The Shatabdi Superfast Train to Madras

I’ve always loved trains: looking at them, riding on them, eating on them, even sleeping on them. Anything about them except for the unusual hobby of trainspotting—that I never understood; seeing grown men all bundled up at five in the morning on a platform’s edge taking notes fastidiously in the rain as trains hurtle by in all directions. Railways lost their luster for me somewhat in the 1980s when I commuted everyday in and out of London on British Rail. The rolling stock was fine, it was the whole commuting experience that was soul destroying. I’m reminded that I once met a man by the name of Jack on that commute who would tell you how many rail miles he had travelled thus far on any given day and how many remained until his planned retirement.

The Ghan is a long slow train

The Ghan is a long slow train passing through desert for days on end, but in a good way

Apart from my commuting woes, I’ve been most fortunate to take many exciting and memorable train journeys in numerous countries, including the Australian Ghan, United States Auto Train, Japanese Shinkansen, Chinese Jinghu, Canadian VIA Rail, South American Hiram Bingham and many high-speed train journeys throughout Europe. European high-speed trains nearing on 300 km/h are not to be confused with the inappropriately titled Indian superfast trains, which amble at a modest 55 km/h. Nevertheless, my odd lifelong fascination with railroads has led to the present desire to take a train journey across the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding my mental outdated images of crowds hanging precariously from roofs and windows. While not the world’s largest rail network, India has by far the highest ridership measured in annual passenger-kilometers. As of 2014 it had over one trillion passenger-kilometers, equivalent to a per capita usage of over 1,000 passenger-kilometers—the same order of magnitude as per-capita usage in Europe, but with a lot more people of course.

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

While I enjoy an occasional challenge on my travels I had not anticipated the inexorable tests of my on-line skills in attempting to secure tickets for India’s railways. The singular company responsible for the world’s fourth largest rail network is state owned and known as the India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). Generally, with all the traveling I do I will happily use the services of a travel agent and pay a fee to assist with these types of things but there was no apparent easy go-to company in this instance and therefore I persevered tout seul in my railway arrangements. However, when I tried to obtain tickets from IRCTC I was defeated immediately: merely attempting to search for tickets was a non-starter, as the webpage appeared completely unresponsive. Subsequently, i.e., after what seemed like an age, I realized that the site was designed to ignore incorrect entries with impunity. Absent any feedback whatsoever the site apparently requires the user to correctly guess an exact combination of correct entries. Perhaps obvious to the seasoned Indian rail network traveler, required inputs include the dates, class of service, and connecting stations, which was not anywhere near obvious to the first time user. If a train and class did not exist between stations on any given date one could not proceed. Sensing some continued trouble a quick Google search revealed legions of folks encountering the same issues. On one of those useful last resort forums, some guy called Larry boasted that he booked the train with no problems using a site called cleartrip.com.

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Once downloaded, a huge benefit of the Cleartrip app is that it identifies when you have entered incorrect information, and it is far easier to use. For example, Cleartrip helpfully allows you to select a city with “all stations” instead of leaving you to guess which station in one city matches another in a different city. For example, Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore each have 5 different stations although the trains between each city don’t run to all stations, leaving you to try up to 25 different combinations on the IRCTC site. Furthermore with 8 classes of service and not all available on each train adds a few more combinations for you to guess.

The Amtrak is a  double- decker

The Amtrak auto train is a double-decker

But my favorite nuance is the mandatory requirement to provide a cell phone number. The IRCTC asks for a 10-digit Indian phone number, which of course you don’t have. When you use Cleartrip it suggests that you enter a fake number. Now the fake number has to look real so, you’re told after you try 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on that Indian phone numbers must start with a 7 8 or 9. Considering the demographics you quickly start to realize that quite a few of the 3 billion remaining numeric combinations are already in use by the burgeoning Indian populous. Forget all 8s or all 9s and go with your inner random number generator. After a few tries I eventually had my fake Indian mobile number accepted by the system. But this is where it got even more comical – Cleartrip tells you in a congratulatory tone that a verification code has been sent to your fake Indian cellphone. After a bit of head scratching it appears that there is yet another workaround for the fake number workaround by emailing a copy of your passport to Indian railways. There were a few other little online challenges but it is fair to say that this process was not superfast taking a few hours of effort over a 3-day period, taking time differences into consideration.

