Where the train lines diverge between North and South is as good a place as any to tell you a bit about both.
THE NORTHERN LINE
The Northern Line was the first line that King Chulalongkorn built when he founded Thailand’s rail system in the early 1900s. It took 16 years to build to its current extent, and totally changed Thailand. Before this train, getting from here to Chiang Mai woudl mean weeks of travel – by riverboat or muddy bullock cart up through the floodplains, and then over mountainous roads into the Northern highlands. The Northern Line reduced that trip down to a couple of days, and now takes about 12 hours. The reduction in the time and cost of transport meant that, economically, large new tracts of Thailand’s hinterlands – and particularly the agricultural heartland of the Chaophraya River basin – was brought into the global economic trading network that Thailand had established over the centuries. Politically, it meant that the Siamese capital could better communicate with, and project its central power into, the restive northern areas, and demonstrate to its expansionist colonial neighbours that its borders could be enforced and Thailand was not to be trifled with.
THE SOUTHERN LINE
The turnoff towards the West loops us, eventually, towards the South. It too has helped bring new economic connectivity, central political legitimacy, and security to the southern reaches of Thailand, but to a lesser extent as it follows the ancient maritime trading routes along the coast of Thailand down to its southern neighbours in the Malay Peninsular.
The line connects all the way down to Singapore (previously it took you all the way into central Singapore, but they’ve moved the railhead to the North of Singapore Island, just across the causeway). It would take an uncomfortable day and a half by regular Thai and Malay services to get there, and you could do it for about $50.
The luxury option is the Eastern & Oriental Express. They have trains departing once or twice a month heading from Singapore to Bangkok and back, taking either three or 4 days, depending on the direction you go. The service commenced in 1992 by the same people who operate the Venice-Simplon Orient Express in Europe. Generously refurbished Japanese coaches feature two dining cars, a lounge car, a piano bar car, a saloon car with a reading room and a small boutique, and an open-air observation deck at the rear of the train, which is perfect for us window seaters. Tickets start at a couple of US dollars each way, depending on the time of year and your birthing.
The infamous “Death Railway”, originally built in WWII by the Japanese, and which sets the scene for the famous book and movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, splits off the Southern Line after Nakhon Pathom. The Eastern lines, which head to Nong Khai (connecting to Vientiane, Laos), and Ubon Ratchathani, split off later, a bit north of Ayutthaya. The lines to Aranyaprathet (near the Cambodian border) and Pattaya split off further south.