P.S. Crosby



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All Nipon Airways' WINGSPAN Magazine
May 1992

Philosopher's Tracks:

Singapore to Bangkok by Rail

Story and Photographs by Peter S. Crosby

"First time...?" the monk's falsetto voice trails off as though he's forgotten what he's saying. His exposed nipple is droopy and the color of hazelnuts next to his fluorescent orange robe, safety-pinned in place.

"... Hua Hin?" he whispers while showing me the swooping Buddhist temple by the sea. His eyes are unfocused. Without understanding, I answer, "First time, Thailand."

"Ahaaah, first time, first time..." he mutters while tying a saffron-colored braid around my wrist. "Ma mee bun ha," he adjusts the mangled plastic sunglasses perched on his delicate nose. "No problem."

"When did you come here, first time?" I ask. His lips become a reddish orange smooch from the betel nut he's chewing. "First time," his eyes now clear and bright, "five lives before."

Seventeen hundred kilometers into my journey, and it felt like my fifth life, too. From the island state of Singapore, through the sultan states of Malaysia, into the Kingdom of Siam, my world was pried open to the cultures of all Asia. Yet I traveled for only three weeks - from Singapore to Bangkok - and most of it by train.

The Malay Peninsula dangles down from Thailand like an elephant's trunk with a ridge of mountains running its length. Primordial jungles, blowpipe-toting natives and uninhabited tropical islands have even survived the colonizing, militarizing, industrializing and commercializing of it. And at the peninsula's southernmost tip, 100 kilometers from the Equator, squats the most developed island of them all - Singapore - one of the smallest nations in the world.

Anything will grow here," I heard more than once in Singapore Exotic flowers, a dense population (2.5 million) and hotels sprout everywhere. The precocious island state has used shore-to-shore redevelopment to shovel any unsightly local food stalls, tacky merchants and other riffraff into gleaming shopping towers and open-air malls. Even Singapore's unremarkable train station (mildly interesting because of tiled mosaics) is due to be converted into a new hotel.

Although the people of Singapore are mostly Chinese (79%), Malay and Indian, the common language is English. It's the legacy of British colonization, begun by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, as an extension of the thriving colonies in Malaysia. Raffles Hotel (remodeling and towering to finish within the year) and the Goodwood Park Hotel (remodeled and wonderfully un-towered) still stand as Victorian sentinels of the past.

When I arrive at Singapore's train station, a caramel-colored man in a white-white suit and a black corporal's hat is wagging a brass bell the size of a baseball mitt on a handle. It means my train for Kuala Lumpur (they say "KL") is leaving - now! The Number 2 Day Express is the first of eight trains, and the only one that was on time.

Going Somewhere Fast
It is possible to travel the 1,923 kilometers from Singapore to Bangkok in only 34 hours and 25 minutes on three connecting trains; but why miss the ride? The trains in Malaysia and Thailand range from wooden cars built in the 30s (that can only go 45 kph because of their fragility), to slick stainless-steel sleepers from Japan in the '70s or Korea in the '80s (that can only go 80 kph because of track fragility). Intermittent freight car derailments arc an inconvenient reminder.

The first and second class cars are newer, fairly clean and air-conditioned (often too well). Many have TVs with surfing videos. Nice generic travel, right? But if you really want to know you're riding the rails in Southeast Asia, or if you get stuck without a reservation -- go third class.

These older trains bounce more than sway, and the sounds of the cars being wrenched against each other insures that you'll he awake to experience the joy. The open windows collect insects at every stop (particularly astounding specimens at night). Although the diesel smoke stings your nose, it will not overpower the odors of local foods bought through the windows at every stop from the eager vendors below. Sorry, no TVs back here for us third-class folk.

But if you open all three doors in the last car's entryway, it becomes a first-class panoramic breezeway. The sun streaks through the bruise-colored rain clouds to highlight the rows of wet plantation trees: rubber, palm oil and cocoa leaves shining against the mountain shadows ahead. Here, the glimmering rails and mesmerizing cross-ties spewing out beneath your feet let you know you're going somewhere fast -- most of the time.

The railway's mechanical signals, thoroughfare tokens and switches are slow, but sure. As our express train again whizzes through a station, our Hindu signalman Rama (the beige ashes smudged on his forehead gave it away) drops a note out the door asking the stationmaster there to call ahead his breakfast order. I went to the buffet car.

