Readers' Submissions

Night Train To Chiang Mai

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 28th, 2004
  • 6 min read

By Puma


I get to the station early, find my train car and cabin. Private ‘first-class’ compartment. The train trip costs about $65, a little more than the flight. But since it includes a private compartment, overnight accommodations and two meals, I think it is quite a bargain. My ticket says ‘upper’ (there are two berths). I sit there hoping I won’t have to share. The compartment is about 5 feet by 7 feet with a large window. The lower berth serves as a couch during the day while the upper is stowed overhead. I’m sitting by the window facing the direction I hope is forward – we’ll see. The car is painted gray – battleship gray with gray seats, a gray table and a gray sink (toilet down the hall). What do you want to bet this is a state-owned railway? All right, there are powder blue curtains.

Out my window, there’s a small seating area reserved for monks. First a few and every few minutes, more young, Buddhist monks gather with their small brown shoulder bags. Most sit or lie on the benches. They are quite young and are probably in their required year of service. I think all transportation is free for monks in Thailand. Now the boy / monks are fashioning their robes, twisting and folding to get just the right effect. I’ve read that they’re not allowed to have any possessions, but I see one open his little, brown gunny sack and take out some MONEY! I thought they were supposed to beg for whatever they need.

The waiter takes my dinner order. There are four choices – all 180 baht – each four courses: soup, 2 entrees and fruit. I also ordered a beer. He brought me a ‘Leo’ with a picture of a tiger on the label. The train leaves exactly on time and I have the compartment to myself. Near the station, people are living in shanties that are only inches from the train as we pass. A little further from the center, there are guys camped beside and bathing in a drainage ditch. They’re cooking over open fires on the ground in front of lean-to’s made from plastic sheets.

We’ve just made our 3rd stop in the first half hour. No wonder this is a 13 hour trip. This one’s called Bang Sue – no comment. It’s starting to get dark and I’m noticing the track-side shanties have TV’s and fluorescent lights. Some have really big TV’s and the shanty towns have shanty stores and shanty restaurants. We stop at Bang Ken – I’m not making this stuff up. A guard is checking under the carriage with a flashlight – unpaid passengers?

Dinner comes, right at 7 PM as requested. First, a spicy broth with a few veggies and a little chicken, then the two entrees on the same pink plastic plate and three slices of fresh pineapple, all covered with an almost impenetrable plastic wrap. Good soup, passable entrees, good sweet pineapple. The conductor brings me another beer, unbidden. OK. At 8 PM, he clears my plates and makes up my bed (first a foam pad, covered by a sheet, a small pillow in a cloth case, and the only cover is a large towel. It's perfect). He calls me ‘Papa’. He’s not the only one. I like it. I dug out my bottle of ‘Red Label’, drank and wrote a story about an American in Thailand in trouble with the law.

A singing chant, “Sawadee Ka, Olange Jew, Sawadee Ka, Olange Jew” woke me up about 5:30am. A woman came down the aisle with a tray load of glasses containing freshly squeezed orange juice. A full moon in a cloudless sky gives me a good view of the surrounding hills, dense green waves of vegetation. A station appears and we stop – red tile-roofed wooden building, a few men standing, barefoot, a dozen or more chickens foraging, a pair of mangy dogs sniffing at the red clay soil, a rooster strutting. A low-hanging mist sits like meringue in patches on the hillsides. I’m in ‘The North’. Breakfast comes: two eggs sunny-side-up, a thin slice of ham, white toast and coffee. We’re coming into a wide flat valley and rice paddies stretch out. A temple sits in the middle. Orchards follow: bananas, papaya, some kind of nuts. The sun is beginning to rise, now, a pink backdrop behind the distant mountains. Just outside of Chiang Mai, now, signs of the city. Young monks going house to house with their begging bowls, more skinny chickens, shiny black with red and orange coloration. At a railroad crossing, the street is backed up with a passel of motor scooter commuters and a small pick-up with at least a dozen men in the back.

The train stops in Chiang Mai, and as the passengers spill out, I realize I’ m one of the few farang, non-backpackers on this trip. Chiang Mai is the jumping-off place for lots of treks into the hills. Scores of people await us: taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, hotel vans and mini-busses, people touting tour packages – one-day, two day, three day and more. I survive this onslaught and make it through the station uncommitted and unmolested. I sit down at a fountain and open up my guide-book (I have made no reservations). An old man – seventy something? – sneaks up on me and squats at my feet, “Scuze prease.” He’s showing me a hotel brochure. “No, thank you,” I say, but he is unperturbed. I tell him I’m going to read my guidebook. He seems to understand and waits patiently. I review the hotel recommendations and decide to hear him out. He shows me a little map indicating the central location of the hotel (this agrees with the map in my book). He tells me, “Fan room 400 baht, air-con room, 500 baht ($12.50). I said OK.

I assumed he would show me to his tuk-tuk, but when we got to the parking lot, he puts my luggage in his 3-wheeled bike. Immediately, I am embarrassed, but I think I have to go through with it or leave him without a customer. By now, almost everyone else is gone. He gets me and my bags loaded and pushes the bike to get it started, then jumps aboard and pedals desperately in his one-speed. Now, we’re out on the street, crowded with fast-moving motor bikes, tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks. It’s scary, but slowly, he picks up speed and we’re almost at a pace with the morning rush-hour traffic. Then, horrors, a stop light. He slows, hoping not to have to stop. But stop, he must. When the light changes, he springs to the ground and pushes again. I’m mortified and I feel so heavy. Eventually, he gets me to the hotel. He asks for 20 baht (50 cents), I give him 40.

Stickman’s thoughts:

I really must make it to Chiang Mai one day.