Pictures of a postcard (17)

TH - Chiang Mai

ʻChiang Mai Stationʼ

The terminus of Thailand’s Northern Railway Line: Bangkok (Krung Thep) – Chiang Mai (751.420 km) nicknamed: The rose of the North. A flower but with a thorn…
Names and like the spelling changed through the years. One thing remains; despite being Thailand’s second city it still has a character village alike. A perfect dwelling for ramblers, the ones once arrived at the station, looked at the square, took a deep breath and said: Yeh, here I like to stay.
They came and make the place their own with visible consequences but certainly not in all cases for the worst though a native longing for the past and roots of real Thai culture might has other ideas about bit. Development is one thing it never will pleases all people in the same way.
By the time construction of the railway reached Chiang Mai – the first train start running in 1922 – the station was situated far from any settlement, that’s to say the fortified city by brick walls and a moat. A stiff walk those days was one of the pleasures the just arrived traveller awaited and no public transportation others than oxcarts and three-wheel bicycles if available. These days the city expanded beyond the walls, a few ruins can still be admired, but the situation of public transportation is far from improved. Oxcarts are long gone even the rickshaw is hardly seen; meanwhile the famous tuk-tuk took over, a three-wheel motorized vehicle named after the sound it makes.
Rot see dengʼ is the main mode of transportation, a red coloured pick-up car with seats in the small rear. ʻSong thaewʼ is the other name; two benches. Even today going to the station without private means of transportation still is a burden although there’s also an irregular running (between sunset and dawn) local bus with a stop on the main road in front of the premises.
Yellow bus route Nº 3 stopping right at the doorstep is another part of history to paint a picture for any traveller arriving after a long ride through the night but comfortable in a sleeper or even first class compartment. This wasn’t the case at the beginning, riding through the darkness one considered as too dangerous, bandits, beasts or whatever was out there in the jungle beyond the city gates. Three full days for the trip between two cities, travellers slept in a hotel nearby a station on the way while the train waited and continued the next morning. By all means this was a huge improvement compared with the six week journey before by boat and on the back of an elephant.
Anyway, the night stops were abandoned soon and since the connection proofed to be reliable only in the new century due to age this became questionable. A train derailed and another one, other one, other one… like the rhythm of wheels on steel on the small cap between the rail. Too many derailments to make it trust-able for a smooth ride. The chief in charge decided to overhaul the infrastructure completely.
This done on December 2nd 2013 the trains resumed running between the capital and more remote North. Absolutely not the only mode of transportation anymore, rail lost a lot of traffic to the long distance buses – departing frequently with a riding time of average 9 hours / train minimal 13 and by far less often. The upcoming budget air carriers (no frills, no trills and only 1 hour flight) are a toll for the railway too especially when booked in advance with prices not much higher than a comfortable train ride (third class exempt).
The station itself didn’t change much after the allied forces bombed the old one to rubble in 1944 and the contemporary housing was build in the so called Lanna style. ʻLan Naʼ; a million (rise) fields and sign of prosperity for the by that time independent kingdom in the North. It’s a pretty venue for lingering a while or even gathering on regular schedule for like-minded soles with more interest in the system as a mode of transportation only. Gathering around the turntable (Nº 132) still able to turn and constructed in 1922 by the German company Joseph Vögele from Mannheim. It’s not only a relict from the heydays of steam but also the history of German influences during the construction period. It was a visionary king (Rama V – Chulalongkorn) at the end of the nineteenth century who decided that the country was served best by a railway. He choose German engineers to for fill the task as a balance for the colonial strive around the boarders (British influences in Burma and Malaysia and French in Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam). Thailand stayed independent but at the cost of a certain loss. Political developments hindered the Germans to bring their task to a fruitful end. In 1917 short before the end of W.W.I Thailand declares war with Germany and all railway workers were send home.
Despite the turntable is from a later date it’s also a nutshell for historical memories. The rest of the station is her daily life and the best way to comprehend this is by seeing it and not reading about. A attractive venue in the shade of what one might expect, maybe we shouldn’t expect at all only take the things as they are but not in all cases for granted.

Postcard at top: the station square and building somewhere in the seventies with all sorts of modes for local transportation waiting for customers.  Postcard below: a rare card from the sixties with a Davenport locomotive ready for depart. For more images see the set: Chiang Mai station chronicle on Flickr.


Thailand - Chiang Mai Davenport


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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