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Night moves

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

During the planning stages of this trip, I was quite taken with the idea of using sleeper trains for some of our long-distance hops. What could be better than sweeping gracefully through the countryside, sipping a nightcap in the dining car and then retiring to bed to be rocked gently to sleep by the swaying carriage. Yes, I thought, this would be a civilised way to arrive somewhere. And then I remembered that this is Asia we are talking about.

Our first night train was the 21:00 Padatik Express from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Calcutta. This being India, I did wonder what hurdles we would have to overcome to get ourselves on board. We arrived at NJP in good time, armed with a print-out of our pre-booked reservation for two berths in first class. I was fully prepared to brandish this in the face of any uniformed jobsworth who stood between me and my train. But in the course of four hours at the station, my heart rate remained steady and my blood pressure normal. At the ticket counter, we were told that the reservation receipt also constituted our tickets. The train appeared on the departure board as expected. We parked ourselves in the 'military waiting area' and nobody moved us on. Even the local beggars, missing various limbs and crawling around the concourse like spiders, left us in peace. By this stage I was completely disarmed, almost willing for an obstructive minor official to pick a fight with.

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4

Loading the luggage car at NJP

Loading the luggage car at NJP

We moved to the platform half an hour ahead of departure and found the train waiting for us. A list of passenger names was pasted next to each carriage door, and if your name wasn't on the list, you weren't getting on. We had to walk the whole length of the platform to find the single first class carriage, past third class, second class (seats), second class (sleeper, non a/c) and second class (sleeper, a/c). Miracle of miracles, our names were on the list. What's more, we seemed to have the four-berth compartment to ourselves.

My disappointment at the lack of a dining car was forgotten when a man appeared to take our dinner order. The menu options were chicken or vegetable (no further details were provided, but you can take it as read that it's going to be curry). We ordered two vegetable dinners - he brought one of each. Strangely, I found his incompetence reassuringly Indian.

I switched off the irritating rattle of the ceiling fan, only to find that it was masking the equally irritating hum of a badly-maintained a/c unit. This could not be switched off. My hackles were briefly raised, but I was distracted by the sensation of movement. The train had left on time! With nothing left to rail against, we settled down to sleep. It felt like a sleepness night, but I must have drifted off at some point because I dreamt that someone was running their fingertips across my stomach. In the morning, we discovered evidence of a mystery occupant in the compartment. I had stowed a piece of cake wrapped in foil in a storage pocket on the wall next to my bed. The foil now had a mouse-sized hole in it, and half the cake was missing. Evidently, I had not been dreaming. (We later discovered that only first class carriages come with complimentary rodents. The riff-raff in second class get cockroaches.) Although we arrived in Calcutta an hour late, Indian Railways had provided a disappointingly stress-free service. We disembarked and strode out onto the street, where we were promptly fleeced by a taxi driver. Ah, the real India again!

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse

Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

The Thais also do night trains well, even more so than the Indians. The Bangkok to Chiang Mai Special Express service was extremely comfortable, even in second class, and mercifully rodent-free. It even had a dining car, but the waitress service made us lazy and we ate our dinner and breakfast in our seats. At bed time, a bustling, cheerful woman turned up to convert our table and seats into fully made-up beds, with curtains for privacy, within two minutes. Ok, the train was more than an hour late in arriving, but I'm prepared to forgive the Thais seeing as their main railway line north has been flooded for much of the past three months.

In India we shared a carriage with well-dressed businessmen, in Thailand with Western families on their holidays, but in Cambodia we joined the backpacker set for the night bus from the coast to Siem Reap. Signs all over town in Sihanoukville advertised the bus, using words like 'express', 'comfort' and 'luxury'. It had a toilet, a DVD player, air-conditioning and seats that looked vaguely bed-like. On the other hand, the Lonely Planet warns against road travel by night in Cambodia, and a quick Google search turned up some terrifying accounts of bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel and near misses with sleeping dogs in the middle of the highway. It sounded unmissable, so we bought two tickets.

We boarded at 7:15pm and discovered a problem straight away. The 'seats', which looked like a cross between bunk beds and sun-loungers, were designed for locals. For anyone over 5 foot 6, it was impossible to find a comfortable position to lie in. A second problem lay in the state of the road. Granted, it was surfaced, but the Cambodians have a habit of laying strips of raised tarmac across the highway every few hundred yards. In the bus, it felt like crossing cattle grids at high speed, making sleep impossible. We were the cattle, and we were on our way to market.

I half-remember the unwelcome stops during the night: dinner in a dead-end town at 9:30pm; midnight in Phnom Penh, to decant the bewildered farangs making the 18 hour journey to Ho Chi Minh City; and breakfast at the god-forsaken hour of 4:00am. Shortly after sunrise, we were deposited at the bus company's Siem Reap depot. The gates were locked behind the bus until everyone had bought a tuk-tuk ride into town, at non-negotiable rates. This of course provided an opportunity for more fleecing, but your money goes a long way in Cambodia and we were ripped off to the tune of a dollar. Would I do the night bus again? No, once was enough, thanks.

And so I'm left with a paradox: the night trains of India and Thailand were disappointingly dull, and for that reason I wouldn't hesitate to use them again.

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged night trains india cambodia thailand buses

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