Working on a Night Train

30 11 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

It didn’t really feel like we had been in Chiang Mai for forty days until we actually had to leave. Just like in Torun, we realized that staying in one place for a long time and then leaving can bring all of the original travel nerves back. It’s so easy to get comfortable. To enjoy the routine of waking early, meditating in my room, then walking into the cool morning air, through the bustling market street, and saying good morning to my favorite vendor as she packed my breakfast of mangoes, sticky rice, and treats wrapped in banana leaves. I miss the smile of my banana pancake chef and afternoons spent wandering among the shelves of endless used book stores. I understand why Chiang Mai is the Thai capital of expats. You get the city conveniences, but the small town feel. But as our meditation bootcamp made indisputably clear, all things in life are impermanent, or as we say in the west, all good things must come to an end.

Our adopted sister Monika arrived in Thailand while we were staying in Wat Rampoeng. When we got out, we made arrangements to meet her in Bangkok at the end of the month before she flew back to Poland. The day that we were planning to leave we were chatting with our hotel owner, Tim, about catching a sleeper train to Bangkok. When we mentioned that we hadn’t purchased tickets yet, he told us in extremely nice terms that we were idiots and to get our little butts to the train station right away because there was only a snowball’s chance in hell that we would get a ticket. As always, Tim was correct. Luckily, we were a big snowball. Apparently a few minutes before our arrival a couple had canceled their tickets for the first class sleeper train and we were able to scoop them up. There were no other tickets available on any of the four trains leaving that night. So we shelled out about 2700 baht ($82) and prepared ourselves for the Thai version of first class.

Fearing the prices of food on the train, we stocked up on snacks that would sustain us for the evening and serve as breakfast in the morning. Our cabin turned out to be cramped and far from clean, but surprisingly comfortable. The cushy bench was softer than most beds we had slept on in Thailand, and we even had a sink so that we could do all of our washing face and brushing teeth in the cabin. The bathroom at the end of the car was a squat toilet, which probably scares most people, but is really simple to use. Though most of the passengers I saw were Thai, they apparently had enough westerners to necessitate toilet paper in the bathroom, so I was thankful. We propped up the pillows and laid against the wall, alternately reading and watching the jungles and rice patties of the Thai landscape pass our window.

The lock on the cabin is pretty secure, but we couldn’t use it much during the first couple of hours of the train ride because a lot of people come to the door. The first person came offering orange juice. When we asked how much, the man said fourteen. Or at least we thought that’s what he said. I made a mental note to formally complain to the creators of the English language for not having the foresight to understand that the Asia tongue cannot easily separate the sound of fourteen from the sound of forty. Nonetheless, forty baht, or $1.20, is way more than you would pay on the streets for OJ, but not exactly highway robbery. After the juice guy came the ticket checkers, then the menu guy. He handed us a menu with about six dinner options and six breakfast options to be delivered at 7pm and 6am respectively. The prices were actually great for what you get. Every meal seemed to have about three courses plus drinks. All of the dinners were 150 baht ($4.50) and the breakfasts were 90 baht ($2.70). We declined both though, since we had packed snacks. The next visitor came at 9pm to convert our cabin into beds and put on some sheets. Of course, it’s not like you get a schedule upon boarding, so we had no idea anyone was coming and had already assembled the beds ourselves (which was pretty fun). We did, however, appreciate the crisp clean white sheets that the guy delivered.

Figuring that the strange environment would make sleeping difficult, we each took half a sleeping pill and dosed throughout the night. We woke to our alarms at 5am, dissasembled the beds and snacked on our breakfast. The bed maker guy came back and collected our sheets, smiling and probably wondering why it is that we couldn’t wait for him to come by and help us. When the train finally came to a halt, I suddenly realized that I was in Bangkok and began to feel stressed. Not that Bangkok is all that awful, it’s just a lot more raw and nasty than any other city in Thailand. After two months in the laid back north of Thailand, Bangkok is jarring. At least this time we were more prepared. I chastised the taxi driver who tried to bargain with me, reminding him that it was illegal for him not to use his meter, then told the tuk tuk driver that saying please, while polite, did not justify him overcharging me. Welcome to Bangkok.

We did have a couple of things to look forward to. First was that my mother had offered us the early Christmas present of a putting us up in a nice hotel room. Our stay at Boonsiri Place, so far has seemed surreal. Our other guesthouses have been nice enough, but this place makes us feel like we are in a bubble. It’s so clean, the bed is so nice, our bathroom has a shower curtain for godsake, and we get free breakfast. It’s like a different world. We have had food in our room for days and I have not seen one ant. I didn’t even think that was possible in Thailand. I’ve gotten so accustomed to ants crawling across my table at restaurants, crawling around my room, on my stuff, on me, that I just crush them or flick them unconsciously. When I killed two cochroaches in our night train cabin I didn’t even stop talking.

The second thing we had to look forward to was seeing Monika. Although anyone who has watched the new knows why that is a bit of a problem. You see, Monika is in Burma right now and was supposed to fly into Bangkok on the 27th. Well 30,000 protesters saw to it that air traffic in and out of Bangkok would come to a screaching halt. For anyone who is wondering why the antigovernment protesters have taken over the airport, it’s because they have been protesting at the capital for six months now. The fact that you may not have known about that is indicative of how much attention they were getting before they stormed the airport. Irritating to foreigners? Yes. Effective in halting the only solid source of revenue for the country and therefore grabbing the government by the balls? Oh yeah. So Monika is still in Burma and we are wondering whether we will get to see her before we leave.

For anyone who is worried about us, have no fear. Though the protests can sometimes turn violent, they usually stay at the capital or at the airport. While I don’t exactly support the idea of disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and businesses, I do sympathize with their cause. After all, I know what it’s like to live under a corrupt government. In Thailand, their former Prime Minister Thaksin was overthrown after it became apparent that he was using his political power to amass millions of dollars. Sound familiar, Cheney? The coward ran off to the UK rather than go to court, claiming that he would not get a fair trial in the court system of the country he was leading. Sad irony when your corrupt leader accuses his court of corruption. The current Prime Minister Somchai is Thaksin’s brother in-law. Shortly after taking office he attempted to change the constitution so that Thaksin wouldn’t have to face charges. The protesters also claim that Somchai and his party won their elections by buying votes from the poor and uneducated people in rural Thailand. As unethical as that is, I can’t help but point out that if the protesters overthrow the government and hold elections, they’re still going to have a bunch of uneducated and poor rural people who are apparently susceptible to vote buying. I don’t know how all this will end, but I look forward to it ending as much as I look forward to getting out of Bangkok.

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