Turntabele tales Nº 11

‘A wai for a railway guy’

Imagine you’re on the train, local 408 – a three-unit diesel hydraulic railcar – and slowly finding the way uphill to the highest point of the Northern rail line.
What you don’t know but the driver already does, is the fact that one of the engines almost running without supplying enough power. The safety procedure on stations says: two crossing trains may not enter on the same time. One has to wait in front of the entry signal while the other one slowly passing the points. Unfortunate 408 is the looser and once the signal is cleared anything moves except the train itself, too steep for a weak engine or the left ones to do the heavy work alone. The next thing you await is a gentle voice: “Ladies and Gentlemen, would you be so kind to leave the train and push!” How else you can reach the top?
The anticipation of a driver who ordered a locomotive to haul the thing. A spare one from Lampang and sent already to assist the crossing train in going up from the other side. The State Railway of Thailand faces a severe problem if the means for proper maintenance are absent and the staff is on their own to find solutions. Improvisation; for the real fan a joy, for a regular traveler annoying.

Khun Tan – km 683 + 140 meter, 8.726 from Tha Chom Phu, altitude 577 meter above see level – old signals, three tracks and one side track slightly going up where the main track starts descending towards Chiang Mai. On the other side there’s also still some climbing to be done, the watershed is somewhere inside a tunnel. The tunnel – 1352.10 meter long – a master piece of engineering from the beginning of the last century. Hard labor for Chinese workers addicted to opium and easy prey for roaming tigers. It must have been a hell of a job to blast solid rock and create a corridor in an inhospitable terrain.
A lot of headache for Emile Eisenhofer, a civil German railway engineer with a lot of passion for his profession and the country. History prevents him to see the job till the end but later he returned and lived happily many years in Bangkok. After he passed away his ashes where entombed on a special spot not far from the tunnel entrance, and next where the tunnel spirit is honoured. So if you pass by make a wai, he deserves it. The tomb is a fine memory in time to keep the interest in history alive. A man and his wife, two foreigners named farang, rest peaceful in a Thai surrounding.
Emile was born in Munich 1879 and worked for the Royal State Railway of Siam from 1903 till 1917, the year wherein Siam declared war on Germany and all workers with that nationality were detained. A more or less opportune gesture to play a role on world stage. He supervised the tunnel construction from 1914 till 1917. His wife was born in Berlin 1895 and also died in Bangkok long after her husband departed in 1982. For a railway man it must be a joy to find his final destination beside the track and being reunited with his beloved. A serene spot far from all sorts of traffic except a train.
The tranquil pace of a mountain village though a road came near. By all means of disturbance only a minor one. It’s not that long ago at the end of the day the station assistant pulled out a hand made lorry and peddled himself with a pole to the signals in order to illuminate these with a petroleum lamp, the railway can be fairy-like. The staff hardly polished the appearance; reality is its own beauty. A few orderly placed blue painted stones, some pictures from the past and a small pond. The reality must be happy here deprived from all sorts of noise. One can easily speak with each other even on a certain distance without raising the voice.
Only when a locomotive enters the scene you hear how noisy these machines actually are. On the station ground another ‘Molenschot – type FM 1960 Nº 18112’ can be spotted, imported by Chavanich Compagny in Bangkok. More than fifty years surviving any tropical condition and still weighing. So the Dutch will never weighed and found wanting. There’re more stations where this company left traces. Khun Tan; German ‘Gründlichkeit’ (thoroughness) and Dutch craftsmanship comes together, one as a sign of mortality, the other seems eternal.

The ‘wai’ is a typical Thai way of greeting, all fingers put together in front of the face. The word farang originated in the Byzantium Empire during the seventh century after a Frankish pope was assigned. A name even penetrates China. Farangi, faranji, feringhee are a Persian Arabic and Indian variation.

Romantically illuminated

About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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