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Thai Train Kept-A-Rollin … No Wi-Fi, No Bridge In Sight

January 22nd, 2012 · Tags:Cities · Satire

Since my arrival in Thailand, friends have been offering up suggested “soundtracks” for the visit. The most frequent, probably pretty obvious, “One Night In Bangkok.” But one friend dug a little deeper, back to the days of vinyl and mentioned “A Passage To Bangkok” by Canadian power trio Rush.

I concur.

Briefly, I quote Rush, in Ferg’s honor:

“We’re on the train to Bangkok
Aboard the Thailand express
We’ll hit the stops along the way
We only stop for the best.”

Not that you care, but the live version feature’s Neil Peart, the best drummer on the planet, doing a little asian melody/rhythm on some sort of percussion gourd … which is pretty cool.  I digress … already …

No Ferg, my schedule didn’t include a midnight Bangkok express to, but rather an afternoon train fro. The night after my buddies and I were almost crushed in the midnight madness of the 2012 Bangkok New Year’s Eve, I hopped a northbound train back to Ayutthaya, alone. Not a big thing. I typically travel alone, but I also typically have plenty of juice in my iPhone. This time, there was no good charging option at my Bangkok hotel — The Aphrodite Inn.

So as soon as I boarded, I sent out a tweet or two so that someone on the planet would know my whereabouts, just in case. Then the phone went dead. What would I do if I got lost? … or if I found myself in times of trouble? … Ha! Well, I guess I would just have to improvise. No worries. It’s all good.

It was a great ride, despite the hot afternoon and no air-conditioning. There was enough of a breeze through the open windows to make it quite comfortable. It was affordable too. The two-hour journey was about five bucks … a steal … even though there was no Wi-Fi. Well, I can’t prove that since my phone was dead … but considering the scene, I am guessing Wi-Fi was not.

Riding the train to or fro Bangkok is a must, if you want to see Thailand and if you want to see Thais. The engines seem fairly modern, but I would guess the cars are probably 30 or 40 years old. School-bus style seating. Oscillating fans jerry-rigged to the ceiling. The train is world-class people watching in a third-world setting, but comfortable enough. (At the time of this writing, I have ridden the rails six or seven times, and only once have I left the train without new friends.) The slightest little gesture, or bow, or hello … and the Thais let go a smile that will brighten the cloudiest day.)

I watched one little boy, mesmerized by something his mom was holding. Closer inspection. It was a turtle, about the size of a coffee saucer. … Never seen one of those on a train before. Ha … that would be funny if this started a trend, all the way to Hollywood and trendy stars traded in their miniature dogs/purses for turtles on the go about town … Ha! The other Thais seemed a little surprised by the turtle. The lady kept it alive on this sometimes hot train by dipping a straw into water, and then dripping drops into the snapper. I was also wonder if this was a pet, or tonight’s meal on its way back from market. TTT — Thai turtle takeout.

Don’t know if they eat turtle or not. But, I have enjoyed several bags of what look to be Lay’s potato chips, with a slightly different logo on the bag. I think it is a version of Lay’s … anywho … the chips were not BBQ as I expected. They are red chili and squid flavored. Ha … Not bad. Another reminder of home, I found Fort Worth’s own Alcon featured on the shelfs of the pharmacy, to wet my contacts, which were dryer than a turtle on a train … LOL … And there are 7-11 stores everywhere …

Ha … the day before, at the ancient palace in Bangkok, a group of Thai girls stopped me and my buddies and had our tour guy interpret. They wanted to have their photos taken with us, because we are Americans and perhaps the biggest humans they had ever seen. I of course told them we were big American movie stars … but I don’t think they believed us. I will look for the photos of American celebs. in Thailand on eBay … I digress …

Back on track … my first ride, I grabbed a padded bench next to the window, and hoped the three seats beside me would remain empty for my feet and my bags. Feet … that reminds me. As my colleagues and I arrived in Thailand, we were reminded that it is a grave offense to show someone the bottom of your foot, or to point at them with your foot. I think it is the equivalent of “flipping the bird” or “thumbing the nose” as Shakespeare would say. Anyway, I guess putting my feet in the empty chair would be a bad idea, with that in mind. But wait a second … many of the Thais put their sandaled feet in empty seats. One lady, a mom, had her child stretch his feet out to her and she sat and trimmed his toenails on the train … I took photos … Ha!)

Before the train rolled, two young Thai women sat immediately in front of me anyway. And speaking of feet — bless her heart — one of the girls had only about 1.5 of them. One leg was normal, the second was about half the length, with a tiny unused foot, that didn’t reach all the way to the floor as she sat down and placed her crutches under the seat.

