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Adventures on the Rote Fai Free


I am an observer at heart and an amateur researcher of humanity. I don’t want to be in the glass skybox at Wrigley Field. I want to be in the pits with the real fans and see the game through their eyes. So when a newfound Surinite friend jokingly said I should ride the “Rote Fai Free” (free train) back to Bangkok I got the details and planned to take the 10 hour train ride (as opposed to 6 hour) back home with a keen mind to observe the common man in his environment.

I walked to the ticket counter and asked in my best polite Thai for a ticket on the rote fai free. A puzzled uniformed man pretended not to understand me and after several minutes of exchange informed me I was certainly not welcome on the rote fai free and I should buy the expensive ticket with the rest of the farang on the express train. I said no thanks and walked away ticketless determined to still have my adventure.

The train eventually pulled up and every Thai present began to crowd onto it in droves. I slipped onto the rear train and took up residence across from a jovial Thai man in his mid-50s with a giant Buddha medallion. He welcomed me into his space with a great big smile and engaged me in the standard small talk. The train began to pull away and with a satisfied sigh I settled in for the long haul all the way back to Bangkok.

It wasn’t long before the ticket man came around and asked me why I was on the train. I told him I heard this was the free train and I wanted to go to Bangkok. Even though this train was free a ticket still needed to be issued and so a ticketless illegal farang posed a problem and he walked away with a puzzled look on his face. I figured that would be the end of it, but eventually he came back to tell me I had to get off at the next stop and get a ticket. He asked the jovial man across from me to be my escort and it was settled.

At the next stop we got off and hit the ticket office. I let my jovial Thai good Samaritan do the talking and after some deliberation the man behind the glass decided 70 baht was a fair price for a farang on the free train. It was a little bit unfair, but still I couldn’t argue it so I handed over the money and back onto the train I went.

I was the talk of the train car when I sat back down with a woman and her infant child sitting across the aisle from me particularly interested in how much a ticket on the free train actually cost. Everyone was in agreement with me that it was unfair that I had to pay and no one else had to, but by the time we pulled into Buriram it was already mai bpen rai.

An important looking man and his over make-upped wife came onto the train and immediately began counting seats and soon discovered they were out of luck for a bench. Studying his ticket closely the important man determined his assigned seat had been illegally occupied by the woman and her baby. He relayed this to his mascara-loving wife who had no qualms with walking right up to the woman and demanding she go stand in between the cars as this was her rightful seat. Sensing an injustice in the making the good Samaritan with the large Buddha necklace stepped in to defend the young mother stating in no uncertain terms, “This is the free train, there are no assigned seats.” This is when the shouting began and I was certain things were on the road to physicality. The important man compared tickets, and argued about seat numbering, and anything else he could think of to continue the quarrel. Eventually a young dark skinned man sitting down the aisle from me stood up and offered his seat to the young mother and the situation was temporarily diffused as the women meekly stood up and hurried away from the conflict to her new resting place.

Well now there was a problem. The good Samaritan and the important man were sitting across the aisle and next to each other now. For all intents and purposes the conflict was over as everyone was seated, but the issue of who was in the right still laid before public opinion. Both men began rallying their case for the righteousness of their argument to all those seated near to them. The unwilling jury smiled nervously and nodded slightly without offering positive or negative feedback to either debater. Eventually they grew tired of carrying on the argument in the 3rd person and an uneasy silence filled the train. I watched the important man through the corner of my eye and could easily see he was not feeling comfortable with his ill-gotten seat. He repeatedly glanced up at the baggage rack above the Samaritan and I looked there too. It was just bags nothing special and I wondered what he was up to when suddenly he jumped up and pushed a bag effectively creating a fake rescue from injury to the Samaritan. I covered my mouth to stop from laughing at the childish attempt to gain the high ground as the important man began to address the Samaritan about this heroic act which had just saved injury on the train. Following this courageous feat the important man began to lecture the Samaritan on his other acts of heroism through his job in his local community to the repeated and uninterested “krabs” of the Samaritan. When the important man finally felt he had communicated loudly and at a great enough length about his kind nature he trailed off into silence and things slowly eased into the calm malaise they had once been.

This important man found himself in quite a predicament. Whether it was pre-meditated or not he put himself on the wrong side of the argument about as far as he could go. His solution was comical in my eyes as nothing short of apology to the woman followed by relinquishing of his seat to the man who gave up his could begin to square up his wrong doing. This, however, would require admitting he did wrong which by Thai standards would further place him down the sliding scale of morality. As this was not an option he had to quickly find an activity that would square him up. By not publicly admitting wrong doing and going so far as to “save” another Thai from injury he placed himself well within the bounds of moral behavior in his own mind.

As much of a crackhead as this guy was in my eyes he stole her seat in an expertly Thai way; I would imagine he is quite important in Buriram.

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Stickman's thoughts:

A well-told story! It's a bit off that you were charged for the free train ride given that it is advertised in English as being free for foreigners on at least one radio station! And I can just imagine the dispute between the Samaritan and the important man. So typically Thai!