23rd and 24th February – Days 27 and 28

Song of the last two days: Bob Dylan – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

“Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby
Can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, baby
Leanin’ on the windowsill
Well, if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don’t make it
You know my baby will

Don’t the moon look good, mama
Shinin’ through the trees?
Don’t the brakeman look good, mama
Flagging down the “Double E?”
Don’t the sun look good
Goin’ down over the sea?
Don’t my gal look fine
When she’s comin’ after me?”

 

Shortly before 5pm on Tuesday evening we boarded the Chiang Mai to Bangkok sleeper train. During the high travel season getting tickets for this train is no easy task, and we ended up staying three extra nights in Chiang Mai in order to get a ticket for this train. As it turned out, it was well worth the extra stay in Chiang Mai, although as I write this on Wednesday evening we are both absolutely knackered still. I’ve been on a few “sleeper” trains now and I have to say the “sleep” part has to be taken with a pinch of salt. When the train is ticking along at a constant speed with the gentle “clickety clack” of the rails beneath you, it’s possible to sleep quite well. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen that often. The constant speeding up and slowing down and clunking around is hard to get used to, and that’s before you pull into a station and more people get on and off. I reckon I got about four hour’s sleep which to be fair to Thailand’s railways, is more than I got when travelling on sleeper trains in Britain and Switzerland, though Hollie got even less kip than I managed.


Because of the demand for tickets we were unable to get bunks right next to each other, so in order to spend the evening together we rendezvoused in the buffet car. It sounds romantic, but wasn’t really. The food was good but kept travelling around the table as we ate it, and a drunken Turkish bloke opposite exclaimed loudly and jumped out of his seat after a hot cup of tea flew off the table and all over his loins.

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An hour out of Chiang Mai the train entered into a tunnel and upon emerging on the other side we found ourselves in the midst of misty mountains. All of the windows in the carriage were down and you could smell the smoke from farmer’s fields, carried up on the muggy evening air. The embers of the sun peeped out from above the silhouettes of hills before dissapearing. The landscape turned to a murky black until we emerged out of another tunnel to see vast swathes of the opposite hillside on fire, burning the same defiant hue of orange as the recently deceased sun. It made me think of that William Blake poem: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night”.

As we descended into Lamphun station the moon revealed itself to us, itself a kind of half-sun as it recycled the last rays of daylight from beyond the horizon and reflected them back onto the land.
We sat in the buffet car playing the well-known backpacking card game of “Shithead”, until we were kicked out at half past nine. I was ready to leave – after teaching the game to Hollie she appears to have developed a system, and now I reckon I only ever win about one in ten games. We returned to our seats to find that they had been unfolded into beds. Hollie and I were both in the top bunks and I had to contort myself like some kind of Russian gymnast to get into my bunk. Once in I managed to stretch out pretty well for a 6’2 lump. Sleep was snatched and broken, and my foot kept rustling the plastic 7/11 bag full of crisps and water that I placed at the foot of my bed.

The train was due in at 6:15am, so I’d set my alarm for 6am, at which time I planned to wake Hollie which is a fine art. We’d already left Chiang Mai fifteen minutes late and we’d been trundling along by the time I fell asleep, so I had every reason to believe we wouldn’t arrive until gone seven. I was rudely awakened by the stern “Good morning” of the carriage attendant at 04:45am. I asked “Are we nearly at Bangok?” to which he replied “Ten minutes.” This was a lie – he wanted everyone up so that he could start folding the beds back away and clock off early. I rushed to wake Hollie up before the attendant got their first – waking Hollie before she’s had her forty winks is a bit like taking a bottle of whiskey off Father Jack. I pulled the curtain back and she was staring at me like an owl, wide-eyed and wide awake. We stood for an hour and a half in the corridor until we arrived. We stepped off the air-conditioned train and into the Bangkok morning.

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You don’t breathe the air here – you wear it. It wraps around you like an itchy woolly cardigan of exhaust fumes, sewerage and spices.
Hollie managed to grab us a non-dodgy taxi driver straight away and for the second time in a month we found ourselves sleep-deprived in the back of a cab, weaving our way through the labyrinth of central Bangkok. Though our driver was fair, he had some filthy habits. During frequent stops at traffic jams he picked at his nose and his ears with a toothpick, burrowing deeper and deeper the longer we were stationary. Not satisfied with the harvest that the toothpick was providing, he reached into the glovebox and fished out a cotton bud. At one point he got so lost in the ecstasy of clearing out his earhole that he missed the lights going green, and left the cotton bud sticking out of his ear at a right angle as he flung his hands back onto the wheel. After a seemingly endless journey we arrived at the hostel, and here we have remained ever since, holed up in the flatulent bowels of Bangkok.

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Tomorrow morning we take the government bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Hope you’re all well, whatever your endeavour.
Tom and Hollie x

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