The aroma of onions and ginger being fried is the first clue that much of the food on board is delightful. Fresh Malaysian Highland coffee is served in bags (like tea) along with warmed kaya buns filled with honey-coconut jam. The traditional Chinese breakfast of rice gruel shows up with shrimp, chilies and pineapple in it. Vegetarian curry is topped with yogurt, chutney or fried bananas. And for tom yam soup lovers, the world's best is on this route through Southern Thailand -- a porcelain tureen of fresh coconut milk, huge shrimp and sweet coriander that's spicy enough to make anyone's whole face red.

================================BEGIN SIDEBAR======================= "QUAINT" IS THE WORD
I have always wanted a blowpipe. Too many National Geographic TV specials probably, but I never knew where to get a "real" one - until I visited a hill station in Malaysia.

As early as 1885, resort "hill stations" were carved out of Malaysia's misty mountain jungle "hills" at 1,500 to 1,800 meters in altitude to offer cool air to the lowlanders. Now the hill stations range from the gaudy to the sublime.

Genting Highlands is modern - a miracle of development in the heart of darkness. It offers Malaysia's only gambling, plus golf and high-rises on the top of nowhere - 90 minutes from KL. Fraser's Hill is quaint - the word seems to have been invented to describe it - accessible only by a twisting mountain lane that goes one-way every other hour. Its village of stone cottages sits around the man-made valley with a golf course of only nine holes. But the place is so verdant; it's worth playing twice.

Cameron Highlands is the oldest and largest a string of towns circling a plateau. Old English lodges of the Tudor style and private villas smatter hillsides of tea plantations and terraced farms for vegetables and roses. Wild flowers decorate paths to waterfalls sprinkled with butterflies and vistas with clouds drifting by.

Around the Highlands, at the jungle's edge, live the indigenous "Orang Asli" people in bamboo shacks on stilts. Today there is medicine, schooling and TVs run on car batteries. But some of the Ash, as I saw, still hunt in the primordial rain forest with blowpipes and poison darts.

Never mind that the village where I bought my blowpipe was on the edge of a golf course. The small aged vendor showed me how to use it, and cautioned me about the one poison dart. He said it was "real," and I believe him.

But I still don't know how to use it - not really.
==============================END SIDEBAR===========================

The Second-Best Aspect
The train station in Kuala Lumpur is a grandiose cross between a Moorish mosque and a Guinness Book record-breaking wedding cake. It's a white fantasy, spiked with minarets, cupolas and arches that outdo the Taj Mahal, but it was built by the British - in 1911.

KL's skyscrapers also attest to the Malaysia's modern-day prosperity (No.3 in world silicon-chip manufacturing). The thriving Chinatown and Indian Quarter also reflect the diversity and grassroots economic strength of the capital's million plus population. But the gigantic national mosque with its "umbrella roof," prayers broadcast publicly five times a day and the "Kiblat" (Mecca) arrows on the ceilings of hotel rooms clue in visitors to the predominant (and official state) faith.

"The people," is what a Malay told me is the best aspect of Malaysia. And people proved that true. Wherever I snapped a shutter, people thanked me for taking their picture. I often ate for free. Once, I dropped by a Malaysian Muslim wedding being held outdoors, and became an honored guest by eating with my hands (right one only, of course) and taking pictures of the bride (in one of six traditional outfits) with her mother. The second best aspect, I was told, are the festivals.

"Three times my brother took the vows of Thaipusam," Padma was speaking softly for the first time since I'd met him. His clipped English, the Queen's own, did not match his stocky body.

"And three times my brother carried the heavy metal kavadi up the stairs to the shrine - with skewers in his tongue and cheek." Padma's cherubic face was covered with sweat after the first 150 steps up to the Buta Caves -- only 125 left to go. But the stairs were crowded with Hindu worshipers: many carrying food, some bricks and one woman lighting small blocks of camphor on every step. Although it's empty compared to the hundreds of thousands who come to gawk at the freakish displays of mind over body during the February festival of Thaipusam.

