Time was running out – with just days to go before my visa expired in Thailand, I was heading south towards the border. I’d still not made up my mind exactly how, or where, I was going to leave the country, but Burma was out of the question to the north and so there was only one way I could go.
My overnight train from Chiang Mai was extremely comfortable – the lower bunks are almost as big as a double bed and well worth the £2 extra cost over the upper bunks. You’re not in private cabins, but instead everyone has a curtain along the carriage, and by 10pm most people are catching zeds.
Most people except for me – I’d just had an email on my phone from one of my housemates back home. The boiler had broken. Cue a mild panic. I was in the middle of northern Thailand, passing through the wilderness on a sleeper train, and with the time difference I knew I had to act quickly to get the problem sorted out. My plumber back home had changed his number, and so I was on the phone to my parents asking them to search for him on the internet.
Thanks to the wonders of mobile data, I managed to get an appeal out on Facebook for a decent plumber that wouldn’t rip me off, and thankfully had a couple of replies came that could help me out. I then decided to call my housemates after finding their mobile number. After a 10 minute broken conversation as the reception dropped in and out, I’d worked out that the pressure had dropped and was a simple case of turning a small tap to top it up. Having had nightmare thoughts of needing to get an expensive new boiler installed from afar, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was a simple and free fix, and slept well all the way through to Ayuthuya, just north of Bangkok.
Outside, more evidence that the flooding of previous months was still causing problems. The waters had dropped in most places, but all along roads were people’s belongings and furniture, thrown out of flooded homes and either being burnt or collected by teams of recovery workers. The train passed the city’s former airport, Don Muang, which had been used as a refuge for weeks, although much of that too had been under water. It was now empty and no doubt heading for demolition. Walls on buildings alongside the tracks had clear watermarks high above windows and doors in some places. I was amazed life was somehow still going on so soon after the devastation – there had been at least six feet of water in many places, and the railway would have been well covered. Its been an incredible recovery.
Arriving into Bangkok, I still didn’t know whether to stay for a few nights to enjoy the city and then make a dash for a border, or whether to head to Kanchanaburi to the west, where the bridge over the River Kwai is located. I headed with all my bags to a coffee shop near the MBK shopping centre, the same place I had spent the evening when I first arrived in the city before my tour started. I knew the internet was fast, and the food was pretty good.
Logging onto Facebook, I saw that a few tour mates were still in the south – Alissa, Emma and Steven. Alissa was heading from Phi Phi to Krabi, while Emma and Steven were contemplating Railay beach. I dropped them a message to ask if they were going to be in the area for a few days, and it turned out they were. I quite fancied a bit of time on the beach, and so my decision was made. I wouldn’t have had enough time on my visa to stay for the time needed in Kanchanaburi, and I’d be coming back to Bangkok before my onward flight, so I checked the rail times and saw there was a night train to Surat Thani at 7.30pm.
I headed back to Hualamphong station and asked at the desk. I was pointed to a screen that showed one bed remaining. I immediately agreed to take it, upon which the cashier said something to me in Thai with a look on her face which told me she needed an answer again. So I repeated that I would take it again and nodded, handing over the equivalent of about £10. I was happy to be travelling that night, and at a good price.
By now it was 4pm, and I contemplated heading to a huge weekend market, but deciding it was too far away I set up camp with my laptop in the station, bought some wifi and uploaded some blog. Occasionally I’d get talking to some of the locals who would sit near me for a while, taking an interest in what I was doing and the places I had been to. Suddenly their eyes would light up when I told them how I’d found myself in Bangkok after listing the countries I’d travelled through, asking questions like ‘what is Russia like’ and ‘what does snow feel like’. The Thai people are so friendly, always speaking to you with a big smile and making you feel so welcome in their country. It’s part of the reason why I love their culture so much.
There was also another quirk at 6pm – the daily national anthem. I first heard this in Pai, at 8am every day, waking us all up. It’s quite a merry little anthem, and the Thai’s are so proud of their country, that its played publicly twice a day – and everyone has to pay their respects. Bang on 6pm at the station, every police officer blew their whistle, the Thai flag appeared on all the screens, and everyone stood and observed it. Its actually quite a spectacle – and quite heartwarming to see so many foreign visitors standing side by side with the smiling Thais and respecting its importance just as much as those who live here.
Soon it was time to grab some snacks and head to the platform. It was the next one along from the one I had pulled into some nine hours before.
