The Slow Train to Ku Bua

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the main mode of transport through Thailand was boats, with regular services running along the Chao Phraya and its tributaries. But by 1950 the growth of the Thai railways had led to a sharp drop-off in the number of boat services, and cities, such as Nakhon Sawan, whose lifeblood had been river-borne trade, went into a long period of decline. A country that had for centuries used its rivers as highways now travelled overwhelmingly on land. By the start of the twenty-first century, car ownership was becoming increasingly widespread in Thailand, which meant that it was the turn of the railways to become outmoded. The speed with which rail was being rendered obsolete was brought sharply home to us on our trip out to Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom, key provinces in the history of Dvaravati.

When we had first visited Nakhon Pathom in 2000, we had travelled out there from Thonburi Railway Station, which was situated on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya from the Royal Palace. The service we too out there was an economy-class, all-stations train which was heading out to the “Bridge on the River Kwai” town of Kanchanaburi but it was clearly not in a hurry to reach its destination. It crawled along in the intense heat and humidity, stopping at every spot where more than a few houses were clustered together. It might only have been fourteen years ago, but it already seemed like an experience from another era. The train had been full of working-class women going to and from market, and some of them had even brought fresh produce along. There were noisy groups of schoolchildren, and the occasional Buddhist monks and nuns travelling alone. The train stopped a long time at the stations and sidings as people got on and off with their bags of rice and boxes of vegetables.

By 2014, Thonburi Railways Station had been out of service for over a decade. The original station building can still be seen there, just back from the Chao Phraya River, but it is just an abandoned relic of the earlier time. If you want to travel to Nakhon Pathom by rail, you still can, but you have to leave from Hualamphong on the other side of the river, and there are no longer any “economy” services either. The only train available was a modern, long-distance one going all the way to the Malaysian border. According to our research, just after Nakhon Pathom it veered off the old line to Kanchanaburi, passing through the little-visited town of Ratchaburi on the way to the Isthmus of Kra and Thailand’s Deep South.

We turned up at Hualamphong a bit after nine o’clock and found that the next train to Ratchaburi wasn’t until one o’clock that afternoon. I asked Cameron if he minded waiting, and he calmly assured me that we had nothing else planned and nowhere else to be. As he saw it, we might as well be flexible and pass the time until the train came. Agreeing with this plan, I bought tickets for the one o’clock service, and then we set off for a wander through Bangkok’s nearby Chinatown. Our first stop was a grimy food-stall serving chicken and rice in an alleyway and then we wandered between a couple of historic temples that we had seen years before. The time-filling got off to a pleasant enough start. But then Cameron was struck by that most typically Bangkok of ailments, “street food belly”, prompting an urgent search for a bathroom. He hurried into the lobby of the nearest hotel and Donal and I took a table in the hotel coffee-shop.

As we drank our cups of ‘milk coffee’ and waited an interminably long time for Cameron to emerge from the bathroom, I scanned the coffee-shop and hotel lobby, thinking about all the other places like this I’d seen in our travels. It was from an earlier generation of business hotel, aimed at traders and salesmen from the Chinese community. Featuring tanks of carp, branches of plastic cherry-blossom and other dated decorations, it had probably hadn’t changed much in thirty years, and it seemed to attract very few guests these days. Bored by his long wait in the empty coffee-shop, Donal did his usual routine of annoying the waitresses by demanding extra napkins, toothpicks and anything else he could think of, until I eventually told him to leave them alone. Eventually Cameron emerged and pronounced himself unfit for further wandering. So we stayed in the coffee-shop ordering drinks and snacks for the best part of two hours, and then finally went over to Hua Lamphong for our train.

As it turned out, the train was late leaving Bangkok, and I complained that it was going to take us the whole day to get to Ratchaburi, a town a mere eighty kilometres away. Cameron reminded me again that this was our week off, and I should just take it easy- wise advice I was obviously struggling to take. But by the time we were moving out of Bangkok, I started to feel the romance of the journey. It seemed like we were on “the slow train to Ku Bua”, which was appropriate for an obscure, backwoods destination.

We reached Nakhon Pathom just before four, and then there was another delay before we turned onto the line heading south. From this point, we gathered speed, moving quickly through lush, green countryside dominated by clumps of bamboo and emerald rice-paddies. There were few large villages along the route, making it surprisingly bucolic and attractive. The late afternoon sun was sinking in the West, in which direction lay the Myanmar border, and in that hour the whole scene was softened by a lovely golden hue. The unexpectedly beautiful scenery made me feel that our day of waiting had not been entirely with compensation.

