The train is pretty full as we pull out of the station and I wonder how many of us are here for the long haul. Twelve hours according to the schedule but rumour has it that it will be closer to 14 or 15 when it’s all done. Some, like us, are laden with heavy packs while others gather cloth and plastic bagged belongings close to them. Against our normal routine, we haven’t brought any snacks with us today relying on the hope that vendors will board along the way and ease our boredom and hunger. Twelve hours to go, at best.
Cobbled together shacks line the narrow leeway between the tracks and the highway next door; their corrugated tin roofs providing shade from the sun and a noisy shelter from the rain. It is the same here as anywhere. Dogs laze about, children run around them compelling them to play, steam rises from cooking pots, and laundry hangs to dry. Eleven hours to go.
Although the city looms large and teems with people it is not far outside that buildings tumbling on top of each other gives way to alternating fields and swamps. It’s the dry season now and burning the crop remains helps prepare the soil for the next planting. It is a familiar smell; acrid and sweet at the same time. Ten hours.
My vantage point. My view on the world. Watching the kaleidoscope of colours as city turns to suburb turns to fields and back again with varying degrees of intensity. Nine hours left.
Snack time. Turns out that this train does not stop to let vendors on and off along the route. No grilled chicken leg with sticky rice. No pork sausage with cabbage and chilis. No omelette on rice. No ice cream. No beer. We start rationing the watermelon and pineapple that we only thought to bring along to cut the grease from the snacks we expected to be able to buy. Eight hungry hours to go.
It’s nap time; the second of four. The rocking and rolling, squeaking and creaking, lulling me to sleep time and again. I wake only when the weight of my head has sunk my neck to an unbearably uncomfortable position. Seven hours.
There it is. I know you wanted to know. Yes, there is a toilet on board and yes I am oh-so-relieved to find it is NOT a squat. It doesn’t so much flush as just empty straight out onto the track. This is it, my one visit to the bathroom during our entire trip. I hate, HATE, using the washroom on moving vehicles be they trains, buses, or planes. I do this thing I call ‘cameling’…I drink almost no liquids leading up to the journey, and only enough during to not get dehydrated thus eliminating the need to, ummm, eliminate. Granted, today’s toilet situation was not too bad at all but I have been conditioned by some pretty awful conditions, believe me. Six more hours.
Lunch!! Who knew? And not bad either. Steamed rice with breaded chicken and vegetable curry. With tingly lips and a full stomach it’s on to nap #3. Five hours left.
I’m reading *Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (like a lot of other travellers it seems). I like Cheryl because she, like most of us, lacks confidence when comparing herself or her efforts against her peers. Yet, when telling her story about her adventure she realizes just how much she is ‘like a hard-ass, mother f*cking, Amazonian queen”. It’s true, I feel that way too. It’s easy to negate what we each do, what we contribute, what we achieve, what we’re capable of. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows, depending only where I am in my heart because, really, where I am for others doesn’t change. I am the one to change. Anyway, it’s a good book; you should read it. I’ll have it completed in the next four hours.
After eight or so hours a funk starts to enter the car. I’m pretty sure it’s coming from down there. Three hours to go.
As the sun disappears below the horizon so too does the option of gazing off out the window. Darkness descends quickly here and soon enough there is nothing to see but the occasional light from distant farm houses. Two dark hours remain.
A great shuddering, a lot of grinding, and we were stopped.
Conductors and engineers appeared and then disappeared again out into the darkness along with any hope that this journey would not stretch out into marathon proportions. Rapid fire Thai punctuated the darkness entering the car as we all held our breath waiting to see how our night would unfold. Nervous smiles on their faces as they reappeared told us all we needed to know; things were not going well.
Word is we hit a cow. I’m not so sure. We’re at the front and, peering out into the inky blackness, I don’t see anyone removing cow parts from the undercarriage. We limp into the next station; the engineers wrenching and hammering at some invisible problem, the rest of us on our iPhones looking for accommodation in whatever god-forsaken town we’re lucky to have landed in. And I mean lucky because we could just as easily be stopped in the middle of nowhere. Unknown hours are left.
Things are looking up though and 20 minutes later we’re on our way to a rendezvous with a new engine. It won’t fix the now broken air conditioning but it does mean we’ll make it. Two hopeful hours to go.
We pass the time watching episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory. One more hour?
Before we know it we are pulling into Chiang Mai station are are thrust into the mayhem of tuk-tuk and songthaew drivers preying on our late night arrival and vying for inflated rates. But I’m here, and I’m happy.
Would I do it again? Yes! I think travel is about the travel; the getting from place to place, not just being in a place. Journeys like this teach us to be prepared, to be patient, and to take it as it comes. We saw a lot of the countryside and now we really know how far it is from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Would you choose a train or bus over flying?
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