I was in carriage nine, and began my walk along the side of the train and all the well maintained and inviting air conditioned carriages. Carriage 13. Carriage 12. Carriage 11. Still the glazed, brightly lit carriages went on, with everyone inside settling in for their comfortable ride.
Carriage 10…and then the posh carriages stopped. Carriage 9. What on earth is that?!
It was like something out of the third world. Surely there’s been some sort of mistake. It hasn’t even got windows, just holes where the glazing should be. It looked tatty and tired. And there’s a train man waving at me to check my ticket. He nodded and motioned to me to get on. The green décor wasn’t particularly to my taste, neither was the sharp metal edges around the patched up walls immediately adjacent to my seat-cum-bed. There was a window buried within the wall somehow, but it wouldn’t stay up.
It soon dawned on me what the woman said in Thai at the ticket desk – probably after something along the lines of ‘you’re a foreigner and you really want to rough it in there?’ was the advice that it was a non-air conditioned carriage. The air conditioning was provided by the open windows and a series of pointless fans.
I decided to make the best of a bad job and settled in for the night to do some writing. The carriage attendant made my bed and I tried to shut out the conditions around me. It wasn’t that bad, but I’d been looking forward to a good sleep. Instead, with a strange metal shutter covering most of the window, it was effectively open to the elements. And mosquitos – a hungry swarm of which made a beeline for my obviously very tasty ankles while I was asleep. Oh, and that was the sleep I managed to grab inbetween every passing train that thundered past within a few feet of my head all through the night.
I arrived in Surat Thani, one of the main transport hubs in Thailand, and found my bus to Krabi. I promptly fell asleep and slept like a log most of the way to Krabi Town, where I was ushered into a minibus to Ao Nang. I found some digs for 400 Baht a night (£8) and then found Steven and Emma on the promenade about to get on a longtail boat to Railay. I joined them, and had a great few hours catching up on each others’ travels and stories.
We met Alissa later that day and we all went out for dinner at a good Indian restaurant we found on the main strip, followed by drinks, pool and a fire show in the main centre.
The following day I moved into the same hotel as all three of them, sharing a room with Alissa. It worked out cheaper than the place I had been staying at Bernie’s Place, recommended in my Lonely Planet, and I have to say it was much nicer. It had air conditioning, a private bathroom, even a television. They’re already seeming like luxury!
We had a lot of fun on the beach – Steven brought a pit-pat set so we tried to see how much of a rally we could get going between us, while I’d come equipped with a Father Christmas hat with the festive season now well and truly upon us. It provided the ‘must have’ but slightly clichéd photos of spending Christmas on a beach, but I didn’t care. It put a few smiles on people’s faces too, especially when I kept it on while going for a swim, complete with flashing stars on the front!
Alissa and I went in search of budget accommodation in the area, as we’re both considering spending some time here after New Year. We found some bungalows nestled at the foot of the limestone cliffs near Railay East beach, and they are in a much more backpacker friendly price range than the top end tourist resorts just a few hundred metres away on the west beach.
After a quiet night in with a DVD and a few games of cards, we had to be up early the following morning. Steven, Emma and I were picked up at 6am by different taxis. They were heading to Koh Samui to visit Dirk, also from our tour, who has somehow ended up in hospital. I was heading out of the country, to Malaysia, as my visa run continued, and I’d decided to spend Christmas at a nice looking hostel I’d found in the capital.
My journey took me to the south of Thailand, an area the tourist guides warn you to be careful in after a spate of bombings and attacks due to some political unrest in a few states. I had to pick my route carefully, but as long as I kept moving I was supposed to be okay. I headed to Hat Yai, where I knew I could catch a direct train to Kuala Lumpur. The weather turned and it began to pour with rain. After four hours of driving, I was dropped off at the railway station, where I was promptly told the train to Kuala Lumpur was full.
I began to worry. My visa expires at midnight, and the ticket desk was telling me there was no way out of the country until the following day. I sought refuge in a coffee shop to raid their free wifi over lunch and try to work out what to do.
In the end, I found there was another train to the border town of Pedang Besar. I asked if there was a way I could get across the border that day. There were shrugs of shoulders and a general lack of interest in my plight.
There was one highlight however – as I boarded the train, there was a flurry of excitement from both those on the platform and on the train.
The Orient Express has just pulled in alongside us, complete with all its gold trim, sun deck carriage and plush interior. I took a few photos, and a tourist in the end carriage of the famous train was doing the same as me. We waved to each other and smiled as I trundled down the tracks past him and his £10,000 rail ticket!
