A couple of friends had suggested the Second Class sleeper train as the cheapest yet most comfortable way to make the 700 km trip to Chiang Mai. I looked forward to a rather romantic old-timey ride: dining car bustling with camaraderie, conductor coming by to make up the bed and pull the curtains of my compartment at bedtime, drinks and snacks offered with a smile by a well-dressed railroad employee.
Things I forgot to consider: the quality and condition of the restrooms and the multitude of critters (i.e. cockroaches) likely resided in the crevices of a train that must have been running for at least half a century.
All seemed well as I settled into my seat about a half-hour before dusk. It looked like I would have the whole compartment to myself (and possibly be able to sleep in the bottom bunk rather than the lower-priced upper bunk that I’d stupidly reserved to save a buck or two).
Two attractive young English-speaking blondes boarded and settled into the seats across from me. Turns out they were from Northern California too, and I was glad to have someone to chat with for a while. They were sisters in the first days of a 3-week trip to see and do all the best of tourist Thailand: check out Bangkok, visit temples, ride elephants, sun and fun on the islands, etc..
As we chatted and they broke out their picnic supper (when I saw the prices of the set dinners I wished I’d bought some bread and salami too), I spotted the first roach making its way down the aisle. Eww! But I didn’t say anything, hoping it was just an anomaly and would soon disappear, never to be seen again. But no, there was another, then another.
“Oh my God, is that a cockroach?!!” the younger sister, Vanessa, screeched.
“Umm, I’m not sure. Do you think it’s a cockroach?” I replied. “I was hoping not.”
“Kill it!” Vanessa ordered her sister.
“I’m not sure if it would help,” came the reply. “I’m sure he has lots of brothers and sisters hanging around.”
There ensued a flurry of activity as the two young ladies fluttered about in distress at the thought of roaches crawling all over our beds after lights-out. They each broke out their suitcases and pulled on long pants and socks to protect themselves.
I too was feeling a little paranoid about the idea of going to sleep with the roaches, but was trying to give it the least thought possible. The California girls did not make this easy.
I got up to find the dining car and a beer.
Later, a jovial employee in an orange uniform did indeed take my order for dinner (I went for the chicken curry served with sides of rice, sliced pineapple and soup), and I sipped my Chang beer wondering if it was a bad idea considering that it would cause me to need to use the facilities more frequently. The beer here is most often served in giant double-sized bottles, which is easy on the pocketbook but not so much on the bladder.
As I waited for dinner, I settled back on my seat with my guidebook hoping to read about Chiang Mail. But I could barely make out the words in the dimness.
“They sure don’t light this thing up very well,” I groused, looking around for the light source. Everyone else seemed to have no problem seeing their books. Looking up, I saw that the fluorescent light alongside my compartment was out. Every other light in the train car worked but mine. Figures. I beckoned to one of the uniformed employees and pointed to the light. He laughed, uttered a few phrases in Thai, smiled apologetically and left the car. I didn’t know if that meant he was getting someone to fix it, or just ignoring me. But soon the lady in charge showed up and pulled off the light cover.
Oh good, I thought, she’s going to change the bulb.
No such luck. She just jiggled the tube then turned to me and said flatly, “Sorry!” and replaced the cover.
Looked like I was going to have get out my flashlight or find some other way to pass the time.
Vanessa and her sister were still freaking out about the roaches, but the older one was trying to play things down.
“I don’t think there’s that many,” I said. “I haven’t seen any more since that first one.”
That’s when she told me that she’d spotted two of the insects crawling on my curtains while I was off getting my beer.
“And I had to kill three of them on my way to the bathroom,” she added.
I’d thought we were riding an express train, but we kept screeching to a slow stop at various stations on the outskirts of Bangkok to load on more passengers. The seat opposite me remained empty, keeping my hopes up.
The unsmiling female conductor (she seemed to be in charge of the train or at least our car, but she had virtually no personality and her face remained expressionless for pretty much the entire journey) bustled into the car around 8 p.m and began making up the beds. We watched her expert movements as she shoed the passengers off of their seats, pulled down the top compartment and grabbed a mattress, sheet, pillow, pillowcase and plastic-wrapped blanket from above. Bottom berth transformed within minutes, she started in on the top. I noted that the top berths were about half the width of the bottom ones. And the only preventions to a tumble out of bed were two flimsy seatbelt-like vertical straps.
I still didn’t have a seatmate after she’d made up my compartment, so I settled into the bottom bunk, feeling grateful. That is until I looked over and saw that the older sister sat on the bottom with a resigned look while Vanessa tried to get comfortable up top. It seemed they’d determined that the top was safer from roaches than the bottom.
I wasn’t convinced and decided to keep the more comfortable space below that included a window for a the morning views and space at the foot of the bed to stash my knapsack. But suddenly the grim conductor stood before me looking even more menacing, a plump disheveled Asian woman beside her. The conductor barked something at me in Thai and pointed to the woman who kept looking at her ticket and then at me in baffled annoyance.
I jumped up saying, “Oh, sorry!” and scrambled to gather up my belongings. Shouldering my knapsack and balancing my water bottle I climbed up the ladder to the narrow upper bunk. Casting one more baleful glare my way, the conductor ripped off the sheet and pillowcase and remade the bed that I’d obviously sullied by sitting in for a few minutes.
Okay, then. Time to settle in for reading and sleep. I scrunched into my berth, finally finding a little niche for my knapsack. At least I had a light up here.
It was a dim light, but I also had the lights out in the train car – which were never turned off the entire night. During the wee hours I found myself wishing they were all broken. But then, I thought, not really because who knows how many bugs would come out of hiding in the darkness.
I couldn’t help gasping aloud when I looked up from my book and saw one of our crawling friends creeping along the ceiling barely more than a foot from my face. Okay, I told myself, no more looking around. Whatever you do – just don’t look at the walls!
I’d forgotten how loud and jarring trains can be, especially while trying to sleep. The screeches especially kept jolting me awake from my light slumber. But then I remembered my earplugs and after I dug them out I slept better. No looking! No looking! I repeated the mantra each time my eyes fluttered open.
Finally, it was 5:50 a.m. when I checked my watch. My neighbors had told me they came through at 6 to convert the beds back into seats so I gratefully climbed down to freshen up for our 7:45 arrival.
But my compartment companion still slept soundly when the beds were converted at around 6:30, and I was stranded up in the top bed without any window. To my relief, the California ladies graciously invited me to join them on their seats.
So I sat with them gazing as banana trees and other unknown plants and trees of the Northern Thailand countryside whizzed by. Roosters strutted and crowed as sleepy-eyed farmers and their dogs circled their compounds. Eventually, my compartment-mate woke up and our area was hastily converted while she visited the restroom. We sat opposite one another smiling hesitantly as I anticipated my arrival in the famed city of Chiang Mai.