good to be true and I had to take this journey before it became a thing of the past.
We started our trip in Bangkok on a Sunday morning. For most people, there are two well-known train terminals in Bangkok. These are Hualamphong Station and Bangkok Noi Station. However, there is one more on the west bank which not many people know about. It is called Wong Rian Yai and is just south of the large roundabout of the same name. It is easy to find the roundabout as it has a large statue of King Taksin (no relation to Prime Minister Thaksin). However, the station is so tucked away that you really have to keep your eyes peeled as you are driving along. There only evidence that there is a station is a sign in Thai.
We turned in and found that there were only four parking spaces which were all taken. So we decided to drive further on down this narrow road. On both sides were vendors selling food and snacks to people waiting for the train. As we progressed the road became narrower and narrower. It became so narrow that we were starting to wonder whether we were going the right way. But we finally reached a place where we could safely park the car for the day. The attendant told us it would be 20 baht for the first two hours. I told him we were going to Samut Songkhram and would be away for the whole day. This seemed to shake him rather. Why would we want to take the train to Samut Songkram when we had a perfectly good car? In fact he was right. It would have been a lot quicker for us to drive straight there along the main highway. In the end he compromised on a fee of 50 baht.
Trains leave Wong Wian Yai about every hour between 5.30 a.m. and 8.10 p.m. The first stretch takes you to Samut Sakhon, which is confusingly called Mahachai by the local people. So, when you go to buy your ticket, make sure you say Mahachai. Here you catch a ferry to the other side and then buy another ticket to take you to Samut Songkhram. This also has a second name which is more commonly used by the locals. This time you need to ask for a ticket to Maeklong (the “k” is pronounced as a “g” ). You really have to plan your day well because the timetables don’t really match. Sometimes when your train arrives the other is leaving. Other times you only have 30 minutes or as much as two hours! We decided to catch the 10.40 a.m. train which gave us 110 minutes in Mahachai and 60 minutes in Maeklong.
I think there are only two or three train on this line. You couldn’t really have more as it is a single track. The trains can only pass when they are in a station. If you are feeling the heat, you will be glad to know that the 10.40 a.m. train has an air-conditioned carriage. The trip to Mahachai costs a whopping 10 baht. If you decide to sit in the air-con carriage, the conductor will ask you for an extra 15 baht. About 60 cents in total for a one hour journey! Not bad when you consider how much it would have cost me in petrol if I had driven there.
The train left on time and we trundled out of the station. After about 15 minutes we started to leave the big city behind us and the concrete blocks were replaced by banana plants and orchards. There were a number of brief stops along the way but none of them lasted for long. A few times when we stopped the only evidence I could see that we were at a station was a sign in Thai and English and a small patch of gravel. As we approached most of the roads, the driver blew his whistle and slowed down as he carefully looked both ways. He then crossed the road. Many of these roads didn’t have any barriers to stop the cars. Every now and then we were back into another community or passed a few factories. But, most of the time we were in the countryside. I must admit I was a bit like an excited schoolboy and kept looking out of the window on both sides. (A small tip, if you do decide to ride the air-conditioned car, you won’t see much out of the dirty windows!)
We arrived in Mahachai on time at 11.39 a.m. The time had passed quite quickly. We climbed down from the train on the lefthand side. But there was no obvious way to leave the station as there was another train blocking our away. This train was nearly full and it looked like it was about to depart. However, people from our train started to climb up into this train and out the other side. So, we decided to do the same. We weren’t actually in a rush as we had a full 110 minutes before the next train left from the station on the other side of the river. I reckoned it would take us at least 15 minutes to cross. Call it 30 minutes to be safe. As we had plenty of time I wandered to the area at the back of the train to take some pictures of the market vendors.
PART TWO – FISH MARKET IN SAMUT SAKHON
On Sunday, I caught the Maeklong Commuter Train down to Mahachai which is otherwise known as Samut Sakhon. It is only an hour away from Bangkok by train. But, unlike my home province of Samut Prakan, they didn’t seem to be so used to seeing foreigners. In fact, the whole day I didn’t see another “farang”. I have passed through Samut Sakhon a few times on my way to the beach resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin but I have never stopped. From the main highway I could see many big fishing boats as we drove over the Tha Chin river. I had always meant to stop to take a closer look but I never did. So, I was really pleased to have a two hour stopover here on Sunday while I was waiting for the next train.
You can exit the station either by walking to the front of the train and turning left through the main doors or walking to the back and turning right. In both cases walk down to the main road and turn right. On both sides of the road you will see many market vendors selling the usual fruit and vegetables but also a lot of seafood. After all, Samut Sakhon has one of the biggest seafood markets in the country. The smell of fish was very strong in the air and if you love seafood then you should come and visit here. There seemed to be quite a few shops selling dried fish. Some fish were really bizzare shapes. On the lefthand side of this road is the market and beyond that Mahachai Canal. If you want to see the fishermen offloading their catch then you need to come here early in the morning. The market starts to slow down by about 10 a.m.
