Thursday 12 March 2009

Thailand: Iron horse thunders north

State Railway of Thailand rolls out an historical steam engine for an anniversary celebration, 26 March.

Ever since the first train huffed and puffed its way along a track, there have been spotters and enthusiasts in love with railway folk lore.

Thailand has its own love affair with trains, too, that dates back to the first service chugging its way north on a 60-km track from Bangkok to Ayutthaya on 26 March, 1894.

Founded by HM the King Chulalongkorn, 9 March, 1891, the State Railway of Thailand took just three years to lay the first track on what is now the trunk route to Chiang Mai.

So what's the attraction for international train spotters, 115 years after the first train steamed out of Bangkok It must be the opportunity to join the annual anniversary trip, 26 March, from the capital to the world heritage sites in the ancient city of Ayutthaya, pulled by one of SRT’s well preserved steam engines.

SRT organises three steam engine trips a year. The other two are on Chulalongkorn Day, to honour the founder of the railway, 23 October, and the birthday of HM the King, 5 December.

It’s quite an awesome sight to witness a 1930s iron horse belching black smoke and steam as its thunders along the northbound track. For train spotters it’s a dream come to true. They can reminisce and enjoy the romantic era of steam once more. It is probably the allure smoke streaming back over the carriages, billowing through open windows, or perhaps moments of acceleration on full power that generates fiery sparks dotting the dense black smoke. These playback moments beckon train spotters to lean out of an open carriage window to capture the eerie image with their state-of-the-art digital cameras.

The sooty experience of steam train travel is hard to come by and railway enthusiasts will usually pay a premium to relive the finest moments of bygone days.

But the STR has its feet firmly planted on the earth preferring to offer a trip that is affordable and fun for everyone. The roundtrip train excursion costs just Bt120 and is bookable at the main railway station, Hua Lampong.

Call it one of the best kept secrets, but it also an example of the value-for-money holiday options that surprise even frequent travellers to Thailand.

There are options to make this trip even more memorable. On arrival at Ayutthaya a tour of the historical sites by air-conditioned mini-bus costs just Bt300.

On the way the train passes through emerald rice fields, slowing down at Bang Pa-in station, 18 km south of Ayutthaya. Here, travellers can admire a beautifully carved wooden station, built to welcome royalty, who were visiting the summer palace that stands on the banks of the nearby Chao Phraya River.

Once the train pulls into Ayutthaya station, it is just a short transfer to the town’s famed riverside restaurants, some of them housed in converted rice barges.

A delicious lunch of barbecued river prawns, a spice jungle curry and steam fish are popular choices all at bargain prices. Chilling out at one of these restaurants is a highlight of very memorable day trip that concludes as the train steams its way south to Bangkok arriving at sunset.

Book Your Travel with Wego