So far our travels have been rather event free. A few long bus rides and a couple of uncomfortable mini-vans with maniac drivers; but all in all things have gone according to plan … That was until we decided to leave Phuket to head North to Bangkok.
It’s such a well trodden route you would think it would be the simplest leg of our Thailand journey, but we discovered that this would not be the case for us.
We had decided to train north to Bangkok after hearing many positive reactions from others in relation to train travel in Thailand. To do this we would need to catch a bus from Phuket to Surat Thani (4 hours) then board an overnight sleeper train (12 hours) to Bangkok. Sounds relatively simple but oh how wrong we were.
The day before our intended departure we called our usual taxi driver to take us to the main bus terminal for us to purchase our combined bus and train tickets for the next days departure. Our driver pulled up at a travel agency and I explained to him that we needed to go to the bus terminal not an agency so he continued on … Then I second guessed myself (note to self, stick with original plan in these situations!) and told him that the agency would be fine and I would go in and see if we could get the tickets from there. He turned around and we were back at the agency in seconds.
I walked in and explained to the lady behind the desk that I was wanting to purchase two combined bus and train tickets to Bangkok. I told her we wanted to be on a big bus not a mini-van and we wanted tickets on train number 84 which was the 8:40pm departure from Surant Thani. After some back and forward discussion she said she could book the tickets and even book the bus with the company I had Specifically asked to travel with. She then showed me the pricing which was 500bht more than we had been told it should cost. When we questioned her on this higher price she advised this was because the ticket included transfers from where the bus drops you in Surat Thani to the train station. I was a bit concerned at this point as I had read online that the bus drops you directly at the train station but I ignored these concerns and thought that the bus would drop us at the station and her claim for a transfer was just a way to explain the heightened price. We decided we would proceed with the booking as she was able to book with the bus company we wanted and said we would be on the train we had requested.
Our taxi driver collected us from our hostel and took us to our travel agents office where she said we had to go to the bus station and for us and our driver to follow her. We pulled up to a cafe/bus stop/bike repair shop – one of those dodgy ones that you always try to avoid! We immediately knew things weren’t right. Why were we not at the main bus station?! She explained we would be catching the bus from here. We said ‘big bus?’. ‘No, mini-van’ she responded. Arghhhhhh we had specifically requested and booked a big bus and did not want to be flung round in a mini-van with a driver that drives like he’s suicidal for the next four hours. I told her I had requested a big bus and she said that if we were on a big bus we would not make it in time for the train …. Another excuse but in the end we figured it wasn’t worth the fight so we sat and waited for the van.
We arrived in Surat Thani and were dropped on the side of the road and told to go into a travel agency across the street to collect our tickets – then our van left. It was 8:15pm and we were cutting it close to be on the 8:40pm train so we hurried across and explained we needed our tickets and to be dropped at the train station so we didn’t miss the train.
The next hour was the most stressful hour of our trip to date. We discovered that being stuck in a mini-van rather than on the requested bus was only the tip of the iceberg. No train tickets had been booked for us at all. We had what we thought was a train ticket in our hand which had been given to us by the now discovered dodgy travel agent but we were informed that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. The agent explained she had spoken with the lady in Phuket and told her hat the train was already fully booked so the booking could not be made. She explained that we would need to pay another 900bht for a ticket on the next available train that was leaving at 11pm. We questioned why more money was required when we had already paid for a sleeper train and we would just be going on a later one. The agent claimed that the lady in Phuket had only paid her for a seated train, not a sleeper train and we would have to pay the 900bht to upgrade to the sleeper. Turns out the lady in the Phuket agency had taken all our money, made a booking for the cheapest seats possible rather than the sleeper seats we had requested and just pocketed the change. We were now 4 hours from Phuket and completely powerless with no train ticket.
Many tears by Kim, yelling and swearing by Duane and yelling back by this feisty Thai agent – we were making no progress. We had pretty much paid the Phuket Agent 2500bht for a 4 hour mini-van and were now having to purchase the train tickets separately.