"'Faith in another dimension, sir!' That's what he said it took," said Padma as we looked out from the main Buta Cave over northeastern KL. He is a handsome 30-year-old waiting for his older sister to marry, and a workaholic entrepreneur who relaxes by running cross-country races with the KL original "Hash House Harriers."

"No blood, no pain, no sears; he didn't even remember most of it," he said of his penitent brother. Padma's pride showed through his maple-syrup colored face. I just kept shaking my head in awe. "No," he said, "There's nothing in my life strong enough to make me want to take such a vow."

===========================BEGIN SIDEBAR============================
"My name Bernard Goonting. Not 'Good Thing.' Gooooon Ting." Our energetic guide is warming up the sputtering boat of European tourists bobbing up the Melaka River. "Surprise, yes? I don't look Dutch?" His skin is the color of shellacked pine. "I am Melaka-born; Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Malay. My family is like our history."

The port of Melaka, 150 kilometers south of KL and 35 kilometers from the train station at Tampin, has been a center of trade since 1405, when Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho landed. It was since colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, the Dutch in the 1600s and the British from the late 1700s until Malaysia's independence in 1957. The houses of worship offer an architectural fingerprint from Melaka's last 500 years.

The bright-red Christ Church was built with bricks from Holland. It sits next to the massive pink town hall that looks like a display model for louvered windows. Down the street, next to a mosque and another church, is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. The glazed roof tiles from China look so ornately playful they could be cartoon figures. North of town, Tenkera Mosque looks like a squared-off layer cake, but the corners are upturned to appeal to the Asian eye.

The biggest business now is tourists. Festive rickshaw bikes also ply the streets full of howling motor scooters of young men brandishing portable phones. First-class hotels such as the Ramada and City Bayview pamper poolside patrons. South of central Melaka is the "Portuguese Settlement," a village of Eurasian descendants with a town square ringed with restaurants by the sea. The settlement's weekend cultural show of Malay, Indian and Chinese dances is colorful, but eminently more interesting when accompanied by a foil wrapped fish grilled in red chili sauce and a couple of Anchor beers under the stars.

"The fishermen... very superstitious," Bernard our boat guide continues, as though warning us while we pass the purple fishing skiffs that still ply the deteriorating local seas. "No whistling, no drink, no woman on boat out to sea. Nothing to do but fish." He laughs gently at his own joke.

But the Melaka fishermen would do well to humor their home river. I could smell it before I could see it. The only inhabitants left in the gray sludge are comatose iguanas and lungfish trying to escape. Riverside shacks openly use the tributary for the sewage, garbage and trash that shows up all over the beaches of the region. So, don't come here for swimming.

"Old Chinese proverb," is Bernard's explanation of the problem. "People believe that casting waste on the outgoing waters, will bring good fortune back." Melaka's fortune - and number one import - may be in for now, but the tide might change.
============================END SIDEBAR============================

Ceiling Fans
The vestiges of colonialism still mark what was the oldest and northernmost British colony in Malaysia -- the island of Penang. The elegant E & O Hotel (Eastern & Oriental) was built by the same Sarkie brothers who created Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand in Rangoon. Teak paneled rooms, brass fixtures and the cage elevator remind guests of the stories of Somerset Maugham.

A ballroom dance is held every Friday night at the E & O, has been for years. A singer and an organ have replaced the big band, but the mirrored ball, the ceiling fans and the Fox Trot haven't changed since the 20s. They call one dance the "Chinese Cha-cha."

Penang may be best known as a resort. A wall of beach hotels guards the north, so the locals swim on the west coast only. The seafood is served with a distinctively spicy Chinese twist that may be the best in Malaysia. And there's a hill station too. A Swiss funicular railway crawls up 800 meters of the nearly vertical Penang Hill to religious shrines, a breezy mini-hotel and a cool view of the city of Georgetown.

The horizon is dominated by a cylindrical building thrusting 40-plus stories into Penang's skyline, alone. The Komtar Center was built by the government as a statement of independence and aggressive economic growth for all of Malaysia. So far it's less than half full.

Beware of Taking Drinks
The border crossing into Thailand is uneventful, but there are still signs of rougher times. A uniformed railway guard, with .45 caliber proof on his belt, stuck a plastic-coated card in my face: "WARNING!! Beware of taking drinks from strangers, as they can contain a knock-out potion and you may be robbed." With a smirk he said, "Ma mee bun ha. "No problem."