One thing I would have quite gladly paid the £10,000 price tag for though would to have been sat far away from an Italian man who wanted to become my best friend on the short ride to the border. He was the sort of man who snarled when he speaks. There was a snarl when I told him I was from England (‘expensive and rude’ apparently) there was a snarl when I told him I was heading to Kuala Lumpur for Christmas (‘why would I want to stay in a city like that’, apparently) and there was a snarl when I told him that I still had a few hours on my visa (‘they never check, and if they do, you pay a few Baht’, apparently)
He was a know-all, eager to impress how he’s been travelling for years. He saw that I had been eating some chewy fruit sweets, and I nearly snarled myself when he abrubtly insisted ‘do you have one for me’.
Admittedly, anyone else who I wanted to be talking to, I’d have offered one straight away anyway, but there was something creepy about him. He was older than me, about 50ish, and just seemed to moan a lot about Thailand and Malaysia. I was down to my last sweet.
“Sure, its my last one though,” I said, expecting him to withdraw his request.
“Ok,” he said, holding his grubby hands out. I threw it across the aisle to him and then tried to avoid contact until we arrived at Pedang Besar. He’s already told me he didn’t have an onward ticket across the border either, but there was no way I was joining ranks with him. I went out to look after myself.
Thankfully, the station falls within Malaysia, so I’d made it out of Thailand in time. I went through immigration, got stamped out and made my way to the ticket window.
“Sorry, train full,” came the reply to my request for a train to KL.
“When’s the next train?” I asked
“Tomorrow night,” came the unhelpful reply.
Great. I’m stuck in this border town, with nothing in the way of hotels or attractions, and quite probably with a really annoying and selfish Italian bloke for company.
“Is there a bus from here,” I asked, with a pleading look on my face.
“No, no bus,” said the lady.
“Is there anything I can do,” I asked, starting to plead for help. The lady looked at me, looked around me, and then moved closer.
“How many of you, is it just you?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I whispered back.
Then she shut the window and disappeared behind a screen in the direction of the train. Five minutes later she returned.
“Carriage five. Speak to the conductor. He knows, you’ll be ok but don’t tell anyone,” she whispers again.
I whispered thankyou back and gave her a huge smile, which she returned as she watched me head down the platform. I don’t really know what the deal is – it’s a huge train and there’s not that many people waiting to get on it. And then I see the Italian guy talking to the train officials. I turn away and hope he doesn’t see me. Then there’s a tap on my shoulder.
“How do you have ticket? I have no ticket. How are you getting on train.”
It’s the Italian guy alright.
“You should help me. You have got your ticket. I want to know why. Why didn’t you tell her about me,” he babbles at me like some sort of spoilt brat.
“I just, erm, I went to speak to her,” I reply.
“Well, you could have helped me too, you British are all the same.”
It made my blood boil. I’ve not lost my temper once on this trip, but he’d infuriated me. And he ate my last chewy sweet. I kept my anger to a hushed but firm reply.
“Look mate, I’m here on my own, I’m looking after myself. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. I’ve managed to get on it by being nice and talking to the lady at the window. I’m sure if you do the same you’ll be helped out.”
He headed off without a word. I walked to the train and into the carriage as instructed. I gave a knowing nod to the carriage attendant as he asked for my ticket.
“You need a ticket, the train is full,” he tells me.
I gave another knowing nod, I think I might even have winked a bit. But he had a blank face. I mentioned about the lady at the ticket office, and mid-flow another conductor arrives at the scene. He gives me a knowing nod and sits me down. It was all very perculiar!
Somehow the Italian bloke made it onto the train and plonked himself across the aisle from me. He muttered about how he appreciated the advice about speaking to the ticket office, but it was far from an apology. I kept my head down in a book or writing my blog as darkness fell and we headed south through Malaysia. The conductor took the money from me for my ticket – about £10, and handed me a slip of paper. I think it was above board.
It was great that I had a seat, but it was far from a sleeper carriage like I had been expecting. I tried to get comfortable to grab some sleep but it was hard. In the end I got my sleeping bag out and wedged myself against the window. The lights were bright and I drifted in and out of sleep. In the early hours, I briefly woke to see the Italian bloke getting his stuff together – he was getting off halfway between the border and KL. I breathed a sigh of relief, and made sure I kept my eyes closed. I couldn’t be bothered to say goodbye.
‘Bang bang bang bang’
There’s knocking at the window. It wakes me up. I’m the last one on the train. I’ve arrived in Kuala Lumpur.