Thailand’s mega transport miracle

I once shared a few beers with transport infrastructure expert from the Asian Development Bank. He was enthralled by talking about his own work (or perhaps he was just enthralled to be talking to another human). And I’m sure there are people that are equally enthusiastic about it. I, however, was bored to tears.

But as we start to push out of the city on the Northern Line towards Chiang Mai, there are a few sites and sights that help us understand how Thailand connect up— a new public transport mega-hub, a rail junction, and an airport. And I guess this is an important aspect for understanding a place like Thailand, which is what we’re all about at WindowSeater.

So I’ll make a deal with you: I’m going to write about transport infrastructure here, and you only have to read as long as its interesting. Let me know how far I get…

A view of an overpass from a train station parallel to it
Public transport infrastructure – thrilling stuff!

The Northern Line itself

Lets start with the line we’re on.

Now back in my first Northern Line post about Hua Lumphong station, I told you that this line is a minor act of defiance by the great King Chulalonkorn against the wishes of Queen Victoria, who had for years been begging Chulalongkorn’s father, King Mongkut, to link her colonies. But there’s more to this story.

At the turn of the 20th century, getting to Chiang Mai would have taken weeks at best. You’d either take a bullock cart on dodgy flood-prone roads, or (preferably) a river barge against the current as far as you can up the Chao Phraya to Uttaradit, which is the last navigable town before you’re staring down river rapids spilling off the Northern Highlands. Then you’d have to get off and take a bullock cart over a high rocky pass, then a deep river valley, another high pass, valley, pass, valley, and then you’re in Chiang Mai.

Then lets add some uncertainty to your trip. Weather might well play up, and perhaps making some of the rivers impassable in the rainy season. And then you face the possibility that your journey is blocked by rebels.

Map of the main kingdoms of Southeast Asia c.1707-1828.
Main kingdoms of Southeast Asia c.1707-1828.

Not everyone was so thrilled about being subjugated to a King in the Chao Phraya floodplains, and this was particularly true for the North of Thailand. On the one hand, you had the ancestral kingdoms of the Lan Na, based around Chiang Mai (which we will discuss more down the track), as well as the Laos Kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. As you can see in the map, the meeting point of all three of these Kingdoms is pretty much where the Northern Line enters the Northern Hills. These divisions would have represented kinships, languages and cultures of many of the people of the North, and even within living memory of many people when King Chulalongkorn began his reign.

But within these territories you also had tribes that never wanted to be subjugated to a King or Queen in the first place. For example, on the Northern Line we will pass over mountain ranges inhabited by the Yao and the Akha – two tribes that are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally completely distinct from the Thais or the Lan Na. But a quick look at the linguistic map of Thailand shows that, as soon as you head into the hills, you are passing through many such groups.

Map of the language groups of Northern Thailand.
Map of the language groups of Northern Thailand.

Then there are groups that are just the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Even as late as Chulalongkorn’s early reign, a group of jewel miners from a hill tribe near Uttaradit stormed the town of Phrae just on the other side of the first mountain range. They killed the local governor and ran their own city-state for a few weeks before an army could be dispatched to rout them out.

In short, the Northern Territories that were quite recently acquired by the Siamese of the Chao Phraya basin, and which Chulalongkorn inherited, were unruly.

And here’s the thing: Colonial Britain was to the Northwest, and Colonial France was to the Northeast. If Chulalongkorn couldn’t rule the North, then Britain and France would certainly be willing to give it a crack.

Railway was, at the time, the game changing technology for military force projection. Building tracks right into this maelstrom meant that a sizeable army was only ever a few days away.

Arguably, the Northern Line saved the Kingdom. But economically, its impact is beyond question.

You might be wondering why the Chakri Dynasty (all the Ramas) became the dominant Kings of Thailand rather than any one of the many earlier Kingdoms, Chiefdoms, or city states in the area? Because – as we will expand on down the line – they held the mouth of the Chao Phraya river, and used it to trade with East Asia, South Asia, and Arabia to make them probably the most successful traders in pre-colonial history.

When the Northern Line opened, the cost of transporting goods over that first mountain range dropped by 99% overnight. This brought great swathes of Northern Thailand into this globalised economic system. It was a game-changer, and a pacifier – the net benefits of cooperation and subjugation came to outweigh that of revolt.

The Eastern & Orient Express

The Northern Line certainly doesn’t seem like a game-changer today. The trains in Thailand are admittedly a little ragged, and the only people that take the train north are those who are the very price-sensitive, the aerophobic, or people like me — window seaters.

There’s a notable exception: The Eastern & Oriental Express, running from Singapore to Bangkok and back (sometimes up to Chiang Mai) is run by Belmond, who also run the Venice Simplon Orient Express in Europe. They have old Japanese coaches spruced up in plantation-style colonial fair, with two dining cars, a lounge car, a piano bar car, a saloon car with a reading room, and open-air observation deck at the rear. Wearing a pith helmet wouldn’t be out of place. Prices start at a few thousand dollars each way.