We decided to find out first where the pier was to catch the ferry boat to the other side of the river. As I mentioned before, there is no bridge so the first part of the line terminates here. You then have to cross the river to catch another train on the other side in order to continue your journey to Maeklong. We weren’t too sure which way to go but in the end it turned out to be quite easy. We just walked to the far end of this road. At the point where it did a sharp right turn there is the city pillar shrine and a Chinese shrine right in front. To our left was a clock tower and the pier for the ferry boats. This is the point where the Mahachai Canal meets the river. The sign said it would cost us 2 baht to cross to the other side. The were only two boats working but there didn’t seem to be much of a wait. By this time we still had over an hour before we had to catch the next train. We were planning on exploring the city pillar shrine and then walk back to explore the market and jetty more before having some noodles for lunch. However, we soon had a change of plan.
While we were walking around the jetty, a guy called out to me and asked if I wanted to rent a boat. I was interested but wasn’t too sure if we had enough time. I asked how much and he said 600 baht for the boat. The price was a little steep but it was a big boat and fuel expenses have gone up a lot recently. He said the trip would last about an hour and that he would take us out to the mouth of the river. I said that we had a train to catch on the other side at 1.30 p.m. He said we would have plenty of time. But, if we didn’t he would drop us off on the other side in order to save time. I still wasn’t sure whether to go or not. I do like boat trips but I also wanted to explore the market more. He saw my hesitation and quickly agreed to a cheaper price of 500 baht. So, I thought, why not? I can always drive back down here on another day to see the early morning market. So, we climbed aboard his boat and set off to explore the harbour.
It is the middle of summer at the moment and the temperatures are in the high 30’s. Luckily, the boat had a roof for us to shelter under and the natural air-conditioning contributed to a pleasant boat ride. It was already after noon and there wasn’t too much activity in the harbour. Most of the boats had returned earlier in the morning and had offloaded their catch. Now the fishermen were either sleeping or preparing their boats to go back out to sea. A few looked like they had only just got back and they were offloading barrels full of fish. Many of the fishing boats are multicoloured and if you look carefully at the front you will see a small shrine that is set up to keep them safe while at sea. Our boatman took us all the way out to the river mouth where he turned around and took us back along the opposite bank. It wasn’t really an exciting boat trip. You may remember me writing about a similar boat trip to the river mouth at Bang Pakong to see the dolphins. Here there were only fishing boats. However, we had time to kill and it was a pleasant way to spend it.
About an hour later we arrived back at our starting point next to the clock tower. We were planning on eating here but decided that as we only had 20 minutes left we would catch the passenger ferry to the other side and eat there. We paid our 2 baht and boarded the ferry along with a few motorcycles. The trip across took less than five minutes. From the jetty we turned right and walked through a temple until we reach the train tracks. We could then see the station to our right. Plenty of time to buy a ticket and have a quick bowl of noodles.
PART THREE – MARKET ON THE RAILWAY LINE
I have been telling you about my recent trip on the Maeklong Railway in Thailand where my first stop was Samut Sakhon (otherwise known as Mahachai). This city has one of the biggest fish markets in the country and I enjoyed myself looking around and also going on a boat trip on the river. The railway line from Bangkok opened to the public in 1905. Along its 31 km length there are 18 stations, though we didn’t stop at all of them. There has been talk of discontinuing this service but I don’t think they will do so. There were four carriages and some people had to stand up for the journey.
At Mahachai, we had to catch a ferry to the other side of the river in order to continue our journey to Samut Songkhram (otherwise known as Maeklong). We had to wait around for a while because the times didn’t match up. They don’t really expect you to go all the way from Bangkok to Maeklong. Actually, the second section from Ban Laem to Maeklong doesn’t seem as popular. There are only four trains a day and two carriages. But for me, it was the best section of the railway.
Our train was due to leave at 1.30 p.m. We had 110 minutes to explore Mahachai. This is the last train you can catch if you want to return the same day as the next train at 4.40 p.m. spends the night in Maeklong! The only other trains are 7.30 a.m. and 10.10 a.m. When you go to buy the ticket you need to say you want to go to Maeklong. Don’t forget to pronounce it “mae-glong”. This will set you back 10 baht for the one hour journey. This line is slightly longer at 33 kms. If you arrive too late then you can buy the ticket on the train. Or, if you do that boat ride I mentioned before then you can ask your boatman to drop you off at Talat Phlu which is the second stop on the line.
This section of the railways spends more time in the countryside. The areas here is not so built up and the journey proved to be more enjoyable. When you go, make sure you get a window seat on the left hand side. There is more action and scenery on this side! It isn’t long before the greenery makes way for the salt farms and windmills. Saltwater is pumped into shallow, large ponds in the fields and then left to drain. As we passed we could see dozens of people raking salt into piles. At another place people were loading large sacks of salt onto a truck. It was fascinating to watch them at work as we trundled past at a leisurely pace. I made a mental note to come back here by car to explore the salt farms.