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan

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12 Reasons to Stay at the Maneerote Hotel

I find myself unable to explain properly my fascination with today’s customary hotel selection and decision process that is based solely on on-line traveler reviews. Unquestionably it has improved immensely the travel experience for most of us, as all it takes is a glance at the number of stars and the first half-dozen reviews to get a pretty good idea of an abode. One-and-a-half stars and quotes like “rat-infested,” “dingy,” “I’ve slept in better toilets,” and “popular with the Hells Angels crowd,” and that guesthouse’s Internet revenues will plummet precipitously like the Chinese stock market. Likewise, endless oozing, glowing reviews such as, “amazing value,” “close to all the major attractions,” and, “Roger the waiter couldn’t have been friendlier,” compels one to confirm the booking.

So it was with an ongoing keen sense of interest when I recently wanted to book a hotel for myself and my first-cousin-once-removed in Surin, Thailand, for a one-night stopover on a roadtrip from Laos to Cambodia. One singular lonely property, the Maneerote, popped up on the main online search sites, which teased me with an abundance of hotel filtering options. At first glance the reviews for this solitary hotel in North East Thailand seemed favorable and the rooms cost $12. My initial reaction was to keep searching, as it was surely some form of youth hostel at that price. But alas, nothing else showed as available during my extensive three-minute twenty-five-keystroke research undertaking. So I booked two rooms at the Maneerote at $12 a piece. I could’ve shared with the first-cousin-once-removed, but he can be a finicky room companion, so I thought why not splurge here.

My first-cousin-once-removed offers gift to monk in nearby Surin temple.

My first-cousin-once-removed offers gift to monk in nearby Surin temple.

Arriving at the hotel though the busy, bustling town of Surin, I was impressed to find that it was not located on some remote industrial estate where they shot the invasion scenes from the Terminator movie franchise. Furthermore I thought, it actually looked pretty nice, was close to the thoroughfare and one of the main temples, and had an adjacent comfortable looking coffee shop-come-café. Decently dressed, smiling helpful folks worked at reception, the elevator worked, and behold, the rooms were nice, clean and with wraparound balconies offering decent views of the entertaining town of Surin. What a deal I reflected, we should be paying more. Leaving the next morning my first-cousin-once-removed and I couldn’t identify a single aspect of the Surin Maneerote hotel experience that could be impugned, even at a much higher price.

Splendid view of Surin from the Maneerote Hotel $12 room’s balcony.

Splendid view of Surin from the Maneerote Hotel $12 room’s balcony.

For all of the above traits the hotel shall receive nothing less than the highest possible rating from each of us. Even in altruistic dedication to my on-line reviewer’s badge pledge of allegiance, how can I possibly deduct points when it cost less than I used to spend on youth hostels in Europe over 30 years ago? And here, in our comfortable separate rooms at the Hotel Maneerote, we don’t have communal bathrooms or showers, nor do we have to tolerate Germans snoring in the top bunks or the wandering waft of well-traveled socks. The Maneerote hotel, what an absolute bargain!

Nearby Khmer-style temple in Surin, within walking distance of the $12 Maneerote Hotel.

Nearby Khmer-style temple in Surin, within walking distance of the $12 Maneerote Hotel.

Four Stars for Four Bars in Aranyaprathet

The Hotel Indochina is located conveniently in the colorful and rustic town of Aranyaprathet on the Northwestern edge of the bustling Cambodia-Thai border. Perhaps the best set of digs in the entire town, it is a fair-sized hotel shaped like a large U with the lobby area bridging two very long wings that could double as professional bowling lanes. Very clean and functional, the hotel offered one or two entertaining quirks for the intrepid and road-weary traveler.