Picture of fancy people looking out the rear observation carriage of a fancy train in a jungle setting.
The ritzy Eastern & Orient Express runs from Chiang Mai down to Singapore for a few thousand dollars per cabin.

If you wanted to get down to Singapore from Chiang Mai the cheap way, you could take the same tracks — and enjoy the same WindowSeater experience — by paying about $100 with scheduled Thai and Malay rail services. You could make the schlep in about 50 to 60 hours.

Mega Transport

The turn-off towards the South (and the Death Railway) comes up just past Bang Sue Junction — it will be the new terminal station for all Thai rail lines pretty soon, sending Hua Lumphong into retirement.

It will have twenty-four 600m-long platforms over 5 levels. It connects to the Bangkok underground (MRT), and will have a huge bus station as well. Its going to revolutionise the transport system for those getting around Thailand. It looks like they’re building an Imperial Star Destroyer out of cement.

The platform of Bang Sue Junction
The current picture of Bang Sue Juntion. It is currently being transformed into the new hub for transport in Bangkok.

In fact, have you noticed that Thailand is filled with massive, cement infrastructure? My (conspiracy) theory, for which I have no hard evidence, is that it is because of who the major shareholder is in Siam Cement Group — one of the largest cement companies in the world. I’m not going to say who that shareholder is for reasons I outline in the post about Chitralada palace. But it was interestingly founded by a royal decree…

It will be a shame to see the end of Hua Lumphong — it has a special place in my heart. But gosh is it needed! It will liberate huge amounts of land in central Bangkok for other purposes. And getting bus/van services out of the city will help reduce traffic. If you’ve taken a van to/from Victory Monument, you know what I mean.

Its a worth project, which wouldn’t be possible without Bangkok’s mass transit system.

The mighty BTS

You should be able to see the latest extensions to Bangkok’s elevated train system as we continue North out of Bangkok. The BTS (and its estranged cousin, the MRT) have been a little controversial – as all such projects are – but it has saved this city!

Firstly, a reminder: Nobody ever said that building a city of 15 to 20 million people beside a river in a monsoonal floodplain makes any sense at all. It happened that way more because of the strategic importance of the Chao Phraya. Bangkok was “the Venice of the East”, not Detroit — people were supposed to take boats. The roads of Bangkok were just whatever could be squeezed in between buildings and rice paddy and canals and palaces.

But in the 1980s, the numbers of cars in Bangkok was rising by one-third every year! Traffic speeds averaged a catatonic 10 km/hr by the 90s. So what to do? Build up! Big, beautiful, cement roads and rails criss-crossing the rooftops.

An elevated mass transit train in Bangkok
The Bangkok Transit System (BTS) has saved Bangkok from itself.

The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit Thailand’s economy in a big way — sapping it of funds, and mothballing the big plans for the BTS for a while — but eventually, it got done, and they’ve never stopped building it.

Of course, not everyone was happy about it. It has changed the character of Bangkok irreversibly. Especially in denser areas such as down Sukhumvit and Silom Roads, it feels there are now two cities: The bright, clean, and sleek top level city, lined by ritzy shops and new condominiums snapped up by the Thai upper crust; And then the polluted, darker, and noisy bottom level. Its like I’m describing a science-fiction megapolis.

But, for better or worse, each new line can move 25,000 people per hour in each direction. Now Bangkok kind of works. And I can’t really argue with that.

Don Mueang

As we inch out of Bangkok, we have one last stop on this fascinating (sic) tour of Thai transport infrastructure: Don Mueang — Asia’s oldest continually operating international airport, and the world’s toughest airport to pronounce.

A bit of history: Opened as a Royal Thai Air Force base in 1914, it accepted its first international arrival — a KLM flight — in 1924. Actually, the first airfield in Thailand was set up following a visit from Orville Wright in 1911. Thats now the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.

During Japanese occupation in WWII, Don Mueang bombed heartily by the allies. It was also a huge logistics hub for the US Air Force during the Vietnam war. This meant that Bangkok was a common stop for R&R for American GIs, which probably turned Bangkok into the sex-tourism cluster it is today, unfortunately.

An Air Asia plane at the terminal in Don Mueang airport
Today, Don Mueang is a humble secondary airport for Bangkok, but it has a remarkable history.

For a while, Don Meuang was the 2nd busiest airport in Asia. But the gigantic Suvarnabhumi Airport on the other side of town relegated it to number 2 in Thailand. It was shuttered for a while when politicians decided there could be only one airport in Bangkok, but low-cost airlines needed it, and now it is having something of a renaissance.

The Royal Thai Air Force still owns the airport, and between the two airstrips sits the Air Force’s golf links. For the small price of spending the productive years of your life rising through the ranks in the Thai military, you can tee off surrounded by screaming jets and whack a ball across a taxiway — a red light signals for play to stop when a plane approaches. If you’re stuck at Don Mueang for a number of hours, there’s an Air Force museum a short taxi ride away, which I hear is worth a look.

And as we pass Don Meuang on the Northern Line heading North, we bend to the left, chug past some new condos and freeways, and we’re finally out of Bangkok.

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