Just before we reached Ratchaburi train station, we crossed the Mae Khlong River, the most important in that part of Thailand. Having risen in the hills along the border with Myanmar, it then crossed the lowlands of Ratchaburi province on its way towards the Gulf of Thailand, just as it had done since the time of Ku Bua. The Mae Khlong River, I considered, had been one of the main waterways of Mon civilization, and we were now in a little-known but important corner of Dvaravati.

But before there was time for the contemplation of history, there were practicalities to deal with. We got off at the station and went in search of a hotel, expecting there to be a cluster of them around the train station; after all, the town was a provincial capital. But the provincial capital appellation didn’t mean as much in Thailand as it did it most countries, because the nation had a super-abundance of provinces. China, with its 1.4 billion people, has only seen fit to create twenty-seven provinces, but Thailand with a mere sixty-five million now has ninety. For the corruption-prone nation, this has meant a vast proliferation of government offices, all with their hands out, and Bangkok has long had a problem effectively supervising officials in the provinces. For the traveler, it means that provincial capital status does not guarantee much in the way of services and amenities. And so it proved in Ratchaburi; we wandered all around the centre of town and found only a single hotel in any price-range. Clearly few visitors, local or domestic, ever spent the night in town. The only lodgings we found were a compound of brick villas on a large, bare block of land down a side-street. Still, they were big enough to sleep three people comfortably, and the asking price was only six-hundred baht.

With our bags stowed in the room, we set off to explore the parts of Ratchaburi we hadn’t seen in searching for a hotel. This mostly involved the parts along the Mae Khlong River, which also promised to be the most attractive part of town. But before we got there we stopped at a street-stall for lunch. Cameron and I ordered a plate of pork mince on rice while Donal looked around for chicken or seafood. Though he drank beer, womanized, never observed the Ramadan fast for more than a day or two each year, and was very rarely seen in the vicinity of a mosque, Donal was very insistent on never eating pork. I’d come to suspect that he was fastidious in this one respect of religious observance in order to allay his guilt about his failure in all the others.

From there we walked on, passing an old yellow clock tower and coming at last to the Mae Khlong riverfront, which was, as expected, easily the most attractive part of town. Unexpectedly, it also proved to be the town’s diminutive ‘Chinatown’, with a large number of ethnic Chinese doing business in the street along the river. Perhaps, we discussed, Chinese traders had originally established their shops here in the days of river-borne transport, trading in goods that had been brought downriver from the hinterland, selling some of them in town and passing others on to traders in the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Whatever the story, they had picked a lovely spot to set up shop.

The Ratchaburi clock tower, a minor landmark in town
The Ratchaburi clock tower, a minor landmark in town

In the distance were low-lying hills, revealed in that hour in the soft light of sunset. I’d read that there was still a fair amount of forest remaining in the hilly interior of Ratchaburi province. It was there, along the border with Myanmar, that the waters of the Mae Khlong River rose. By the time it had reached Ratchaburi, only a short distance inland from the sea, it was a broad, brown waterway that would have been easily navigable by smaller vessels. The town was located at a bend in the river, with a pontoon and a couple of small jetties along the banks of that side, and a glitzy wat occupying extensive grounds on the far bank. Against this attractive backdrop of water, hills and sky, young lovers courted, boys flew kites and people did the last of the day’s shopping in a small street market. Ratchaburi was not one of the country’s most compelling destinations by any measure, but it did have a little charm.

The next day we set out for Ku Bua, which different websites had reported as being either six, eight or twelve kilometres outside town. In looking for a hotel the day before, we’d passed a road sign to the ruins. According to this source, Ku Bua was a mere six kilometres away. It was to this sign that we headed the next morning because, I reasoned, it was at least pointing us in the right direction. We had no idea about local transport, but it seemed a fair bet that any vehicle heading out to Ku Bua would be passing by that way. When we got to the sign, there were a few locals waiting too, and one of them assured us that this was a good place to wait for a bus to Ku Bua.

After about fifteen minutes a local bus came past. We climbed aboard and the bus headed out along its route, carrying a small contingent of passengers. The town straggled for a while and then we seemed to be in a more ‘village’ environment of wooden houses, green fields and grazing goats. It wasn’t long before the bus driver came to a stop and gestured for us to get out. The three of us got off and the bus continued towards its unknown destination.