The differences between Malaysia and Thailand become increasingly apparent. Set the watch back one hour. English becomes rare. The land turns reddish. Rice paddies are more frequent than rubber trees and the mountains seem to sprout rather than appear. Swooping red, green and yellow roofs of Teravada Buddhist temples (which 95% of Thais follow) quickly become a common sight. The people are a more consistent color - like perfectly toasted white bread - and there are just more smiles.

Hadyai has a border4own mentality even though it is 60 kilometers north. It's an inspiring place to shop for anything from silk to fruit, wood carving to CD players. The gambling, girlie bars and "massage" baths also offer vacationing Malaysians respite from the strictures of their Muslim state. There are bullfights, too, but without the blood or the matadors. The bulls fight until they won't and betters gamble until they can't.

The peninsula narrows down to a width of less than 100 kilometers for much of the next leg northward, except at Surat Thani where it widens. Oh, sure, Surat Thani has a pier side night market with a movable feast of fresh tropical fruit, grilled fish or toasted coconut desserts you can stuff yourself with for less than the cost of a big beer in Tokyo. But once the night ferry cast off for one of the secluded islands in the Gulf of Siam, and the stars turned the night sky blue, I knew Surat Thani for what it is - the doorstep to paradise.

===========================BEGIN SIDEBAR=========================
The sunrise on Koh Samui is slow and pink. Long tail fishing boats painted aquamarine, red and blue are unloaded by men in sarongs. Children collect washed-up coconuts from the eggshell-colored sand. A rooster crows as an amorous tourist couple kicks up the beach in a secluded alcove. I shed my Nikes to walk in the clear, warm surf.

But the sounds of saws and hammers, boats pulling para-gliders and the wandering massage ladies take over the beach later in the day because Koh Samui (the largest of the 80 some islands in the area) has been "discovered" -- at least some of it has.

Less than ten years ago, Koh Samui was known solely for its coconuts and fish; there wasn't even electricity on the island. Last year, private investors built an airport and an Imperial Hotel.

I rented a motor scooter to tour Thailand's third largest island. The two longest beaches are the busiest: Chaweng and Lamai. They provide tourists (farang, we're called) with wild oats and places to sow them 24 hours a day: beach discos, Thai boxing rings and restaurants galore. Na Thong, the main ferry town, is booming with trinket and clothes shops, tuktuk buses and dust.

But most of Samui's beaches have only bungalows coconut palms and packs of friendly pups. A few have exclusive hideaways like the Laem Set Inn. And I found a waterfall that tumbles into natural pool guarded exclusively by black and blue butterflies and monkeys whistling in the trees.

Either way, the locals seem to take the changes in stride. A gathering of tents, food and gamblers by the side of one paved road looked festive enough, until I discovered it was a wake of sorts gathered the eldest son of the deceased. As Pak welcomed me with "Black Label" whiskey in a coffee cup, he told me he'd returned from work in the Middle East. His English is good because he worked on a U.S. Air Force base in Northern Thailand during the Vietnam War.

"Not sad," he said brushing his crew cut hair. "It's normal." Pak whipped out a big old Zippo lighter. "Father taught us that every day is suffering... that, we suffer because desire."

The next day I went to the Buddhist cremation ceremony. What struck me was that although the people were mourning, it was not especially sorrowful.

Three hundred people sat on folding chairs under the trees drinking soda while a line of monks on a dais chanted over a loudspeaker. Then everyone was passed a paper and wood blessing which they brought up to the flower and picture tabernacle in front of the ceremonial casket Pictures of the family were taken. A few tears were shed. And the flowers were burned. The last thing Pak said to me, "Ma mee bun ha."

The sunsets around Koh Samui and its undeveloped twin, Koh Phangan, are startling in the consistent ferocity of their color and in the sloth with which they develop. Or maybe it's just that here, I made the time to watch. Now that is paradise. ===========================END SIDEBAR=======================

A Ticket to Ride
The only express trains north from Surat Thani are at night, yet Bangkok is at more than 11 hours away, so the best way to go is by sleeper. Now the difference between classes becomes distinct: first class has compartments with beds; second class has fold-down berths like airline overhead compartments (with or without air-conditioning); and in third class, you sit. But getting a reservation for a sleeper berth can be a problem outside of the capital. Not for some people though.

