Stickman Readers' Submissions September 29th, 2003

Chiang Mai To Phitsanulok

Chaing Mai To Phitsanulok

We boarded the train a few minutes before it departed from Chiang Mai at 4PM. The trip would take 7 hours, arriving in Phitsanulok at 11PM. Our seats were in 2nd class because my girl said she didn't like 3rd class. "Too crowded." Hell. I usually go 3rd class, myself. Anyway, as soon as we hoisted our luggage into the overhead racks and sat down, I noticed that most the windows in the carriage were closed. It was a blazing hot day, "rainy season," but nary a cloud in sight. I got up and started opening windows. Some middle-aged Thai woman, dressed in a polyester suit and sitting by herself said, "I no like!" when I tried to open a window near her. So I shut that one again and continued opening the rest of the windows in the carriage. Then the train began to move and a nice breeze started to blow through. A few minutes later, just as soon as the heat was becoming bearable, a few other Thais started shutting windows. Why don't they feel the heat like I do? Aren't they warm-blooded mammals too?

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I got up to take a tour of the train and see what was going on in 3rd class. As I walked down the aisle, everyone was staring at me. I was the only Farang on the train apparently. Some Farangs mistakenly believe that Thais do not consider it rude to stare; that they mean no harm by it; that it's acceptable in Thai culture to ogle and gawk at strangers. Not so, not so. If you would like to prove this to yourself, just try staring BACK and see how they react. You don't have to look mean or angry; a plain, indifferent gaze will do. The Thai will immediately look away and begin to squirm and feel uncomfortable if you keep this up. This works fine if you are dealing with just one or two Thais. Return their stares and they will stop staring at you. But, Thailand is a densely-populated country, and generally, anytime you are out of doors you are surrounded by hundreds of curious onlookers, and you are the greatest show in town. You cannot stare down a sea of humanity without looking paranoid and foolish. So, you attempt what no man has ever succeeded in doing and try to appear not to notice that everyone is watching you (that's a nod to Dickens, by the way).

This is just one reason why I drink so much here. People make me nervous and I don't like being the center of attention (unless I'm drunk. Then, I rather enjoy it.) I had started drinking first thing in the morning while packing my bags, continued at lunch, and then had three beers at the station just before getting on the train. I was feeling alright, so the stares didn't bother me much. I walked through three or four carriages and made it back to 3rd class. What a difference compared to 2nd class! People were talking to each other, passing food and drinks back and forth and just generally having a good time. In 2nd class everyone was silent, looking bored. Then it occurred to me why: In 2nd class, all the seats are facing forward. You look and all you see are the backs of peoples' heads. And, although the seats are a bit more comfortable and can be leaned back, there's really not much more leg-room, if any. In 3rd class, people are arranged in groups of four: One pair sits side-by-side looking forward and facing another pair sitting side-by-side and facing back. It's a nice, cozy, intimate arrangement conducive to conversation.

So, I went back to my gal in 2nd class and explained to her what a rollicking good time was being had by all and sundry in 3rd class. She seemed not at all impressed that I wanted to go back there and sit among those peasants. I asked her to talk to the conductor anyway and see about changing our seats. We discussed this a while and I finally admitted it wasn't worth the bother of moving our luggage. Then my throat felt dry. Where's the beer? Vendors were walking back and forth selling all manner of strange food, but no drinks. My girl gave me an awful scare, speculating that perhaps as part of the new "Social Order Crusade" all alcohol sales had been banned from the trains! "WHAT! ARE YOU KIDDING? WITH SIX MORE HOURS LEFT TO GO?" I don't know if she was just pulling my leg, but she thought about it a while and then said that she was pretty certain she had heard something to that effect. So, I dug into my luggage and extracted my emergency whiskey. I had two, 200 ml bottles of scotch with me, thank God! I drank about half of one bottle down and my sense of panic began to ease. I felt so much better, I went back around the car re-opening the windows the Thais had closed. (This time, they stayed open. Persistance pays.)

Then, a miracle occurred! The Beer Lady appeared! Descended from Heaven, my guardian angel was here with cold Chang beer in an ice bucket. I bought all three cans she had at 40 Baht each. I could have kissed her. My saviour! This trip wasn't going to be too bad after all. Before I had even started on the last can (within 10 minutes) she showed up again with two more cans. Bless her! I agreed to purchase these if she would only put them into a plastic bag with a little ice. I like my beer cold, so this she did.