Bowling is optional.

Bowling is optional.

The first was the Wi-Fi teaser. There indeed was Wi-Fi with all four welcoming solid bars in selective pockets of space around the residence. In the hallways it was satisfyingly solid, but in the rooms it was peevishly pervasive. It would work by the bedroom door, and I mean right by the door. Tantalizingly, it would follow you to the bed but would vanish immediately the moment you got comfortable. Initiating the wireless mating dance once again starting from the door you could lure it very slowly and cautiously to the comfy chair in the far corner where it would leave brusquely and without warning. Most annoyingly, the signal bars would reappear with vigor whenever you stopped using your phone only to retreat promptly when you once again showed interest in communicating with the world beyond Aranyaprathet.

Free Wi-Fi available here. Only here.

Free Wi-Fi available here. Only here.

While radio signals had coverage challenges throughout the flophouse, audio did not. Noise traveled freely and with impunity. Mosaic hard-tiled floors throughout the sparsely decorated structure ensured lossless transfer of sonic utterances from the rectilinear echoing hallways to the austere rooms. Our involuntary wake up call was at 6:30AM, courtesy of a cacophonic coachload of middle-aged Asian ladies who appeared to have a busy and exciting day ahead of them. By 7:30AM, they had come and gone as suddenly as a migrating swarm of desert locusts. Other intriguing sonic disturbances peppered the silence of the late summer Aranyaprathet evening. At first I thought the locals had implemented a bylaw to standardize ring tones, only to realize later that the electronic bedroom door locks would sing stridently when correctly identified by a guest’s plastic entry key. Who thought of that I wonder? No sneaking out and back in at the Hotel Indochina I suppose. Why not put bells on the bathroom doors too?

While these quirks added some color and challenge to a long trip through Isan I think it would be unreasonable to complain or to knock the hotel’s ratings given the most satisfactory marks it attained in all other departments (food, cleanliness, blah, blah, blah, and so on). I would stay again at the Hotel Indochina.

The Prince of Darkness

Nestled atop a bucolic hill in the southern Laos panhandle, overlooking the mighty Mekong River and the sleepy town of Pakse, with cultivated rice paddies as far as you can see, is the majestic Champasak Palace Hotel. Commissioned by monarchy in the 1960s before the communist revolution, the impressive palace was designed for governance and to befit the sovereign needs of its ruler, the Prince of Champasak. Alas, due to a history of contemporaneous inevitability the regional ruler never got to use his new digs. Nonetheless this Champasak chateau has continued to oversee the Laotian landscape with majestic splendor for a half century.

The expansive fourth floor of the palace

The expansive fourth floor of the palace

Today it is a three-and-a-half-star hotel that pops up online offering free breakfast and wifi for the intrepid internet-enabled traveler. And it is fabulous. Along with the Golden Buddha and the immense stone Buddha the Champasak Palace is a must-see for every Paske visitor. You have to ask yourself, when was the last time you stayed in a real palace for $30? My first-cousin-once-removed and I had two separate rooms, which pretty much commanded the entire fourth floor of the sprawling compound.

This immense stone Buddha awaits you in Pakse

This immense stone Buddha awaits you in Pakse

One must, however, accept some of the little vagaries that come with hostelry conversion of a Laotian citadel. The staircase leading to the inviting but strangely uninhabited rooftop bar is pitch black and the walk from the rooms to the elevator is completely exposed to the elements. Perhaps most noticeable, however, is the outright absence of glass windows throughout the royal residence. You see, the prince had in mind the extensive use of wooden slatted French doors, which in a palatial heyday would have opened up each room to magnificent views and an abundance of sunlight. But today, in a standard hotel bedroom configuration, each French double door is blocked in entirety by a clutter of furnishings thereby denying all solar access, ceding one’s eminence to the Prince of Darkness.

View from the room if it had a window

View from the room if it had a window