At this point, having come halfway around the world, mostly by hurtling through the air in cramped metal cylinders at 500 miles per hour, it might come as a surprise to hear that I’m not the biggest fan of flying. There’s something inherently unnatural about being strapped into a thinly walled tube 30,000 feet above the earth, and I don’t like the basic level of anxiety that comes from the thought that certain death is your fate should anything go wrong. This completely contradicts my desire to visit the International Space Station, which offers only the cold void of space as refuge should stray bits of space debris strike it while hurtling through a vacuum at 17,000 miles per hour, but the thought of seeing our brilliant blue marble from 400km up has a certain wondrous appeal. Of course, statistics show that flying is incredibly safe, and any fear is (mostly) unfounded, but the lack of control, and the terrifying amount of air between you and the ground are just cause for some irrational concern.
The rational downside of flying is jet lag, which can be one of the most awful feelings in the world, akin to pulling an all-nighter while cramming for an exam in college whilst stoned. Flying doesn’t allow you to get a feel for the transformations that occur in the land or time zones you’re crossing. Some even go as far as to say that your ethereal, or ‘spirit body’ can’t keep up with air travel, leaving you disjointed for several days until your aura catches up. New Age ideals aside, the alternative when traversing an ocean like the Pacific is a one-month ocean voyage in potentially calamitous seas, which is certainly less appealing, and definitely more dangerous.
When given the option, I prefer driving, when distances, and lack of oceans are short enough to allow this. The trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is about 700 km, a good day’s drive. Not to be daunted by driving on the left, being proficient at that since Australia, I was game, but my wife mentioned the lack of being able to read the road signs as a potential problem, and the madcap driving antics of the Thais was something to be reckoned with.
In my position, what would you do? Why, opt for the next best thing, of course! For who can resist the romantic allure of the train! Why spend a painful 1 ½ hours crammed into a flying tin can when you could relax and watch the scenery for 12 hours with freedom of movement and a dining car. Images of the Orient Express and Hogwarts Express were called to mind, as I recalled the fun and excitement of train trips taken as a youth. The image of the semi-private booth, to be shared with some exotic strangers had a romantic allure, and I managed to convince the family that this was the way to go.
Our booking agency managed to secure us second-class tickets, and through the mixed language communication, we gathered that a dining car and semi-private booths were part of the deal. All in all, it cost us around $200 for the trip, including two-nights’ accommodations when we arrived. After the kind of money we had been spending for travel and accommodation in first world nations, we were thrilled! Not to trifle on the details, but the train only cost us double what it would have to fly. What a bargain!
Another positive factor was the proximity of the train station to the hotel we were staying at. After our experience of crossing most of southern Thailand following a 9-hour flight, this was a deal-maker. With the train station only a couple of kilometers away, we were spared the agony of more Bangkok freeway traffic. As our taxi-bus pulled up at the ‘station’, we learned that this was a pretty liberal interpretation of the word. Nowhere was the giant marbled foyer, the great clock, platform 9 3/4, or much beyond a few open-air stalls beside the tracks selling cheap plastic toys and ramen noodles.
We weren’t at the main train station, just at a minor stop on the way, and we tried not to let this phase us. With over 45 minutes to spend before our train arrived, we had little to do but wait and sweat. We were still trying to get used to the heat, being only our second day in Thailand, and we tried to keep to the shade as much as possible. A third class train pulled up, and I was reminded of the trains in India that you see in the movies, with people hanging out the windows and perched atop the cars. This wasn’t quite that bad, but I started to wonder how much better the second class was going to be than third class. I glanced at Theresa to share my thoughts. Her raised eyebrows led me to think she had the same thoughts as I, and I held my tongue, lest my judgment be questioned in this decision.
We soon found out, as our train pulled up, and we boarded our home for the rest of the day, that my judgment was indeed, severely lacking. My first impression of the carriage was that of a Greyhound bus, but slightly dirtier. And older. And lacking a dining or sleeping car. Or private booths. But there were fans. Plenty of fans to blow the inferno-like hot air around inside the metal tube that we once again found ourselves stuck in. I guess something had gotten lost in translation. At least we were well stocked with ‘food’ from our foray into Tesco-Lotus the previous day.
My intentions of taking in the scenery were not lost on my traveling companions. Cyrus contentedly observed the passing rice fields, the cows, the coconut trees, the rice fields, the cows, the rice fields… The constant rocking of the train was soothing and annoying at the same time, and after about the first hour or so, I began to seriously doubt the logic behind our choice. (You will notice that it was definitely ‘our’ choice. At this point, I was unwilling to acknowledge that I was alone in making the decision to travel by rail.) When the food cart came around, we were given a dish that did its best to pretend it was chicken with rice. I had a sudden yearning for airplane food, and ate mine, only out of extreme hunger, and the desire to eat something besides lukewarm yogurt. For the rest of the clan, it was peanut butter sandwiches, followed by the dice sized bite of cake that had accompanied our meal. By this point Theresa had begun to answer me in single syllable sentences. I began to think she might not be too impressed. Or perhaps she was simply mesmerized by the romantic allure of a cross-country train ride. I really didn’t want to ask.