Damn if she didn't keep coming back with more and more beer even faster than I could drink it! And I can put it away pretty quickly, let me tell you. I'm no amateur drunk. At some point, though, I finally told her I'd had enough. I was roaring drunk and still had a few cans in reserve, bagged in ice, by my side. I looked at my watch and saw we still had a long way to go. I think it was about 8 PM. Three more hours left and nothing to do in boring 2nd class. But, wait! I brought my guitar! There it sits up in the luggage rack! I know how to liven up a party! Heh, heh, these 2nd class snobs are going to hear some music and have some fun whether they like it or not! I had to strum and sing at the top of my lungs in order to be heard over the sounds of the fast-moving train coming through the windows. Perfect! It felt good to belt it out. I played almost every song from an album that has always meant Thailand to me: Hell's Ditch by the Pogues. I first heard that album just before making my first journey to Thailand and I also brought it along with me then. There are at least three songs on that album with direct references to Thailand, and the whole thing is about travel or adventure of some sort. Well, the other passengers in our carriage (all Thai) turned and smiled at me. I don't know if they really liked my singing or if they were just relieved of their boredom to see a drunken Farang making an ass of himself. But there was one guy who got up out of his seat and walked over to sit on the armrest of a seat across from me. He was watching me intently, grinning and clapping in time. After playing about 10 songs, I handed the guitar over to him, expecting him to decline. He took it, though, and began playing a lot of Carabao and other "plaeng puea cheewit." He was really good! He certainly had a better singing voice than I did. When he sang "Made in Thailand" ("Hey Tom, where you go last night?"), I sang the Farang part ("I love meuang Thai, I like Patpong!"). We spent a good two hours or so passing the guitar back and forth like this and the rest of the passengers seemed to enjoy it. I even sang a couple of LOSO songs. THAT got everyone's attention! Meanwhile, my gal had discovered a couple of playmates: Seated behind us were a 10 year-old boy and his 11 year-old sister. Their mother watched while my girlfriend babysat, playing various games with the little ones. Before long, they were calling her "Aunt," and it was really cute to see.

Well, I finally ran out of song material, and so did the Thai guy. It was getting late, and I was feeling hungry, when a vendor selling fried chicken came by. So, I put away the guitar and bought a couple of pieces. My gal left the children and came back to sit with me. I ate my chicken. I had gobbled several mouthfuls when I noticed it tasted and smelled a bit peculiar. I was pretty drunk, remember, so my sense of taste and smell were dulled by the alcohol. I showed the chicken to my girl and she confirmed that it was indeed rotten, pointing out a spot that was particularly smelly and discoloured. I don't know how many times I have been poisoned like this since first coming to Thailand. You'd think I would have learned to be more careful and inspect my food closely before tucking into it with such gusto. Vendors on trains, where they can get on at one station, then off at the next, are especially suspect. That guy was long gone before I'd discovered his crime. Well, here I go again. The same recurring gastronomical nightmare. I threw the rest of the chicken out the window in anger and disgust, then ran to the toilet where I leaned over and put my finger down my throat. I'm normally shy and self-conscious about people hearing me vomit, but not this time. If the Thais heard my retching and convulsing and realized one of their fellow countrymen had just sold me spoiled chicken, then that's just fine. It will give them one more reason to feel proud to be Thai.

I returned to my seat and got the rest of my whiskey out. I figured I must still have some residual salmonella bacteria or whatever in my stomach, so now was the time to disinfect. There was a bit left in one bottle and the other was full. I drank the full bottle down in two or three long gulps, then put the rest of the other bottle back. I looked at my watch. It was quarter past ten. We had about 45 minutes left to go. I could see a couple Farang guys up ahead in the space between the carriages, just past the toilets. They had come back from the carriage in front of ours to smoke. Smoking is now prohibited on the trains, and technically, even standing between carriages, they are still breaking the rules, but I don't care. Hell, I'm so pissed off about the bad chicken, it makes me feel good to see them puffing defiantly away. I think I'll join them! I don't normally smoke, but I'm in a rebellious mood here. I walk over and introduce myself. I'm American, they're French. I tell them how much G.W.B. embarrasses me and we get on like a barn on fire. We smoke and smoke, then another beer vendor comes by, I buy beers for one guy and myself. The other guy declines because he's sipping some lao kao concoction from a cup. Then, the train slows as it approaches a station and I hear the announcement, "Phitsanulok!" Shit! I say goodbye, and scramble back to our seat to pull our (considerable) luggage down from the racks. These trains never stop long enough for me to get my things together and disembark. I'm crashing into people, stepping on toes, nearly trampling small children- nothing and nobody is safe in my path. My suitcase weighs a ton and I almost clobber someone in the head as I yank it down. Then, we're hurling towards the door, careening down the aisle, falling down the steps, stumbling across the tracks, carrying all that luggage I-don't-know-how, and I lunge headfirst into a waiting tuk-tuk with a helpful shove from my gal just behind.

