I’ve learned a lot about travelling by train in Thailand. After leaving it so late to book train tickets to Surat Thani and facing an overnight trip in third class, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. We’d heard that the last bus to Ban Pong was around 4 pm so, to be sure to be sure, we caught one around 1 pm. That got us to the station in Ban Pong, the city of nice people, some five hours before our train was scheduled to depart. We didn’t see one other tourist. And without tourists, there’s little call for a left-luggage facility. I wasn’t in any mood to explore. I was dreading the 10-hour trip ahead of us and was slowly working myself up to high doh on the anxiety scale. When himself went to wander, I waited nervously, imagining what I’d do if he didn’t come back. This wasn’t me. This isn’t me. What was going on?
We chose to walk from the bus station to the train station and see some of the town. I bought cigarettes. We stopped for coffee. I went to get my cigarettes and couldn’t find them. Sure they’d fallen out of my pocket, I retraced my steps in the blistering heat providing something that passed for amusement for the local traders as I weaved through their stalls. Arriving back at the 7 Eleven sans fags, I bought some more. The young chap mentally assured himself that his mother was right – farangs are crazy. Returning to the coffee shop, I kept searching, eyes everywhere, more than conscious of the looks I was getting. I was the only farang in sight and I wasn’t exactly behaving normally.
Back at the café, I remembered that I’d put the fags into the side strap pocket of my backpack. I’d had them all the time. It was confirmation that the heat or the stress or the country was getting to me. I felt like I was losing it. Himself, well used to this part of the world, assured me that I was simply struggling with not having a routine. But I don’t have a routine at home, I wailed. I should be better at this.
At the station, we joined the throng of passengers waiting for their trains. I double checked the tickets with the ticket agent and he pointed out that we were travelling in third class. Yep, I’d gotten that. Our carriage, carriage No. 10, would be way down the tracks, a good 100 meters from the station. When it arrived. It was running late. Our five-hour wait turned to six. I contemplated getting up on the large scales by the freight office to see if I’d lost weight – anything to cheer me up – but then I noticed it only went to 70 kg. Were it not for the lovely young woman who owned and ran the restaurant next door, I’d have dissolved in a puddle of sweat-ridden hysteria. She let us stay the whole time beneath her fan. We ate. We coffeed. We chatted. And then finally it was time to leave.
Our carriage was full to capacity except for the section clearly reserved for monks and the disabled. We didn’t qualify and some of those sitting there didn’t look as if they did either. Three people were sitting in our two seats. I hovered, uncertain as to what to do. The woman asked to see my ticket and when she saw we had the seats booked, she moved. No problem. No fuss. There was no place for our backpacks. There was barely room to turn around. A lovely man removed his sack of rice from overhead and put it under his seat so that we could put one bag there. He pointed helpfully across the narrow aisle to another spot we could make use of. Sawadee Ka. We were set.
The windows on both sides were wide open and the ceiling fans were racing. I was sitting in a draught. Years of childhood warnings came flooding back. Images of aunts long dead tutting their disapproval came to mind. I’d be sick for a month, they said. But I wasn’t about to close the window and incur the wrath of my fellow passengers just minutes after getting on the train. Instead, I tied a handkerchief around my head to block my ears. God only knows what I looked like. But I didn’t care. I looked white. Very white. I couldn’t look more different. All the skin-whitening cream in Thailand couldn’t have brought anyone in that carriage even close. Later, when it started raining, the young girl opposite me did the honours. We were getting soaked.
No one was talking. Couples, families, young, old, all stared ahead or down at their phones. Some attempted to sleep, bodies contorted as they tried to get comfortable on seats designed to be anything but. The chap opposite us had shrouded his head in a scarf anchoring it with a baseball cap. Every so often, when we slowed down, he’d peek out to check where we were. Hawkers moved through the narrow aisles selling food and drink. They got little by way of custom. It was too soon. I wished I’d learned how to meditate.