Our boredom was briefly allayed as we rolled through the ancient capital of Lopburi, nicknamed “The city of Monkeys”. Passing by the ruins of a temple, we could see monkeys in every nook and cranny, doing what Monkeys generally do. Just use your imagination for this, unless you’ve seen monkeys at a zoo. I later learned that someone had taken the time and trouble to film the monkeys for months on end doing their monkey business, and eventually assembled the footage, complete with overdubbed narration, into a monkey version of Romeo and Juliet. It was actually quite good, and left me with the distinct impression that some of the monkeys were better actors than many acclaimed Hollywood stars. Just search YouTube for “Romeo and Juliet, A Monkey’s Tale.” You Won’t be disappointed. But our moment in monkey town was over all too soon, and we were back to a never ending stream of dull scenery.
And so it went for the next several hours. Theresa and Violet were the first to require the use of the ‘facilities’, an episode that I am scarce qualified to relay. Theresa’s communication had now ceased altogether and had turned into what I hope was a loving scowl. Needless to say, trying to use a squat toilet on a moving train can be difficult maneuver. On my own trip to the ‘toilet’, the first thing I noticed was the floor. Or rather, I didn’t notice the floor, covered as it was by muddy (hopefully it was just muddy) water. The next thing to catch my attention was the sound. As far as I could tell, the toilet hole in the floor led directly to the tracks below, allowing the full sonic assault of a train screeching over the tracks to come blaring through. The whole compartment was kept ‘sanitized’ by a convenient spray hose located on the wall. I started to wonder if the whole ‘going to the bathroom thing’ was overrated, but knowing that holding it in for 10 more hours was not going to be in my best interest, I used the facilities.
I’m not one to go around bragging about how great my kids are. I love my children, and I do my best to accept all aspects of their personalities, while helping them to grow in positive directions. Cyrus is at an age where he is fully capable of keeping himself amused for hours on end, whether it be with his iPod or a book, and truth be told, it was ever thus with him. Violet on the other hand, is very in the moment, to the point where she needs to be kept busy, and is prone to allowing her emotions to rule her. Keeping her caged in a hot tin can is not in her nature. With little entertainment other than a few children’s books, we did our best to keep the kids happy, and were very relieved when she took a nap. Theresa soon joined her. Perhaps this was why she was no longer speaking to or looking at me. She was just tired. It had nothing what so ever to do with a grueling train ride with a loquacious 4 year old and only white rice with peanut butter to eat. I, on the other hand was left to enjoy the scenery with Cyrus. Ooh, rice field. Ooh, cow! Ooh, rice field being set on fire! Ooh, cow being set on fire! Wait, what? We took a few trips through the train cars, having to jump between them as though we were chasing a villain in an old Western, and discovered that the front car was the same as the rest, no coal burning engine or gritty conductor, or wizard conjuring us forth, just a small room for the driver, akin to a subway train. Returning to my seat and settling into my book, more of the time flew by.
The landscape changed after some time, with low hills rising in the distance, and eventually surrounding us. Our view became limited to the narrow passes that the train lunged through, which at least gave us a chance to examine the native vegetation more closely. As we chugged our way through the mountains, I was once again left with the feeling that it would have been wise to have pursued other travel options. If only someone had consulted me on the decision!
Without warning, the train lurched to a stop. I was graced by a dubious sleepy look from my wife. Had we arrived at our destination, somehow magically propelled forward through time and space? Cyrus leapt up and ran to the front of the car, to peer out the large side windows. Returning scout style, he breathlessly reported that there were people outside the train milling about, and people were getting off, and what should we do? Looking for any sign of worry on the faces of the other train riders, I felt comforted that they were all sitting and waiting patiently.
Finally, the train started moving. Backwards. Downhill. Hmm, this can’t be good, I thought. We eventually stopped, and lurched forward once again. Hmm, perhaps there was a cow on the tracks, or maybe they were just clearing a fallen tree… Soon enough, we stopped again. As we started to roll backwards once more, I decided to ask the official looking fellow in the booth behind us (we were in the last – now first – car of the train) what was going on. In broken English, he explained that we were going up a very steep hill, and didn’t have enough speed, so needed to back up to gain some momentum.
The thought dawned on me that the trains do this route twice every day, and they might have some idea as to where the big hills are, and gather the appropriate momentum before they get there. But hey, most air flights are done on autopilot. Why shouldn’t it be the same with rail travel? As we backed up further and further, faster and faster, we began to discuss whether we would have to backtrack the last hour of progress up the mountain, and whether it was okay to go backwards faster than we had been moving forwards. To our great relief, the train stopped, and started the slow uphill journey again.
“Third time pays for all,” quipped Theresa, and I hoped she was right. The story of the little engine that could popped into my mind, and I started murmuring, “I think I can. I think I can. I know I can, I know I can!” Violet and Cyrus chimed in, and we were soon all calling out in unison. As we reached, and passed the place where we had stopped the previous two times, we all gave a small cheer, and the train soon leveled off. The steep pass was nowhere to be seen. For anyone who has seen ‘The Polar Express’, you probably have a vivid picture in your mind of what a steep mountain pass looks like. I’m still wondering what the fuss was all about.
As nightfall set in, exhaustion soon followed. The remaining few hours of our trip were spent in a kind of dazed stupor, which is probably good, all things considered. As the lights of the towns grew brighter and more frequent, we knew we were nearing the end. Before we knew it, 12 hours after our departure, we were at our destination: Chiang Mai; Jewel of the North, Capitol of the old kingdom of Lanna. I tossed a smile at Theresa, and she blinked in what was, I’m sure, the most adoring way possible.