This is the first of what we hope will become a series of stories about local train vendors on different routes across Thailand and beyond. Commonly ignored and largely underappreciated, but right there selling some of the tastiest local snacks on board just as the belly rumbles, we hope to learn more about these vendors' job, lives and food with a series of interviews. Stay tuned! We couldn’t have done this without our good friend Jainkarn, who gave us the idea and helped us talk to these hardworking people. Note to self: learn Thai.
Thailand’s trains get a bad rap. ‘Comfortably rustic’ is the nicest description in a long line of constant complaints – most travelers picking on the train’s snail pace, lack of air-con, hard seats and not-so-clean berths. It’s all true, of course. The ordinary trains run slower than the outside traffic, and the old wooden seats don’t do wonders for your bum. But along with a scenic journey and travelling like the locals, there’s another thing that these cross-country carriages offer that you can’t get on your cheapest Air Asia flight: a friendly parade of freshly cooked, hand-delivered lunches.
Food vendors on trains are common throughout the world. Indian train food sounds like a snacking dream, and I’ve read about diehards who travel a certain line between Mumbai and Kolkata just to buy the train’s on-board chicken cutlets. Even the more formal and mass-produced bento boxes on Japan's bullet trains are still regarded as tasty, must-have meals. The vendors in Thailand are certainly more home-style than you’ll find on the Shinkansen, but this just makes for an even more delicious trip.
For our first train feast, we wanted a short and digestible journey – so we jumped on an old train bound for Ayutthaya, the historic former capital of the Siamese Kingdom, just 90 minutes from Bangkok. Straight up we scored some green mango and a bag of unripe dates, known as phut sa, from a fruit vendor. The round, golden dates were slightly tart – made sweeter with the requisite bag of chilli sugar that accompanies most Thai fruit. We also replenished our tiger balm stock and picked up some massage oils from Jang Peng, a vendor who sells her herbal remedies from carriage to carriage.
For lunch, it was all about things on sticks. Hot dogs on sticks, skewered pork meatballs and fish cakes, and even deep-fried chicken wings on sticks. We ordered a hotdog and some fried chicken, which came drizzled in a sweet and spicy sticky sauce – all just 10 baht a piece.
It was in Ayutthaya that we found some real local snacks. Waiting on the platform is Allun, an elderly local man who sits surrounded by a plastic mountain of puffed-up bags of roti sai mai, a traditional Thai dessert.
“I wait here every day for the trains to arrive, and sell my sai mai to travelers about to board or getting off the train,” says Allun. Known as Thailand’s fairy floss, sai mai is made using palm sugar. It's boiled and cooled until a thick, creamy caramel consistency, then pulled with wooden sticks repeatedly, stretching it into thousands of tiny strands. It’s served with thin salty-sweet crepes to wrap the strands, and best eaten warm. We buy a bag – the roti and the pulled sugar coloured bright green from the natural pandan leaf it’s made with.
“You can find sai mai everywhere in Thailand now, but originally it came from Ayutthaya,” says Allun. Sai mai, meaning 'silky threads' in Thai, was brought to Thailand via Indian and Persian migrants who traded in Siam in the 17th Century. These days, the best roti sai mai is still sold by Muslim vendors who gather opposite the Ayutthaya hospital, where Allun sources his order. You can see how it’s made here.
Because our purpose of this trip was to be on the train and not off, we bypassed Ayutthaya’s historic temple-lined streets and bought a return ticket back home to Bangkok, jumping straight back on board the next train that came past. It was here we met 60-year-old Oh-paat, a drink vendor from Phachi, east of Ayutthaya.
As the train rolled into the station, Oh-paat hurried to grab his goods; his lean, strong arms effortlessly lifting an old paint bucket filled with cold drinks and another big bag of drinks on board. “I’ve been selling these drinks every day on this train for the past 20 years,” he says, resting the heavy bucket on his hip like a mother rests a toddler.
Once the train starts moving he begins his work, singing out “cold drinks, cold drinks” along the aisles. He sells water, coke, Chinese tea and iced napkins to refresh customers from the relentless heat. “They don't allow us to sell alcohol anymore. Some passengers would get too drunk. They'd do things like steal or harass other passengers, so our community made the decision to not sell to people who were drunk,” says Oh-paat.
His “community” are the unofficial vending group that board these trains. Each vendor has their own route they must stick to, and make sure they get off the train when the new vendor begins. “I work from Ayutthaya to Laksi station. I’m not allowed to sell further than that, because another drink vendor will get on,” he explains. “We have to divide the route so everyone has a chance to sell.”
Most days he'll sell between 30–40 drinks for about 10-20 baht per pop, making a total of 400 baht, about AUD$16, a day. But on a special holiday, like a long weekend or Chinese New Year, he can make 900 baht (AUD$36). “In the past, when we could sell alcohol, I could make more than 1000 baht in one day,” he says.
Oh-paat was a carpenter before he started selling on the train. “I helped build this railway. The job was very hot, we worked in the sun and the rain, and we weren’t allowed to stop because of the bad weather. Now when it's raining I can work on the train.” It’s a 38-degree day today, and the sun isn’t hindered by the usual relieving cloud cover. I’d rather be on the train, too.
We buy an iced tea and a bottle of water from him, and he hands it to us with a smile. I ask Oh-paat if he likes what he does. “I like this job, I think it's better than working for the government,” he answers. “If I work in an office, I have to be on time. On the train, if I'm tired, I can take a rest or skip one or two days. I like this job because it's up to me. No one controls me.”
Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
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