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Things get blurry at this point. My recollection becomes unclear. Time seems compressed as I slip into and out of consciousness. I open my eyes just long enough to see a smear of lights and colours as the city goes racing past, then suddenly, I feel myself being shoved out of the tuk-tuk, bellboys appear to take our luggage, doors are held open for us, I'm standing in the lobby now, the light is painfully bright, I cannot perceive much outside of a very narrow radius around myself and people keep popping into and out of this tiny, confusing, violently swirling world of mine. Now, I'm at the reception desk, leaning heavily on my elbows. A pen is put into my hand, a paper given to me: the guest registration form. I attempt to scribble my name on the first line. I cannot. My eyes won't stay focused, my hand will not obey. I push the form away and a new one appears. Then, I must have opened my suitcase to get my passport out, but I have no recollection of this (I learned about it later when I opened the suitcase again in our room and saw with a shock that my passport, traveller's checks and plane ticket had been removed from the envelope they were sealed in at the guesthouse we'd left in Chiang Mai. Everything was still there, but out of the envelope. I asked my girl and she confirmed that I had opened it in the lobby.) I vaguely recall the elevator ride up, then wobbling down the hall and into a room with TWO small beds. I had made reservations the day before and specifically requested a room with ONE large bed. I must have managed to vocalize some sort of protest to this arrangement, because the bellboy phoned down to the lobby and an instant or two later we were being shown another room, this time with one nice big bed. I gave the guy a 100 Baht tip- too much really, but I felt bad about him having to put up with my extreme drunkeness. Then we were alone in the room. I sat down on the edge of the bed, held my spinning head tightly in my hands and studied the carpet. I couldn't understand how I had suddenly become so intoxicated. I had momentarily forgotten about the 200 ml. of whiskey I had so quickly drank, but I did remember smoking cigarettes with my new French friends. I told my girl I might pass out and need to be taken to a hospital. "Those Farangs drugged me! There was something in those cigarettes!" I wasn't thinking clearly at all. If they had drugged me, why? To what purpose? They hadn't tried to rob me. They hadn't followed us off the train. These thoughts gradually began to dawn on me and then I remembered the chicken and the whiskey. "Uh, huh. Just acute alcohol poisoning, you idiot!," I thought to myself. All this time my girl is rubbing my temples, my shoulders, my arms and back, gazing upon me with pity and concern. I search her features for signs of disgust, but see none, not a trace. She's an angel! All the way from the train station to our room, I have been as helpless as an infant, and she has handled everything. I was so incoherent, I barely noticed her helping me to stand, to walk, even to talk (when the tuk-tuk driver, the bellboys and the hotel receptionist tried to communicate with me, she stood by my side and translated my unintelligible utterings).

I lay down on the bed for a while. I still had my clothes on. She pulled my shoes off. I felt like such an asshole. The room wouldn't stop spinning. A wave of nausea swept over me. I jumped up and ran for the bathroom. Before I made the toilet, it came up in my mouth, but I managed to keep my lips sealed tight. Then I was leaning over the bowl and I let it go. After puking up the chicken in the train toilet, I was surprised to see I still had something in my stomach, but there it was, floating in the bowl. Not pretty. I flushed, then brushed my teeth. She helped my out of my clothes and into the shower. The nozzle was at the perfect height for a four-foot tall midget. I'm not kidding, it was way too low even for Thais. I'm just average Farang height and I had to stoop and squat to wash any body parts above the waist. It's amazing I didn't slip and break my neck as drunk as I was, but somehow, I managed. I think throwing up helped to sober me somewhat. I get out, towel off, crawl into bed. She showers, then gets into bed with me. "Sorry darling, no boom boom tonight. Your Farang is a moron." She cuddles close and tells me, "Mai pen rai."

Stickman says:

I really enjoy trip reports from the real Thailand – GREAT STUFF!

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