The ticket inspector was surprised to see us. Farangs, he must have thought, going native or too cheap to go first class. I smiled as if I did this every day. I imagined that I saw some approval in the eyes of the others as they silently commended us for sitting amongst them, for not separating ourselves. Then I gave myself a good talking to. FFS, Mary, get off the stage. This is how normal people go travelling by train in Thailand. Get a grip. It’s an experience. Go with it. Quit your bitching. It’s 10 hours, not a lifetime.
At 20:50 we pulled into Ratchaburi. People got off, others got on. The smell of fried noodles and chilis saturated the air. People went about their evening. Nothing unusual. I thought of all we’d seen and done in the last three weeks. The conmen in Bangkok. The temples in Ayutthaya. The women prisoners in Chiang Mai. The opium dealers in the Golden Triangle. Getting to see Laos from a distance from Phu Chi Fa. Experiencing Buddha Day in Chiang Rai. Listening to POWs by the River Kwai. I’d come in search of different and I’d found it. An older lady opposite me was asleep, her head thrown back, face towards the belting breeze as if sunbathing. I wanted to be her. I wanted to sleep.
At 21:30 we arrived in Petchaburi. In the distance, I could see what looked like massive resort hotels. We were on the coast, the coast that had prompted us to take this trip, only not at night. I could see as far as the edge of light and no further but I could imagine it. I thought I caught a whiff of sea air, but I was raving.
At 22.30, in Hua Hin, the mother and daughter sitting opposite us left. We could stretch out. The young lad they left behind immediately stretched the length of the seat and went back to sleep. He didn’t look Thai. More Indian. When he was awake, he read an English workbook, a chapter on English language proficiency in Thailand. He took notes. He seemed excited. Perhaps he was starting a new job teaching English. He didn’t speak to us. He didn’t look at us. He never once engaged. Every now and then he’d crowd over the four sitting across the aisle and without as much as an ‘Excuse me’ leaned out their window and spat. Or took a photo. Of the dark. Who needed a TV?
Other towns and cities whizzed by. Sometimes we stopped. Other times we didn’t. At 00:55 we pulled into Bank Rut and took on a new tide of hawkers who, completely oblivious to those trying to sleep, shouted their offer as they made their way through the carriages. I wasn’t confident enough to tell chicken from beef or pork or be certain of what they were selling. But I didn’t want to eat or drink. I wasn’t tempting fate. I didn’t want to have to use the loo. In third class, it had to be a squat and my sense of balance ain’t great at the best of times. I said a silent prayer to the urinary gods that I wouldn’t need to use the facilities. The waft of something more than noodles was seeping through the air. My gag reflexes were already being tested by the Indian chap as his spitting turned to hocking. They couldn’t take much more.
At 03:15, when we arrived in Chumporn, I saw bodies asleep on benches in the station. Travellers? Locals? Hard to tell. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I tried to read but kept losing my place. I squirmed like a three-year-old trying to get comfortable on a church pew. I stood. I sat. I stretched. I stood again. Less than three hours to go.
When we left Chaiya, the penultimate stop on our epic trip, I started to mentally prepare for what was ahead. It wasn’t over. We had to get from Surat Thani to Thalane pier near Krabi and then by boat to our island, Koh Yao Noi. I had an hour to ready myself, to adjust my frame of mind to will the universe and plead with my God to make it happen, without incident. I was beyond tired.
We were the only farangs to get out in Surat Thani. But soon, others made their way to the train station, coming from hotels or the bus terminus, perhaps. It was early. About 06:30. We were hounded by touts offering bus trips to Krabi. But from there we’d have to double back to Thalane Pier to catch the boat. And it would take hours that way. We’d saved a fortune by travelling third class instead of flying and remembering what the inimitable JN always says – taxis are just another form of public transport – we took a cab. The tout, when we told him what we were planning, immediately offered us a better car at a better price but I’d had enough of being railroaded. I was tired of the aggressive sell. We’d pay more to the old guy at the taxi rank driving the battered Mercedes. He had to make a living, too.
We got to the pier five minutes before the ferry was due to leave. I’d been up more than 24 hours at this stage and was ready for bed. And it was just about time for breakfast.