Talk about contrasts. Last night we were in the swankiest rooftop bar imaginable, sipping our fifteen-dollar cocktails, and now we’re in hell. Lit-erally, as my daughter would say (and I’m inclined to agree with her in this case). What is this hell, you ask? I’ll tell you. It’s a third-class train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border, which my thrifty son thought would be a good way to save money. $1.50 for a seven-hour train ride—if you’re a foreigner, that is. For Thais, it’s free.
But let me begin at the beginning. We drag ourselves out of our slab-like beds at 4:30 in the morning, pack up our mega-sized suitcases (why, oh why, did we pack so much???), haul them down the unnaturally steep and narrow stairs and across the street to the train station. It’s a vast, airy place roofed with huge, arched translucent panels, much like the train stations in Italy, but embellished with little oriental touches: shrines, golden Buddhas, gold leaf and the ubiquitous pictures of the King, who gazes out at his subjects with gentle bemusement.
Nick comes back with our four tickets, and we walk along the train, trying to find the least crowded car. All of Bangkok seems to have beaten us here, even though it’s only five a.m. We finally spy a car with a few empty rows of seats, and hoist our massive suitcases on board.
Nick puts his backpack down on one of the empty seats and is immediately reprimanded in loud, squawking Thai by a squat, powerfully-built woman wearing a dirty orange and black apron in a skull-and-crossbones pattern. She’s missing a considerable number of teeth and has streaks of white down each cheek that look like warpaint. (We later find out this is a tradition during Thai New Year.)
This woman and her four fierce accomplices are zealously guarding the first four rows of seats. They say they need the room for their kettles and chopping boards, since they’re going to prepare food and sell it on the train. Nick attempts to argue that they haven’t paid for the extra seats, but since the seats are free for Thais, that argument doesn’t carry much weight. Even Nick, who is 6’2” and knows how to defend himself, would think twice about tangling with this woman. She looks very strong, and besides, she’s holding a butcher knife as long as my arm. Nick has told us how Thais are generally quiet, unassuming and nonconfrontational people, but I guess there are always exceptions. We immediately begin to refer to them as the food trolls. The one in the skull-and-crossbones apron we christen Pirate Troll.
So we’re relegated, together with our four huge suitcases (why, oh why. . .), to the already crowded center aisle. We stake out our territory. In spite of the fact that the train car’s already full to capacity, people keep getting on and pushing past us. Those fortunate souls who got here at three a.m. and thus have seats look on with stoic forbearance as our large American posteriors are repeatedly pushed into their faces in our attempts to make room for the people squeezing by. Naturally, there’s no air conditioning, and the crush of unwashed bodies makes for some interesting aromas. Mercifully the windows are open, and as the train finally moves out of the station with a mighty jerk, the air begins to circulate, which is a huge relief. Still, I’m thinking, it’s going to be a long seven hours.
We try to balance ourselves on the edges of our suitcases and glare at the food trolls who ignore us as they busily go about preparing their wares. They’ve got a convenient set-up—whatever garbage is produced during food prep is simply tossed out the window.
On top of being hot, tired, already footsore, and thirsty, we’re starving, since we’ve had no breakfast. We’re not about to buy anything from the food trolls, though, not only because they’re our sworn enemies, but because we’ve seen how they prepare the food. At one point Pirate Troll drops something on the unimaginably filthy floor, reaches down, scrapes it up with the spatula she’s using to cut mangos and tosses it out the window, then continues to prepare the fruit with the unwashed utensil. We look at each other and decide, okay, we’ll go hungry. How bad can it be? I dig in my backpack and come up with a small squashed Korean Air brownie. I painstakingly divide it into four postage-stamp-sized morsels, which each of us savors as if it’s his last meal.
Next week: We make it alive–barely–to the Cambodian border.