After Realising that we either paid the money or we were not getting our tickets we gave in. We discussed going to the train station ourselves and purchasing the tickets but we were only having to pay 900bht as she said 700bht had already been paid for the seated tickets which were unable to be booked due to the train being full. From the station a ticket would cost over 1000bht each so we would be even more out-of-pocket. I wanted to buy from the station just so that we didn’t give these horrible ladies any more of our money but then we would be cutting our nose off to spite our face. We handed over the money feeling sick with anger and received our train tickets. We then were ready for the free transfer to the train station – hahaha – yeah right!
We were charged another 400bht to get to the train station. By this time we were so over it. There were no other taxi’s or tuk tuks going past so our only option was to go with the guy who worked with the travel agent. With no fight left we got in the tuk tuk and were on our way.
When we arrived at the station (it was now 9:30) we headed straight to the ticket booth to check the ticket we had been given this time was actually valid. The guy looked at it and gave it back … Hmmm ok well I guess all is fine then.
We waited until 11pm when the train finally rolled into the station. Backpacks on and ready to …… Not so fast, this was not our train. Hmmmm, we sat back down and waited another hour (now midnight) and the train rolled into the station, backpacks on and ready to …. Not so fast, this was not our train either! We were then informed that our train was delayed for 90 minutes. What can ya do … Nothing. So we sat down and waited what should have been the last half hour before the train should have arrived. We waited, we waited and we waited. During the time sitting at the station we observed the locals come and go.
We noticed a fair few kids hanging round and by midnight a little guy about 7 years old came and sat near Duane so he could see the T.V that was playing. Duane asked him what he was up to and asked if he would be heading home to bed when he explained that he lived at the station. He said his parents were gone and so he lived there. He then went on to show Duane how he could cut a drinking straw with his fingers, something he was doing all night to entertain himself. He didn’t ask for anything and was not trying to take advantage of us being tourists he was an innocent child that probably had no idea how sad his situation is, to him it is just his normal life. It turned out that a whole heap of kids live at the station and help load and unload the trains with bikes and all the other cargo that moves during the night through this town. They did have a room where they would all sleep and go to change and there were a few adults around that seemed to live there also.
Whilst waiting we also witnessed the saddest thing yet. There was one man who obviously lived at the station and was loading and unloading the trains. He was interacting with the kids and it seemed they were in a way like a family – although I’m sure he was not actually a father to any of the kids. There was a toddler, around 2-3 years old who had been running around the station all night. We noticed some of the older kids (7-10 years old) laughing and looked down to see them standing with the old man and toddler. We soon realised what they thought was so funny …. They were teaching the toddler to smoke!! Seriously is this really happening?!!!! I have never felt so angry and sad all at the same time. The man was putting the cigarette in the toddlers mouth and it would suck and blow out, then they showed the wee boy how to inhale … It only took about 10 minutes before the toddler was reaching out for the cigarette, taking it from the man, putting it into its mouth and smoking.
It was not a nice place to spend the evening but in reality it showed us the real ‘Thailand’ for those who have nothing. An experience we never want to encounter again but also one that opened our eyes to the sad life that many of these kids live and showed us another side of Thailand that many never see.
After 6 hours of waiting at the station finally our train arrived. It was now near 3am and we just wanted to get some sleep. We found our beds and were provided with sheets. Within half an hour we were tucked in and moving towards Bangkok along the rickety old tracks. Finally we could relax and know that for the following 12 hours, all was fine.
We awoke to the sound of the train still moving and feeling the usual slight jolt every now and then as we moved closer and closer towards our destination. Today was a new day and yesterday was behind us. We loved the train and were making the most of being able to relax. We had a fruit platter for breakfast and then a man came to fold the beds away and turn the cabin bunks back into seats for the day passengers. We then sat for the last 2hours of the journey watching the countryside, passing little villages and occasionally stopping for a few minutes to allow locals from nearby villages to board the train to sell food and drinks. They were selling all kinds of home-made goodies that were so very tempting.
As we arrived in Bangkok we headed for the nearest tuk tuk to take us to Taileks House – the guesthouse we had pre-booked. Within minutes we were in a tuk tuk and on our way ready to put the travel agent scammers behind us.
Hello Bangkok – Please be kind as it was one hell of a journey getting here!