Monday, 2 July 2012

Night Train to Bangkok

Deep darkness has fallen; I ride the night train to Bangkok. Right now we we sit at a station somewhere. Leaving Chiang Mai to head south, we had to go up into the mountains and are only just now descending from them. It is junglesque in there; the colours all bluegreen and the full palate of avocado and deep shades of lime.

The conductor just lowered some of the beds in our compartment; we are riding second class with private beds; the bottom two seats slide down to meet each other and form one bed, and from above, a storage unit unfolds itself to reveal another, rather smaller little “bedroom.” Curtains then separate you from the aisle between sides of the train, and outside your curtain is the luggage rack where you stash your belongings.

This morning I spent the day at last in the market in downtown Chiang Mai. My concious hours here have been full of longing to be out and about; I think it is a unique form of torture to be in a place you have so long waited to explore and then be so entirely incapacitated. Freedom and energy this morning were beautiful in combination. I surely could have shopped forever, wandered endlessly through the streets. It is so fascinating to me, this place. I have never travelled before in Asia, and the last thing I expected was to feel familiar here. Yet, that has exactly been the feeling I find myself coming back to; a familiarity with this place so foreign to me in actuality. Nearly all the trees and fruits I know from somewhere else, with but a few exceptions, like teak. Nearly all the building structures and particular array of colours I have seen before, with but a few very temple-like places the excpetion—and certainly the discovery and variety of these structures surprises me in itself. I am more surprised by my familiarity here, perhaps, than shocked at the differences I expected.

Even today, in the market; the items sold themselves are new, and many of the more pungeant smells were new, but the arrangement and the chaos and the specific order of how it all works were all familiar from markets in Slovakia; on Crete; in Uganda.

I go back and forth one moment to the next here thinking ah, that's Rwanda! Ah, that's Uganda! Ah, that's so British it's ridiculous! Ah, that's like Venezuela! Whoa, that's so Caribbean! And that is odly like Slovakia. How does it happen that the world so big can be so small? Even the language; so very incredibly foreign to me, yet I am already accurately picking up on the grammar and some of the particular words—it's wonderfully exciting. (Especially as this shall be the first country whose script I do not know coming in and will still not know going out. That aggravates me greatly, I confess!!) So this small ability to crack the language gives me that much more enormous a pleasure. If I ever came for longer than a week and a few days, and were not sick most of that time, I would immerse myself into this language until I could wear it like an invisibility cloak.

It is also interesting to me to begin to comprehend a little of this place at large. When we come to a new place, we do first see it through the only eyes we have, and so we cannot see it for itself as it is for different eyes. We have to learn first how to see the place at all. I have enjoyed getting tidbits of history and culture in this short time here—again wishing so badly I had more time to delve!--and a bit better a view, as I said. I don't remember what started our conversation—some question I asked—but I got to learn this morning all about how Thailand has grown as a nation. It was never colonized, which I knew beforehand, but didn't really register until that moment. I don't think I have ever been in a country outside of Europe that was not at one point colonized (or still a colony)! And now here I am. Shazaaam—another new experience I wasn't even looking for. It was also pointed out how all the surounding countries (all of which were indeed colonized by the various European entities) have collapsed completely since that time in the redoing of themselves. Thailand, on the other hand, could perhaps be equated then with the old story of the tourtise and hare-- the Thai being the tourtise slowly but surely developing themselves. They have done an impressive job, it seems, maintaining their Thai-ness whilst still incorporating Western culture—other cultures at all, really—into their mainstream at their own will. Not to say that their own will has always worked out for their own best, but no one and no country always can make the best decisions for itself. Isn't that part of the adventure of life, the twists that we didn't see but have to work out?
(Authors interrupting note: When travelling, it is always more interesting to leave the curtains on the train open and not yet go into your private sleeping compartment when there are good looking people sitting across the aisle from you. We just decided we don't really need to go to sleep or sit in private for a while still...Alas, though, it seems the french eye-candy have decided to retire... )
We dined tonight on sticky rice and pork sticks that Candace picked up nearby the train station. So tasty! I am thankful to eat and enjoy taste again. It is a beautiful thing. 

