By the time our last day in Bangkok rolled around, we both were ready to leave. It is an amazing city and yes, we just barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer, but the heat, the pollution, the overwhelming influx of tourists; it was becoming all too much for us. We packed up our belongings, hefted our packs onto our backs, and headed back to Hua Lamphong train station.
Our train was scheduled to depart for Chiang Mai at 6:15 pm. Checkout from our hotel was at 12:00, so we had a few hours to kill before boarding. We dropped our luggage off at the holding area (40B) and considered our options. Tim wanted to buy some shorts and I was looking for a Thai-English dictionary — and of course we wanted to EAT — so after some deliberation, we headed back to The Paragon. After having experienced more of “real” Bangkok, it seemed even more decadent and Roman than ever. There are tourists who never venture far from these few blocks of BKK, and in some small way, it makes sense. If you want to be pampered and have every conceivable need satisfied without ever having to leave air-conditioned comfort; if you want to shop to your heart's content and enjoy the benefits of your currency's strength against the Thai baht; if you want to avoid squalor and poverty and discomfort; this is the place to be. Once again, I was so non-plussed I only took one picture in this damned place. Here it is.
Eventually we settled on an Indian restaurant that shared a “courtyard” with Thai and Chinese restaurants. When we sat down, we were handed 6 menus — two for each restaurant; one for specials and one for regular options. We ate, discussed the nature of travel, shared insights into our experiences in Bangkok, and generally lounged our way through our free time. Realizing that boarding time was imminent, we made a couple of quick purchases (Instant Thai: How to Express 1,000 Different Ideas with Just 100 Key Words and Phrases for me and some sunscreen for Tim) and then hustled our way back to good old Hua Lamphong.
My sister requested some photos of everyday folk in Bangkok, and there's no better place for people watching than a train station, so here you go, Dixie:
Boarding time came and we headed to Platform 5, Car 6 of Train 1, heading to Chiang Mai. Hooray!
According to Tim, the train was built by Daewoo in 1996. The first class (air conditioned, private roomettes) section was sold out, so we opted for second class seating: an air conditioned car, shared seating, upper berths for sleeping. What this meant was that Tim and I had to share space with a couple of strangers. My stranger was a Chinese dude who like me, topped out at about 6 feet. Tim's was an elderly Thai woman with a cough and a face mask. We exchanged exactly ZERO words with these people.
In the next seating pod, two British tourists shared seating with a timid Thai woman and a middle-aged man of Indian descent. They spoke to everyone in what sounded like very proper English accents and never once tried to speak Thai. Beyond them was a group of boisterous college boys who spent most of the evening playing cards, talking and laughing uproariously. The rest of the car had a similar composition; a handful of awkward tourists tossed in with a bunch of locals. It was a strange experience. The locals ignored us, and for the most part, we ignored them right back. Even the engineer and train stewards performed their tasks with professionalism, but very little in the way of friendliness. As we pulled out of Lua Hamphong, Tim stared out of the darkening window, watching Bangkok fade from view. I sat with a notebook in one hand and and Instant Thai in the other, doing my best to puzzle out some way to communicate in Thai.
The one exception to the relatively impersonal atmosphere we experienced on the train was the car attendant tasked with taking food orders and delivering meal trays.
This dude was, as the British tourists put it, a “right jolly fellow.” He spoke English in a lilting accent and didn't let our lack of comprehension prevent him from making jokes, pulling faces, and generally cracking himself up. His happy demeanor — and the fact that the dining car was terribly crowded and lacking in air conditioning — convinced Tim to order a set meal for dinner: rice, penang curry with duck, cashew chicken, soup, and half an apple for dessert All this cost B160; around $5.25.
I passed on dinner for two reasons. 1) I wasn't hungry. Normally, this wouldn't have stopped me, especially where duck curry is concerned, but there was also reason 2) Tim told me that the bathroom did not have a western toilet, it had the take-off-your-pants-and-squat-kind-of-toilet. Now I realize that I will have to use one of these things eventually, but the thought of having my initiatory experience on a moving train — one might even use the word turbulent — was too much for me to consider. I contented myself with eating a couple of spoonfuls of Tim's meal and I have to say, it was DELICIOUS.
After a couple of hours of travel, a train steward came through and began setting up everyone's beds.
In no time at all, everyone was tucked into their berths. Even the raucous young men in the center of the car had settled into their beds, content to whisper their jokes and to muffle their laughter. Soon, the only sounds were the occasional snores of our fellow passengers and the creaking heartbeat of our train hurtling through the darkened landscape of Central Thailand. As is my habit on moving trains, I fell asleep almost immediately.
Despite my best intentions, I woke in the middle of the night with a pressing concern. Luckily, I had discovered that one of the two bathrooms on Car 6 did have a western toilet and so I climbed down from my windowless, curtained capsule, and gave it the old college try.
The toilet itself wasn't so bad. It wasn't the newest or cleanest thing upon which I've sat down, but in my travels, I've encountered plenty of facilities that make this room seem like the Grande Palace. What was troubling was not the bathroom, nor the toilet; it was a mysterious heap of balled-up tissues that sat on a low, skinny shelf.
What could this possibly be? What expected behavior was I to infer from its presence? I didn't know then and I don't know now. When next I visited the bathroom, after the sun had risen and we were approaching Chiang Mai, it was gone.
All in all, the train trip took about 16 hours. For about 14.5 of those hours, I was relegated to my comfortable — if windowless, berth. The gentleman in the lower berth, like the woman sleeping below Tim, showed no desire to sit upright until we were just 30 minutes away from our destination. What this means is that I saw very little of Central Thailand's landscape. True, I had learned some rudimentary Thai phrases, but I would have gladly traded that knowledge for a window to the outside world.
Only after our section mates woke up did the car attendent come through and set up our seats. For the first time, we saw the world beyond Bangkok.
We arrived in Chiang Mai bleary-eyed and blinking in the bright sunlight. While the other tourists scattered like chicks, we sat down in the tiny food court and enjoyed two cups of instant coffee. That's the magic of travel; even the act successfully ordering Nescafé is a delicious victory!
Welcome to Chiang Mai!