Asias's Old Railway Hotels
Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for This Airways International
Before the age of jet travel, when mass tourism hadn't yet caught on, anyone travelling ‘upcountry’ throughout Southeast Asia had no choice but to seek accommodation in private residences, government "resthouses" or railway station hotels. Only in the larger cities did they have hotels as we know them today.
The station hotel, thus, became the traveller's Mecca. Old timers like to tell how at the end of a long rail journey they were certain to find a comfortable room waiting for them at the station. There would be no taxis or samlors to catch, no further travelling to do, except, perhaps walking up a flight of stairs.
Nor would they have to carry their luggage. Travellers were certain to be greeted by white-coated house boys who did the carrying and led them to their quarters. The sight was always welcoming—a spacious, high ceiling room with shutters opening on to a verandah, a mosquito net draped over the bed, a flowered porcelain Shanghai jar filled with fresh water and a dipper. Sticks of smoldering incense would be burning in a pot beside the bed to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
After a cooling shower, travellers would dress and gather at the station's restaurant for drinks and conversation before having a late dinner. After a good night's sleep and an early breakfast, their journey by train would resume.
"It was a very pleasant way to travel," recalled Connie Mangscau, Bangkok's famous hostess, who was born in Chiang Mai in 1910. (It was Connie who was with Jim Thompson that fateful Easter Sunday when he disappeared at a hillstation in Malaysia, never to be seen or heard from again.) She recalled the time, when she was quite young, and before there was a railway, it took up to 30 days to come down the river to Bangkok. "The beginning of rail service and the opening of railway hotels made a big difference in travel," she said.
Railway hotels were once a necessity. In the early period of Siam's railway there were no through trains. Passenger trains ran only by day. Just after World War 1, when the railway line from Bangkok to the Malay border in the south was completed, regular trains made night stops in Chumporn and Thungsung.
According to a time table published in 1920, passengers left Bangkok at 7:20 in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, arrived in Chumporn at 19:26 the same evening, spent the night there, and after 10 hours on the train the next day arrived in Thungsung at 17:42 for another night in the station hotel.
The third day, the schedule shows, was a long day, starting from Thungsung at 6:35 and arriving at the border station, Padang Besar, at 14:12, where "passengers were required to change trains." The journey was continued on F.M.S.R. (Federated Malay State Railway) trains until Penang was reached around 20:30. It was a long arduous journey that took several days. Today it's an over night trip.
On the 1st of May, 1922, a direct train from Bangkok to Penang was inaugurated, with first class sleeping cars, or, as they were then called, "day and night coaches." With the introduction of sleeping compartments the overnight stops in Chumporn and Thungsung were eliminated. Thus the "International Express" was born.
The Minister of Communication, the far-sighted Prince Purachatra, ordered diesel locomotives from Denmark and Switzerland. When diesel power replaced steam in 1932, the Bangkok to Penang run was shortened from 33 to 26 hours.
Nevertheless, three station hotels along the route managed to survive the changes, and these were the railway hotels in Bangkok (Hualampong), Chiang Mai and Hua Hin.
Unfortunately, Bangkok's very "old-fashioned" - but also very comfortable - railway hotel, right inside Hualumpong station, vanished a few years ago, when the station underwent a 45 million baht renovation and the former hotel area was converted into modern, air-conditioned ticketing offices.
The Chiang Mai Railway Hotel, directly across from the station, was leased by the private sector and turned into a characterless piece of property. All the comfortable--though somewhat neglected--wooden bungalows have disappeared and the hotel has lost its former atmosphere, together with its old clientele. The present hotel is a far cry from the original Railway Hotel that Connie Mangscau recalls. "There were hardly any hotels in Chiang Mai before the war," she said. "Guest houses were more common, but the 'in' place was the Railway Hotel. It was the social center of Chiang Mai."
Then there was Hua Hin. Aside from The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand boasts one other old, internationally well-known hotel, the original old Railway Hotel in Hua Hin.
First opened in October, 1922, in response to the growing demand for beachside retreats, where the rich and influential of Bangkok could get away from it all, the Hua Hin Railway Hotel is a reminder of a past, when travel was much different than it is today. Where else can you find a hotel today with high ceilings, large balconies, spacious lobbies, grand restaurants, park-like gardens and a wonderfully ornate architecture.
The property, when run down and in a state of utter neglect, was rescued by private businessmen, who spent millions on restoration and renovation and renamed it Sofitel, the name of the chain that now manages it. But for many regular travellers, particularly of the older generation, its name of six decades remains and will always be the Railway Hotel.
Apart from giving the property a romantic image from a bygone age, that former name also reflects the hotel's early origins, for back in the 1920s the only way to reach the village of Hua Hin was either by boat or by train. The southern rail line to present-day Hua Hin was completed in 1911.
On old maps, Hua Hin was called Lan Hin, which means "stone cape". Prince Purachatra, the Director of the State Railways, convinced the Queen Mother to change the name to Hua Hin and make it a place of relaxation. Temporary summer bungalows were constructed near the group of rocks at the southern end of the village, along with Hua Hin's first Road, a connection between the railway station and the new beachfront buildings. In due course, other members of the Royal Family had their own residences built here, including the king's summer palace which still stands today.
The State Railway initially built a number of bungalows, followed by a "hotel in brick" comprising 28 rooms and the nearby Hua Hin Golf Course and tennis courts, opened in October, 1922.
Officially the Railway Hotel opened a little later, on January 1st, 1923, by which time it was already becoming immensely popular with Thais and foreigners living in Bangkok.
By 1928, the hotel's reputation was international and, in order to accommodate the growing number of visitors to Hua Hin, the State Railway added a new wing of 13 rooms, which were built to the exact same design as the already existing building.
At the end of World War II, business began to improve again and a further 23 guestrooms were added, along with three restaurants, a downstairs bar and lobby with a panoramic view of Hua Hin's glorious bay.
The value of the Railway Hotel as a building of architectural interest was fully acknowledged by the Thai Government, when it allowed the private sector to lease the property, but made the preservation of the old buildings and its extensive gardens an important condition of the contract.
Today, the former Railway Hotel is now known as the Hotel Sofitel Central Hua Hin, and the quality of both its facilities and service puts it in the ranks of the world's finest hotels. It also has the added advantage of offering its guests a taste of history.
And getting there by train, as in old days, is the best part of it all. Trains leave for the 220 km journey every morning from Bangkok's Hualampong station.
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.