While testing WindowSeater, we came to know Hua Lumphong Station (Bangkok Station) really too well. After travelling around 7,000km by rail in Thailand, I built Window Seater the app, tested it many times, and spoke to about 200 travellers in Hua Lumphong station about it. So all up, I’ve probably spent days there.
And I started to see it kind of like a Miyasaki-esque dreamscape. A kink in our space-time continuum. Probably populated by spirits and ghosts. It doesn’t fit in modern day Bangkok at all. I don’t think it fits anywhere in our world. Its an otherworldly stop that, for now, us rail travellers in Thailand often have little choice but to make.
So I just thought that, if you’ve already read our practical introduction to the place, and you’re still sitting around waiting for your train, then maybe you’d like to read about some of the moments that made me come to that rather odd assessment.
Once we were doing a focus group test of the Alpha version of WindowSeater on the weekend train out to Nam Tok on the Death Railway, which required me to get to Hua Lumphong for a groggy 5am start to the day’s proceedings. I was expecting the place to be eerily quiet, with perhaps a few cleaners making echoes through cool air and railway policemen trying not to doze off in the corner.
But as I approached in the dark early morning, Hua Lumphong gleamed with its halogen tubes, and it looked as though there had been a zombie attack on Hua Lumphong. Bodies lay askew – still or occasionally writhing – around its entrances. A man here, a couple there. It made me slow down to look, and to step over their bodies. They were trying to sleep.
I stepped through the threshold. The place was absolutely rammed. The most full I had ever seen it. The place is the size of a football field. There must have been over a thousand people there.
It would seem that Hua Lumphong is a safe place to let your guard down through the back of the clock in Bangkok. It was no doubt a haven for the homeless, but not everyone was looking ragged. The most striking were the groups of school children — perhaps they came in from the country the night before to be on time for school in the morning. Like a high-school gymnasium after natural disaster. Yet it was a Saturday.People were at ease — it was a place they could be kept safe by the railway police and not be shoed off. They were just waiting for a train like me.
In the evening, when I returned from Nam Tok, the reclining crowd had been replaced by people in motion. Heavy-laden tourists walking with hesitation and confusion. But mostly commuters briskly crisscrossing the hall.
Until, at the strike of 6pm, a voice came over the loudspeaker and they stopped in their tracks. It was like a flashmob. The tourists weren’t in on it. The Thai national anthem played. Many turned to face the portrait of King Chulalongkorn. When the anthem finished, they resumed their trajectories and velocities without a word or a glance shared.
State Railway of Thailand’s Head Office
I had the bright idea of advertising WindowSeater with banner ads in the station and on trains. I asked the cheery (sic) folk at the ticket counter who I should talk to about it. The message was communicated well enough, but the look that was returned was as though I had three heads and no clothes on. Over the space of 3 or 4 hours, my assistant and I were directed and redirected, always someone else’s problem, for at least 6 someones.
From the main entrance, we were directed to an office beside the platforms. From there, we were given a 15 minute walk to the State Railways of Thailand head offices.
The head office was a picture of how a public service should be, but perhaps a comedy of how it shouldn’t be.
Gosh they were friendly. And as a one-time public servant myself, I can’t explain how one can be convinced to take so much pride and care in the presentation of their property. Not only were lawns mowed and dead leaves cleared, but the bronze bust of the important man – seen in government offices globally – was festooned with more arranged tropical flowers than I at least had at my own wedding, and that was in Bali.
We arrived at the beginning of lunchtime. A perfect time to not arrive. They were just heading out, and would be back in an hour. An hour and a half for the higher ups. Two for the someone we had to actually speak to.
It gave us time to admire the buildings. It felt like my school – high-ceilinged rooms laid out along long cool hallways and corridors around a central courtyard. The grounds were verdant with big lush trees, and colourfully ornamented with places of Buddhist and royal worship.
In front of the building was a fenced off area with assorted derailed rolling stock. One windowless carriage was painted grey, with a turrent and a mounted 50-cal riffle poking through the top of it.
Next to that was the opposite — a passenger carriage painted with rainbows and animals with a little garden around it and a brick pathway going up to its steps. It was a library. The project was initiated in 1999 by the Railway Police – the friendliest police on earth, as I have come to find.
Filled with books, toys, and computers, it offers basic education services and distraction to homeless children living in the station. A commendable bid to reduce crime and child exploitation, and to give at-risk children an opportunity to learn to read and write and practice better health. There’s another at Bang Sue.
The public servants returned as a team with grins having perhaps just received the punchline in time to get back to work. Their smiles were directed to us as they entered, and seeing as everyone hadn’t sat down yet, the whole office was discussing who the best somebody else was and whether they were working today. A unanimous decision was made, and an escort was assigned to advance us to the final level: The Acting Deputy Head of Completely Unheard-of Customer Queries. After a few minutes of debate between our escort and the ADHCUCQ, we were directed to a person back at the station that had sent us to the head office in bewilderment in the first place.
I guess I wasn’t going to advertise. It was impossible to be angry or frustrated with such happy and friendly people. I wanted to be their friend, or at least their intern.
Through my 7,000km of journeys in Thailand, I had wondered why all the stations I passed — even the most tiny and out of the way — were so lovingly manicured, maintained, and decorated. After visiting the head office of the SRT, I wondered why every publicly managed train station on earth wasn’t the same.
One day we did a quick trip from Hua Lumphong to Bang Sue Junction and back just to check a feature on the WindowSeater app. The train back was completely empty except for us.As the train slowed to approach Hua Lumphong, the train suddenly stopped with a jolt a kilometer short of its destination we paid our 15 THB for. We waited. The swaying ceiling fans turned off.
After a while I realised that I could see right down to the front of the train and out into broad daylight. It took me a while to click that the engine had vanished. There was nobody on our train, or anywhere else to ask what we should do. We walked to the front and jumped down the somehow alarming height that is left sans platform.
If we walked perpendicular to the tracks, there were trains in the way. But walking the kilometer-long delta of criss-crossing tracks seemed rather treacherous. Perpendicular it was – jumping up and down onto and off carriages of varied stationary trains. All empty. We Then we jumped down off the last train into a substance that had the qualities of both oil and dust. Oil-dust?
We felt like we were clearly trespassing and decided to move somewhat in stealth, but with an expression of confusion so that we could plead ignorance in case we ran into a uniformed someone.
We were at the in the middle of a very long redbrick building. We found the only plausible entrance for at least a hundred metres either way. We began dipping and zagging between oil-dust-covered parts and machines and behelmeted people tinkering and welding or having a smoke and a chat. Unlike the workers at the head office, these workers were unfazed and completely uninterested by our sudden appearance and lack of safety equipment. It was like we were invisible. Seeing the carriages off their axels and engines out of their mounts was interesting, so I slowed down to have a gander.
We pointed, questioned, hypothesised, nodded to each other in agreement.I was having a blast, and there was nobody shoeing us out. I felt like grabbing a helmet and a high-visibility vest. But eventually we felt it best to leave. I would never get the oil-dust out of my sneakers.
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