Yes, I paused immediately to reflect on how I think I have it tough sometimes … I didn’t stare, but it was tempting. I gave the girls my best “Sawasdee” with Texas flare, and off we went. This young lady, physically impaired, was the embodiment of Thai nature. She had hardships. She made do. She was a friendly and outgoing, and hospitable as anyone you will meet.

This being my first ride, I was watching the printed schedule pretty closely to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. Soon, the two ladies were talking to me in a mixture of English and Thai, helping me track the depots before my destination, Ayutthaya. They were my friends by the end of the line and they gave me a cool little dragon charm. Another Thai gift I will save for long time.

On board, there are numerous vendors strolling through the cars, toting home-prepared rice and other dishes, and fruits, and semi-iced Cokes and bottled water. And the ever-present Singha beer. The vendors carry food in woven baskets and the drink vendors use second- or third-hand plastic buckets. All of them “hawk” their goods in a very nasal, repetitive banter. (If you have ever been to a baseball game at The Ballpark In Arlington, and heard the vendor who growls, “Ha-awwwwwwwwwwwwwt Da-awwwwwwgs!,” it is pretty much the same polished sales pitch.)

Outside the train, the view is beautiful and ugly.

The water from last year’s flooding has subsided, leaving the brilliant green rice paddies under the normal amount of water. The fields of course are surrounded by ridges and terraces to lock the moisture in for this thirsty grain. Only a few farmers are scattered here and there, since the crop is already underway. The ones I saw were in short shorts, straw hats and ankle-deep in mud. This ultra-traditional scene is contrasted by the farmers’ motorbikes parked here and there on the ridges between paddies. Rather than oxen, I have seen some sort of farming equipment that looks like a custom swamp buggy. No idea if it was sowing … or what.

That’s the pretty postcard. Everywhere else, there are still remnants of the flood. Trash … tons of it. Call me weird, but I really wished I could have left the train for a quick photo of one refuse pile. This dump was about the length of a football field … no, make that a soccer stadium, and the heap was about 10 feet tall. The contents — nothing but crushed porcelain toilets. Thousands … and like I said, they have already been crushed for economy of space. No idea where they came from.

Litter is everywhere … up in trees higher than my head, in ditches, piled in the median of roads, next to dwelling doors, in front of tiny cafes. One has to wonder if the trash is always this bad, flood or no flood. I don’t know, but I also assume whatever landfills exist, they have to be full, and the dumpsters also too, after such a monumental disaster.

Yet in most public places, you hardly ever see a trash can. (After carrying an empty plastic bottle for hours on New Year’s Eve, I finally tucked it safely in my buddy’s backpack when he wasn’t looking. Don’t tell him.)

Oh … and typically there are no paper towels in the restrooms, nor blowers. Drip dry! And most cafes and restaurants don’t put out napkins … But, if you order pizza delivered to your hotel, they give catsup with it.
The countryside is dotted with large villas, here and there, which I assume are the property owners. By contrast, everywhere there are shacks on stilts made of wood, bamboo, old signs, and remnants of tin, found who knows where. There are restaurants on stilts, standing just a few feet over what we will call drainage ditches, which are probably filled with sewage. Everything in the countryside is painted with dried mud. People fish directly out of the ditches. (Ha … that reminds me I saw two small alligators yesterday, one by the elephant park and one 200 feet from my beloved Rabika coffee shop, where I walk each night …)

My next train trip, a few days later, I headed north of Ayutthaya. It featured even more rice paddies … a few more factories here and there and some beautiful rugged mountainous formations in the distance, near Ban Mo, I think it was.

Riding the rails north of Ayutthaya it is much more difficult to track the progress … or my location. Most of the depots further south toward Bangkok have the names in English. That wasn’t always the case, on this trip. Thai words, when written, all look pretty much like a long, symmetrical centipede. (I think I have centipede on the brain because yesterday I shot a quick video of some creature. It looked like an earthworm, back in The States … but I’ll be darned if it didn’t raise up on legs and scurry away, rather than oozing and crawling, like a worm …)

Back on track … I mistakenly thought my destination north was the town with the Bridge On The River Kwai … the topic of World War II legend, and a great movie as well. Wrong. You see, I got off the train at Lop Buri. The bridge is actually at Kanchanaburi. Dang it! I always get my Buris mixed up. And oh, this was a good one. I didn’t realize my error until much later. As soon as I stepped off the train, there was the normal tuk-tuk attack … the taxi drivers competing for my business. There was one “middleman” a lady who spoke very little English, negotiating details for the Thai-only drivers. I told them I wanted to go to The Bridge On The River Kwai.