The journey was over very quickly and we soon entered a built up area. The outskirts of Maeklong. I knew that during the last 100 metres or so the train would pass through a market. Literally. I know it sounds strange but this was my planned highlight of the trip. I wanted to get pictures of the market stallholders pulling back their produce as we passed through the market. It had always intrigued me and I wanted to come and see for myself. For this event, I made sure I was at the front of the train. The door to the driver’s cabin was open and I asked him if it was OK if I took some pictures. He said “no problem”. As we approached a corner he sounded his whistle a number of times. Then, as we rounded the corner we were presented with the image in the above pictures. I thought I would see people rushing to grab their vegetables before it was run over by the train. But, they knew the train was coming and everything had been cleared!
I took a few pictures here, then went back to my seat to see if I could take some pictures of the people in the market from my window. But, as they had pulled back their awnings, I couldn’t see anything! In fact, we were so close that I didn’t dare to stick my head out of the window. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it but nevertheless it was an interesting experience. A short while later we arrived at the final stop on the line. In front of us was another river blocking our way. There was a ferry here to the other side but sadly no more tracks. The next train to leave was at 3.30 p.m. so we had about an hour to explore the city. Not enough time to go on the river but time enough to explore that market on the railways tracks.
By the time we had walked to the market at the rear of the train everything was back to normal. The awnings had been pulled back to give shelter from the blazing sun. All of the vegetables and seafood had been pushed back closer to the line. If you look closely at the picture, you will see that some of the seafood containers are on wheels. For these they just pull them back to let the train pass. However, other people have to literally carry their vegetables away from the tracks. The market vendors are actually on either side of the tracks. It is the customer who has to walk down the middle of the tracks. This is probably OK for Thai people but I had to keep ducking as there wasn’t much headroom here.
As we went along I took quite a few pictures and also bought some seafood for my meal that night. As I asked for the price in Thai the vendor was taken back and started asking me a bunch of questions. Where was I from? What work was I doing? How long had I been in Thailand? Then, as I walked on, I could hear her excitedly telling other sellers all about me. It was so obvious they don’t get many foreigners down here. Actually, that reminds me. When we were in Mahachai, a Thai family came up to me waving their camera. Of course I thought they wanted me to take their family portrait. I often volunteer to do this. However, the mother wanted her picture taken with me! Now, that hasn’t happened to me for a long time. I remember when I was backpacking across China more than 10 years ago I used to have people lining up to have their picture taken with me. But not so much in Thailand.
After about 100 metres we reached the end of the market. We bought some iced coffee here near the road then turned around and proceeded to walk back through this fascinating market! We could, of course, walked back along the road, but a market like this was just too good to miss. Back at the station we still had about 20 minutes before the train was due to leave. It was actually our train and I noticed that a lot of the people that had come with us were waiting to go back. Thinking we had plenty of time we sat down and ordered a bowl of noodles each. There didn’t seem to be many people on the train so we didn’t think there was a rush to find a seat. That was our mistake.
With only five minutes to spare, we went to buy our tickets and then boarded the train. It still wasn’t full but people had reserved their seats by putting plastic water bottles or shopping on their seats. Unfortunately, all the best seats had already been taken. A lesson to learn for next time. If you do this trip then make sure you reserve your seat for the return journey before you get off. My seat this time was near the rear on the lefthandside. I had my back to the engine. I was thinking about going forward again to take some more pictures when I suddenly had this brainwave. Why didn’t I take some action shots from the rear window! This way I would get some pictures of them pushing their produce back to the tracks as we passed.
This turned out to be an excellent idea though with one small problem. The window was not only dirty but the sun was shining straight into my eyes. Not so easy to take pictures but then I had this other idea. Why not take a video? So, I ended up with an excellent one minute video. This worked out really well. As we passed through the market, you will be able to see the market vendors pushing their produce back to the tracks. I made a note that if I ever returned here, I would take pictures from the rear of the train as we arrived so that I wouldn’t be shooting into the sun. Then, when we left I would shoot from the front.
The return journey passed very quickly. However, it wasn’t uneventful. About halfway back, the train started to slow down (not long after passing under the main highway from Bangkok) and people rushed to the windows on the lefthandside. I couldn’t see what was going on at first. Then someone tossed out a bag of cucumbers. Then about 30 monkeys ran towards the train. I have never seen so many monkeys in one place. That was fun. After we had watched them for a while, the train continued on its journey back to Mahachai. At the terminal station, we followed everyone to the front of the train and walked the short distance to the river to a different pier. I guess this was a special boat put on for people from our train. As the trip was slightly longer it cost 5 baht instead of 2 baht.
Back in Mahachai we had about an hour to wait for our train. This was just long enough to walk around and to buy some refreshments. You know, I had a really enjoyable day. It was tiring for sure but it was fun and certainly a wonderful experience. I really want to do this again and I have already made plans. The next time I will drive down to Mahachai earlier in the morning to see the fish market. And then catch the train to Maeklong where I will spend longer in order to explore more. That way I can be there when a train arrives and passes through this wonderful market.
The next time you are in Thailand, make sure you find time for this train trip. You won’t regret it. Visit my page on the Maeklong Railway page for an up-to-date timetable and more information.
This article was originally published in April 2006.