[Next day...]
So at last we are arrived at our destination at the beach. The night train to Bangkok came into the station several hours late, but it was a lovely trip nonetheless. We didn't go to sleep right away even after the conductor came by and put down all our beds. Instead, the two of us and our charming french companion across the aisle sat on Candace's bed and watched Star Wars, A New Hope. I was informed that I'm much more of a "fan" than I realised previously. Haha. Oops... When the train finally lulled me into sleeping sitting up watching that fantastic movie, I went up the luggage ladder to my bunk, curled up, and fell asleep promptly. I think it must have been hours later that I awoke at some stop, and it took a long time to fall asleep again, but when I did, it was bliss. Morning and wake-up and bunks-up came far to swiftly. 

My first impressions of Bangkok were of congestion and smell. I'd like to add more to those impressions, but I am at least glad to say that they were insignificant enough as I quickly fell asleep sitting in my chair there, and slept the extra two hours of the trip away. 

Bangkok train station was massive and awesome and air-co'd a bit, and after purchasing our train tickets to the beach, we settled down for our 2 hour wait at a lovely coffeeshop where I actually ate a whole croissant! (I am feeling MUCH better!) Then we bookshopped, looked into how to get me to the airport from the trainstation on the return journey, and finally waited and waited and waited some more for a very late train to come.

2nd class on this train was a vastly different experience than the first. In the first place, not only did C and I not get seats together, we were in entirely different train-cars! Moreover, whereas the first train we took had air-co and individual, padded seats; this one was "padded" seats on a bench, with open windows and fans blowing and lots of noise and bustle and vendors coming down the aisle hawking all sorts of delicious looking and smelling goods. At one point there was icecream being sold and run around the train-car windows on lids and it looked so very delicious and cold, but... i'm not actually a big icecream fan. 

While our beautiful (I presume) beach is only 2 hours out of Bangkok, it took the train six hours to get there. (2 hours longer, again, than the ticket said...). So we missed our first afternoon on the beach, and arrived in the dark. But we did arrive, grumpy and absolutely gross from the travel, and I wondering if spending 3 hours on the beach would really be worth it before having to turn around next day and take the train back to take a taxi to get to the airport to spend the next 29 hours from that airport in transit. Hmm.

As frustrating as it was to spend extra hours on a train alone the time we had hoped to spend together on the beach, I confess the trip was absolutely beautiful. The night train veiled much of the scenery, being night and therefore dark for most of the trip. But those 6 hours of watching a more southern Thailand unfurl outside my open window, and smelling the air (sometimes heavy scented with beautiful flowers, sometimes with delicious food and thick spice, and sometimes with the pungeant smell of the canals and slums) and just breathing was wonderful. The hot and the sticky. The breeze. The wonder of "where am I?" and not even knowing the time to count the minutes or hours by, or listening to a language I'm left out of. 

The colours changed, too--much more the colours of lemon and lime. I got to see a pink sunset over fields, and harvested rice fields set to fire in the darkening twilight. The houses on stilts. The cities we passed by--some with tall fiercely modern buildings and some with sprawling older houses of concrete, of wooden stilts, and of metal-piecework slums. 

And the mountains! Finally I have seen what I always have wanted to see; the mountains that look like clay, rolled around and pulled and squashed and slashed jaggedly to look like dragons and hollows of mystery and I am in love with them from afar. Enchanted as I have always known I should be if I saw them; bewitched to come take a ridiculously long train ride just so I could pass them and fall for them and their  raw wonder. 

I wish so much I had more than but these few hours. Hours which I won't even spend in the hills or mountains, but will stay in the sea. Hide in the sea. 

When we arrived (and we both did make it off the train despite my being in a separate car from her and she not being able to make it to collect me!), we caught a taxi to our hotel, tired and as I said, grumpy and gross. As soon as we got cleaned up, though--and more particularly, as soon as we walked out on a beach with sand that feels the same as the sand I grew up playing in and I heard the surf breaking, it was all worth it. Even for just that moment, without the 3 hours of daylight tomorrow. And then we ate delicious, heavenly food (mine being stir fried asparagus and fresh shrimp) and it was even better! And now we found a way for me to stay here for longer than 3 hours tomorrow and ideally still make my flight. We'll see! Here's hoping nothing goes wrong on the journey to the airport tomorrow afternoon or I might be doomed. 

Well, it's time to curl up and get rested and continue being happy. So very happy. 

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