In front of us was a modern Thai wat of the Bangkok school, which was also known as Wat Ku Bua. Perhaps, I guessed, the name Ku Bua had been taken from the modern Thai village, and it had nothing to do with the ancient Mon settlement on the site. Trying to get my bearings, I asked a couple of local ladies where the ruins were, and they helpfully gestured to go straight past the wat and then veer around to the left, With nothing else to go on, we accepted their advice, hoping for the best. We had soon past the wat and there was no sign of the museum or any ancient monuments, so we continued on down a sort of country lane, with dense shrub growing along the roadside. Then after about five minutes, we came to a small monument which we hadn’t been mentioned on any of the websites we’d visited.

Set in a small clearing on a piece of boggy, low-lying land, it was a rectangular, brickstupa about five metres long. The clearing was surrounded by thick undergrowth and the whole place had a neglected, overgrown look. It had clearly been excavated at some point, as there was now a ditch around the monument. We walked around it and saw that there was no longer any trace of terracotta; only the underlying brickwork had survived. If any traces of the stucco exterior had lasted, I concluded that they had been moved to the Ku Bua museum.

There was a small sign at the site which indicated that this was indeed a Mon-Dvaravati stupa and that it was now a protected monument of the Kingdom of Thailand. In addition, it explained that the Mae Khlong River had changed its course over the centuries; during the Dvaravati era, it had flowed right by Ku Bua, but it had now shifted several kilometres to the north. In light of this information, I considered maps I’d seen of the former coastline of the region. It has often been suggested that due to river sedimentation, Thailand’s coast around the head of the Gulf of Thailand has advanced many kilometres forward over the centuries. Perhaps, I considered, this site had once been set near the coast, the Mon establishing a settlement at the mouth of the Mae Khlong River to facilitate trade with the outside world.

From this obscure little stupa we continued onwards in search of the main monument and the museum, and we came upon it about five minutes later. There was a large car-park and a visitor’s centre here, as well as a modern Thai wat and monastery. While the site was almost unknown to Western tourists, some awareness of Ku Bua clearly existed among locals. Consulting Cameron, we decided to see the monument first and come back to the visitor’s centre at the end. As it turned out, Wat Khlong, the most important monument in the province, was only a short distance ahead through the trees.

The front section of Wat Khlong at Ku Bua
The front section of Wat Khlong at Ku Bua

Ku Bua was once a moated Mon settlement about two kilometres across. In this it resembled the other major settlements of Dvaravati. But though traces of the moat and ramparts still existed, there was only one major surviving structure from the site and that was Wat Khlong, a surprisingly massive chunk of masonry. Yet despite its massive size, it is not, perhaps, the most photogenic of monuments and it is easy to understand why this great slab of brickwork has not seized the imagination of tourists.

Wat Khlong is not completely without ornamentation. Along the southern side there are a series of pillars running from top to bottom, and these are part of the original stucco casing. These are the only remaining hint of how the monument would have been decorated; elsewhere the stucco has crumbled away, and it is only possible to appreciate its bulk. The stupa was some twenty-five metres long and fifteen metres high, forming a great rectangular platform. It is possible that a superstructure of some sort, probably some kind of tower, would have stood on top of this platform, but no hint of it remained now. Only the lowermost tier had survived. At the front a staircase rose up to the top of this level, but you were not permitted to go climbing on it these days. In its original conception, I imagined, Wat Khlong must have been a Buddhist temple-mountain, attesting to the Mon’s early embrace of the Indian religion.
The final stop on our visit to the site was a trip to the visitor’s centre. It had been modelled, somewhat clumsily, on Wat Khlong, we now saw, with colonettes running down the sides. Inside were the typical dioramas of Thai village life, and a collection of local material culture such as baskets, fish-traps and textiles. But the main interest was its impressive collection of terracotta art from the Dvaravati era. It appeared that terracotta art had been plentiful at the site, and there were panels and statuary showing Buddhas, animals and even figures that were thought to be foreign traders to the region. This was a reminder that the stupas we had seen would not originally have consisted of ‘naked’ brickwork. They would once have been encased in terracotta art friezes, making them much more appealing aesthetically.

Content with our visit to the obscure site, feeling I had ventured deeper than ever before into Dvaravati than ever before, it was now time to contemplate the next phase of the journey. But before moving on we decided to have something to eat. The options were limited in that out-of-the-way place, but there was a woman across the road selling noodle soup for twenty baht a bowl. We took a risk on it, and found that it made for a perfectly fine breakfast. With something on our stomachs, we flagged down a bus and quickly found ourselves in town. With train services now infrequent, we decided that the best option for making the short jump back to Nakhon Pathom was just to take the bus. These left every half an hour or so, so it didn’t take long to find one and get on our way.