Sunday, February 23, 2014

The People I Met on the Train

You have all been clamoring for knowledge of my whereabouts, naturally. I started an ambitious series of posts about my travels in Thailand and Laos, and then dropped off the face of the Internet for a week! My apologies. I went to North Korea, where there is essentially no Internet access, and I felt that it would be best to tell as few people as possible. In due time, I will write all about it. But first -- that overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai!
The dining car of the train. At night, it turns into a party car. I loaded up on snacks back at the station so that I would never have to come here.
Day 3-4 (Jan. 26-27): I rode a sleeper train for 18 hours from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
I got all of my travel information from blogs and Seat61. That website is fantastic and has reliable, easy-to-understand information. My ticket was bought for me by a friend who went to a local train station (not even the main station, Hualamphong, so I guess you can buy tickets anywhere as long as you can speak Thai) the morning of my departure. My train was to leave around 6pm on the 26th and arrive at 8am the following day. Well, that didn't happen.

It left about fifteen minutes late, and that was just the beginning of things. I wasn't paying attention to the timeliness, but for each of the half-dozen stops we made, the train was getting further and further behind schedule. Often it had to pull to a side track to let other trains pass. We eventually arrived in Chiang Mai 3.5 hours late!

You'd think that this eternally slow train ride would have been insufferably boring, but fortunately, it was quite the opposite. Although my car was half-empty when I boarded at Bangkok, it continually filled up with people throughout the night. In my second-class sleeper car, about half the passengers were Thai people, and the other half were fellow travelers. I met quite a number of characters, including a South Dakotan named Steve who has retired in Thailand and spends his days drinking and bumming around in Chiang Mai and a friendly French couple.

Following Thai politics and the protests.
Steve wore an ivory pendant carved into the shape of an elephant and a large, khaki-colored short-sleeved shirt. He ordered the somewhat pricey dining car dinner and beer at night and talked at me about his travels. He ordered the somewhat pricey dining car coffee the next morning and talked at me about his time in Vietnam and why he decided he'd never go back to America. When I offered my two cents on American politics, he seemed like he couldn't be bothered to voice his disagreement. We lapsed into silence. I read the Thai newspaper he had on him, with reports on the forthcoming elections, the king's offer to cover hospital bills for victims of protest violence, and the warrants issued for the arrest of the opposition party's leaders. He read my copy of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but stopped after a few pages and looked out the window instead. "I can tell this is the kind of book that's going to make me think more than I want to," he said. The view of the Thai countryside from the train windows was lovely.

Gwen and Xavier had the seat/bunks across the aisle from mine. I heard them speaking in French but was too shy at first to hop into their conversation. Fortunately, at that time Steve had stationed himself in my seat/bunk, since his had been converted into beds too early, and he wanted his beer and conversation. He talked at the French couple, but it was difficult because Xavier was not too good at English, and Steve was also noticeably hard of hearing. I added to the conversation in English until Steve went to bed, after which I switched to French and talked to Gwen and Xavier about traveling and the exciting things they were planning for their time in Thailand.

Later on in the evening, we were joined by another French man, who if I recall correctly was also named Steve. He had messy, wispy blond hair and was dressed in baggy clothes that could have been local garb, although the locals here wear jeans and t-shirts. French Steve had already met every single French person on our train, walking up and down the cars, and he also spoke fluent English. He had just arrived from the diner car -- which is turned into a party car complete with lights an dancing at night -- when we met. Immediately, French Steve was delighted by the fact that I was American but had studied French for years. He introduced me to a bunch of other French travelers on the same train later:

Steve: He speaks French!
French woman traveling with her mother: Haha, okay.
Steve: No, really! He's from California but he speaks French! Without an accent!
French woman: Wait, you're not kidding?
Me: Um, hello.
French woman: Oh, hello!
The conversation was even more awkward because the French woman was already in her bunk bed, ready to sleep. These are the fold-down bunk beds. The seat/bunks also fold out to create more spacious beds on the bottom. I was in a top bunk.
I'm not going to lie; I know my French isn't perfect, but I was very pleased that a few months abroad in France helped me improve my accent enough that a random French person would compliment me on it. It's different from when Koreans tell me my Korean is really good, because I know Koreans only say that out of, like, habit or something and that my Korean is actually rather poor for the amount of time I've been studying it. But the French are stingy with their praise, aren't they? So I was happy and really enjoyed passing the evening doing language exchange on the train with Gwen, Xavier, and French Steve.

The ride was smooth and time really flew by. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom car and then went to sleep in my seat/bunk, which had been folded out to make a very small but cozy bed, reachable by a narrow ladder. There was a curtain for privacy and a small pocket for my valuables. I felt safe and comfortable, if a bit claustrophobic. It was kind of like sleeping in a lighted coffin. I woke up a few times in the night when the train would stop, but it wasn't bad at all. And in the morning, the view outside was quite pretty, as I've already said.
Fields in northern Thailand, framed by the train window.
We arrived in Chiang Mai a little after noon on the 27th. American Steve offered to split a hotel room, but I'd already planned on staying at a certain hostel. I walked into town with yet another French person, chatting and being thankful that I'd chosen to walk instead of take a tuk-tuk on this beautiful day. Adventures in Chiang Mai await!

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