Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The International" Butterworth to Bangkok, June 23-24, 2011

On the ferry from Penang
It was with mixed feelings that I left Penang behind.  I’d enjoyed my time there.  The Hutton Lodge provided excellent accommodations and having Cyclops as a guide was a bonus.  Before leaving, I stopped by his clinic where I was able to see the work they do with disadvantaged children.  Then it was time to catch the ferry across to the lake.  The train left at 2:20 PM, but the woman who sold me the ticket suggested I be on the ferry by noon.  As it turned out, there was only a few minute wait for the ferry and then crossing took only 30 minutes.  Once on the other side, I walked by the train station and made sure I knew where I needed to be at, then crossed the tracks and found a place for lunch.  There, I talked to one of the few Americans I’d seen on the trip, a recent MBA graduate from Harvard who was traveling in Southeast Asia for a month.  We chatted at lunch and saw each other occasionally on the train.  Back in the train station, a woman working for the Malaysian tourism asked me a bunch of questions about their tourist advertisements and what I liked about Malaysia.  Then it was time to board the train.
A freight train moves through the Butterworth Station
I was surprised that the “International” only had two cars, both second class sleepers, and even then the train was less than half full.  I was alone.  Sitting across the aisle were two women, sisters, from Penang who were heading north for a wedding.  One of them was now living in Hong Kong and we chatting for a while, until the conductor told them they were in the wrong seat and made them move into the other car.  At that time, an older Indian couple boarded the train and took the seat.    In the seats behind me, an Australian man sat alone and we strike up a conversation.

On the platform in Butterworth, waiting for a train

For much of the afternoon, it’s evident that Malaysia is upgrading their rail system (with plans that the north/south line to be fully double-tracked and electrified).  Work is ongoing as new trestles are being built, tracks being laid and the lines strung.   The tracks we’re on are also nice and the ride is smoother.

At the Thai border, as we cleared customs, the rather plain looking Malaysian engine was replaced with a colorful Thai engine.  The Thai staff, with their fancy uniforms and enough stars to create a galaxy, joined us.  Also attached was a car where food was prepared.  The first thing that we noticed after the border was the Thai waiter coming through and taking orders for drinks (there was no alcohol on the Malaysian trains).  Allen, the Australian and I, along with two Japanese men who were in the seats across from him, took turns buying large bottles and passing them around.  The Japanese spoken only broken English, but we had a blast sharing food and drink.   Later, we had dinner.  I had pork noodles with oyster sauce (pork was another delicacy not to be found in Islamic countries).

Thai Car Captain

Allen and I talked through much of the evening.  An Australian, he retired to Tasmania.  Most of his life was spent in the military.   As soon as he could, he joined the British army (he was originally from Great Britain, just south of Scotland).  After seeing action in Yemen and in Malaysia in the mid-1960s, he jumped to the Australian army where he spent most of his military career.  It sounded as if he had an interesting career, serving a couple of tours in Vietnam as well as in Malaysia (there was an undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo in the 60s and 70s).  He was obviously well read and we discussed books (we’d read many of the same), theology, government and health care, world politics, our families and the weather (it was a 23 hour train ride).  Allen takes off for a few months every winter (remember, he lives in the southern hemisphere) and travels in Southeast Asia. 

Allen had a lot to say about Vietnam and his experiences there.  He was critical of American forces (saying he things our military is more disciplined now than then).  Then, he noted that most Australians didn’t like working with American units.  However, with Australian units having had jungle warfare experiences in Malaysia, they were more prepared for Vietnam and he even spent some time in the states working with the American military, training NCOs on jungle warfare.  He told of once incident on his last tour which I think he said was 1971.  His squad had been in an ambush position for a day, waiting.  He said that in the jungle it was hard to hear and to see very far and that his troops knew to wait till an enemy force was all in the killing zone (set up between two machine guns, before opening fire.  He said that if the enemy unit was too large (more than 18 men), they’d let it pass.  There were 13 in this squad and he said he’d heard them talk, but in the jungle, he was unable to make out what was being said or what language was being spoken.  They assumed it was Vietcong (he was also critical of the VC, saying they were any more discipline than American soldiers).  He was getting ready to detonate a claymore mine, to take out the center of the unit, when one of his machine gunners yelled out, “Hold the fucking fire.”  He was shocked, but the machine gunner who was in position finally had a good look at the last in the unit, a 6 ½ foot black basketball player and he realized it wasn’t a VC unit at all.  Had it not been for the last soldier, he said there would have been 13 dead Americans.   

As bad as Vietnam was, he said it didn’t compare to his short stint in Yemen with the British army early in his career and that he feels for what the soldiers in Afghanistan are going through these days with a determined enemy who believes they’re on God’s side.

At about ten o’clock, the train attendant lowers our beds. We all head off to sleep. Sometime in the night, I feel the train being bumped around and in the morning, there are no longer just two passenger cars, but a dozen or so. The morning also brings a different view as the mosques and minarets have been replaced with colorful Buddhist temples and chimneys for crematoriums. The tracks are not as smooth as they were in Malaysia, showing their age as we pass over them. We have breakfast. For 100 baht, I get some fruit, coffee, juice and a ham sandwich. As we approach Bangkok, the stations become closer together and towns are larger. We pass over canal after canal, making our way on toward the city’s center, pulling into the station just a few minutes late.

At Hau Lampong, we say our goodbyes to our Japanese friends and Allen and I depart ways. I can’t believe that I didn’t write down directions to Sam’s Lodge, where I’ve booked myself for two nights! I find an internet café and log into my gmail account to get the directions—which are rather easy: just find the subway, go four stops and get off at Sukhumvit, leave the subway at exit three, walk to the corner and take a left… I stop to eat lunch and am at the hotel by 2 PM.


  1. What an education you are getting!! Meeting Allen was a definite plus on the trip, I think.

  2. Sounds like ones learns a lot from this kind of travel.

  3. Funny how when you travel, you expect to learn a lot about the country you are visiting, but talking with other travelers, your journey takes you through their history and geography, too. Some other part of the world then makes an imprint over the one you are physically in. For me, a recent conversation with a man at the front desk of the condo where I've been living turned out to be a lesson in Philippine politics.

  4. What a fascinating journey.. so much to see, learn and thankfully share.

  5. What an interesting trip. Allen would have moved to another seat had he been next to me - my knowledge of history is pathetic. Interesting story he shared.

  6. It's hard to know whether seeing new places or meeting new people is the best part of the trip.


  7. It's good to hear he thinks our army is more disciplined now. Of course, back then they gave people a choice of the army or jail. Now you can't get in if you have a criminal record (is what I'm told).

  8. The Vietnamese man's experiences are fascinating - you should put all this into a book when you are done.