Bai is the kind of lithe beauty with classic Úlan that turns people's heads -- men's, of course, and women's, too. We met on the ferry from Kob Phangan. She said she's a Burmese studying music in Paris - her French is better than her English. "Just traveling for a few days," she said, but with only a sarong and black shoulder bag.

She had no reservation, so I did the schlepping from one end of the night express to the other in search of an unoccupied berth. Bal carried my blowpipe. At last, she persuaded a conductor to give her a berth. With a peck to my cheek she slipped behind the curtain whispering: "bon voyage."

The train station at Hua Rin (230 kilometers south of Bangkok) is the first hint of a fantasyland: gingerbread-like architecture decorated with bushes shaped like rabbits and squirrels. The golf course right next to it is the second; an immense tree is festooned with sashes of ribbon, fruit and Maekhong whiskey to satisfy the spirits who live in a miniature house at its base. The summer palace for the King of Thailand has been in Hua Hin since 1920; it's called "Far from Worries."

=========================BEGIN SIDEBAR=======================
The horse's sides are wet from galloping in the water on the five-kilometer stretch of sand. But she isn't slowing down as we approach the beach umbrellas, long chairs and stragglers left in the twilight glow. She's going home to her master.

Hua Hin has been a resort for the Thai royalty for decades, and for non-royals too. Day trippers from Bangkok come to plop on the broad beach and have vendors bring them sliced fruit, Barbecued fish and Singha beers - so they can also feel like kings. Kids splash and scream in rubber inner tubes and a baby elephant provides rides for the land-locked. Distant fishing boats putter out to sea.

The center of all this public hubbub is the sprawling red roofs where the King used to stay - before the palace was finished - the Railway Hotel. Built in 1923, its elegant teak stairways, brass lamps and open verandas display classic colonial style in one of the few Southeast Asian countries that was never colonialized. It has acres of grass sloping to the sea still dotted with whimsical animal bushes: a Cheshire cat, a giraffe peering into second floor windows and a blossoming elephant to walk through. Alice would be happy here.

Although the inn has been refurbished, really only the name - now Hotel Sofitel Central - little has changed. But the sounds of change are in Hua Hin's air. Cement mixers pump up new high-rise hotels, a few of those fishing boats are really ships, and several of the menu boards are in German.

The young man who rented to me the now worn-out horse (US$10/hr.) is waiting anxiously. "You, you - late, late. Horse too tired," he wags his finger at me. "You, you - baht, baht," he says.

But I was forewarned. "Ma mee bun ha," I smile, "and thank you."
=========================END SIDEBAR============================

Metropolis Bound
The last four hours to Bangkok feel as though I'm being sucked towards the vortex of an urban web. Irrigation ditches become aqueducts become canals. Electricity wires lead to power lines lead to generation plants. Rice paddies add chicken coops add identical houses then apartment buildings. The traffic on the roads grows from motocross bikes to pickups to trucks to cabs and millions of scooters. More than six million people ply Thailand's capital, and the air is a chunky gray that stings my eyes.

But there's a vitality that surges from every molecule of oxygen left. Monks with begging bowls circulate at dawn, a soccer league starts games at 6 a.m. and the floating market is finished by 10 a.m. (It's just too hot afterwards.) Express river boats gush with backwash, whistles and frightened commuters while the drivers of three-wheel samlors haggle for the next baht.

Graceful temples, golden spires and prismatic wats soar above the pall to divine some sense from it all. The most spectacular are corralled with the Grand Palace. Here, even the visiting monks carry cameras.

"Kampun-kup," the boys said in unified appreciation. Their new orange robes in the bright noon sun will make their snapshots startling. "Acbaan?" The smallest monk was pointing to the braided orange string around my wrist. "Teacher?" said the thin one.

"Ah'.... OOOH! A monk in Hua Hin -- he gave to me," I used my best mime.

"Good for travel," the thin monk touched the braid. "Keep for this life, and next," his gaze was straight at me.

After a moment, all I could say was: "Ma mee bun ha."

Peter S. Crosby is a Tokyo-based writer and photographer who covers Asia.