“Okay! Okay!” They saw my Nikon around the neck and added, “You take pictures.”

Silly me I thought they understood. I continued, “Yes, yes, photos … at bridge. Do you know … the bridge?”

The translator lady said yes, and led me to a sign with several photographs. She pointed to a photo that looked like farmland to me. I assumed the bridge was nearby … Again, she asked if I would take photos. I nodded … or probably more accurately gestured wildly.

She quoted a price of a couple of hundred both … about six U.S. dollars. Sold! I hopped in a real car instead of a tuk-tuk for once. One look and I preferred the tuk-tuk. The driver looked like he was wired on something, and the car looked like it had been hot-wired and stolen … and wrecked. The inside of the tiny Toyota was torn apart. The door would not open, the dash and console were completely ripped out, except for an under-performing air conditioner and a speedometer. This also was my first Thai driver who exhibited all the symptoms of road rage. We made it through the streets of town without killing anyone. He was also the first driver I have heard honk at other cars in this polite society. And he was a repeat offender … Soon we were whipping down a country highway. Of course we were stuck behind a slow-moving truck and the taxi kept peeking around in the other lane, hoping to pass, jutting back just in time to avoid a head on … fun, fun.

A few minutes later, we pulled off onto a dirt road. “Is this the part where I get shot in the head, for a few thousand boht, and buried in a shallow grave (if I’m lucky)?”, I thought. The dude parked in the turn row of a sunflower farm. Okay. I get it. Yes sunflowers are great for photos … But we have those back in the States, even in The Panhandle of Texas now. Where’s the confounded bridge?

On this excursion, I had lots of juice in my iPhone and Googled The BOTRK. I showed him. He acted as if he had never heard of it … But, I am oh so clever … Ha! … i started whistling the famous theme from the WWII movie … the tune the prisoners of war whistled as they marched and built the famous bridge. He looked at me like I was high on fish sauce. I am sure that now, somewhere, there is a blog by a Thai taxi driver that claims that weird Americans whistle loudly whenever they see sunflowers …

I pleaded more … I knew the word for water — “nom.” I told him the bridge of “nom.” He still thought I was crazy and drove me to even more sunflowers. There I spotted several other non-whistling tourists, photographing sunflowers. One gentleman a few hundred yards away was obviously Western. I walked over and happily introduced myself as the crazy whistling American blogger known as Ping. He was an ex-patriot Aussie, who had lived in San Francisco, before settling down in Thailand 14 years ago. He and his younger, attractive Thai wife smiled at my story, and sadly informed me I was several hundred miles from the bridge.

Best make the best of the sunflowers …

Well we did, and we visited a really cool monastery, built into the side of a huge rock formation, complete with an in-house bat colony … saw “a lake resort” (large lake with bamboo shelters on the shore, available for day rental) and more sunflowers. I fired until the barrel of the Nikon was smoking. Then I remembered that in town, near the train station, I had seen a monkey. Ha … we nearly ran the poor fellow down on the way out of town. We rushed back, and I bailed out of the cab at the shrine. It is Lop Buri’s other most famous attraction — the ancient Khmer shrine of Prang Sam Yod. The shrine is crawling with monkeys … who also have taken over the sidewalks and rooftops of the nearby businesses.

Lop Buri

And oh those crazy monkeys are pranksters. One or two will pose for you, and as you focus with your camera, a third and possibly a fourth will climb your leg and ride on your back. The first time this happened, it so felt like a rodent ran up my leg. Yes, I yelled, and yes I am glad most of the people there didn’t speak English.

I had read warnings that the monkeys are tame, but also little thieves … and I’ll be darned if one little friend didn’t fidget with my backpack for a while and then pluck the rubber band from my hair, before he lept in the air and ran away. The rubber band, little guy? Really? (I imagined him snapping it and shooting his monkey friends with it.)

On the train back to Ayutthaya, I saw probably the most unsettling thing. A poor physically impaired beggar, scooting on his bottom, with one foot tucked under him, going down the aisle in the train, dodging vendors, with one maimed, non-functional leg out in front, as if to point the way and part the crowd. So upsetting … and yes, I have read about it my entire life in the Good Book, but in Thailand I have now seen people suffering from various degrees of Leprosy. The saddest thing … it is treatable now, correct? Several of the afflicted were begging around the palace in Bangkok.

For part of the Lop Buri train ride, I had to stand. Not a big deal, when you have just seen someone who can’t. But as soon as a seat opened up, three or four Thais pointed me toward the open seat. Were they just that polite and hospitable, or ready to get my big arse out of the aisle?

Beauty and Ugliness …

Know what I saying?