By Train - 25 Nov 2004

Sent: 25 Nov 2004
Subject: Travel for travels sake

My journey east began at Hua-Lamphong Station in the heart of Bangkok. I purchased a ticket for Aranya Prathet, the Thai border town used as an easy entrance into the Nation of Cambodia.
My destination was not Cambodia. My destination was only Aranya Prathet. It was a journey for the journeys sake. It was an attempt to step away from our standard traveling concepts, to focus on the path, instead of the end.
The way people travel this day and age strips away the journey aspect and rushes us to our destination as fast as our modern technology can carry us. The destination is the sole focus and the journey is minimalized. This is very much the case in Thailand with many domestic flights to tourist hot spots. The VIP bus also promotes a get-there-with-as-little-trouble-as-possible philosophy. The minivan seems to epitomize this concept of travel. Get there as fast as possible even if the ride itself is sheer torture; bouncing up and down in the back of a van for six hours with an underpowered air-con forcing out warm, stale air, while the driver maneuvers insanely between two eighteen wheel trucks and a loaded VIP bus.
Life is a journey and one certainly doesn’t rush to get to the end of that. Therefore I decided to take a journey instead of a trip. I also like trains, so my focus naturally turned to the State Railway of Thailand.
I purchased my ticket in a short line and rambled around the sprawling central station called Hua-Lampong. There were at least a hundred different shops with anything from western “blizzards” to old fashioned “Cow Mun Gai” (chicken on rice and spicy sauce served with a steaming bowl of soup). This is one of my personal favorites so I opted for the old fashioned meal in preparation for a long train trip.
As I finished lunch, I glanced at my watch and noticed I had under 5 minutes before the train departed. I dashed over to platform number 13, walked down the length of the train and hoped aboard on the second to last car.
To my surprise it was almost full. There were still a few seats left so I plopped down next to a young man reading a newspaper. The train departed at 1:05 and I looked at my watch again. It was 1:03 and counting. I looked around the car and saw all kinds of people. There were old ladies with big bags of vegetables and young girls in business suits. There were young men in T-shirts and jeans carrying small duffle bags, along with old men with butterfly collar shirts, and dark brown slacks. It was an interesting mix of people. The guy across from me was rather large and we had to alternate knees because the space between us was quite limited. Next to him sat a young lady who already had her head against the wall of the car. She was dozing off and then lifting her head suddenly as if startled. She gave me a strangely frightened look so I tried to smile in return. She looked out the window and instead the guy across from me smiled. The guy next to me ruffled his newspaper and I looked around some more.

The train was comprised of only five 3rd class cars with one engine at the tail end of the train. The ticket cost a measly 48 Baht. I later learned it was equal to 1.2 Baht per station. There was no air-con, only small circular fans rotating above our heads. I had expected this and knew that once we got started the breeze would cool the compartment down. But at the beginning before the train started the heat was stifling. I could feel it pushing down on my head and shoulders as my back started to sweat. It was even hard to breath because of the noon sun heating up the car like an oven. I watched a bead of sweat trickle down the temple of my associate across from me. He grimaced and then smiled again. I was glad I had waited so long before boarding the train.
Finally there was a big lurch. We stopped again for just a moment and then there was another big lurch and we slowly began our march out of the train station. I listened to the slow clack-clack of the wheels and prayed for a breeze.
As we picked up speed the girl’s hair started to lift up and the guys newspaper began to ruffle. The guy across from me looked considerably relieved and suddenly I felt the breeze rush across my forehead, back around the bench and down my back. Ahhhh.
“Much better,” I thought.
I stared out the window and watched old tin roofs slide by on either side. The corrugated iron seemed to radiate the noonday heat in shimmering waves. I imagined bacon and eggs sizzling on the overheated roofs. The proximity to the railroad tracks here in town seemed to indicate a pretty harsh level of poverty. The small huts and randomly constructed buildings were nestled tightly together forming an almost continuous sea of multilevel corrugated roofing.
Heat still seemed to pour into the train car from the surrounding buildings and motor traffic. We crossed a few streets with armies of motorcycles waiting for the train guard to raise. I watched as several expressways and roads swerved close to the tracks and then away again in graceful arcs.
We began to pick up speed and that special train sound rang pleasantly in my ears and through the soles of my feet. Cickity-clack, clickity-clack, as the breeze increased and started to cool everyone in the car. It felt good to be moving and the train began its gentle swaying which always reminds me of being rocked to sleep in a cradle. It is a slow-motion sort of movement where your head seems almost disconnected from your body as it wobbles back and forth along with the train’s slow, swerving motion, reflecting changes in direction.
We slowed down again and stopped at the first station. To my surprise a few people actually got off the train and then, as I expected, about 30 people got into our car. The train became quite crowded with people standing in the isles with big bags of clothes and groceries.
Again we picked up speed and this time trees and sections of grass began to appear on either side of the tracks. There were still many industrial buildings and factories, but here and there, were trees and little corners of vibrant green.
Some people have told me that cities tend to absorb and radiate much more heat then the countryside. Sure enough, when we rolled into the first clump of trees at the next station I couldn’t believe the cooling effect it had. The temperature of the breeze dropped at least a degree or two and the shade was very comforting compared to the boiling inner-city sun. I smiled a big grin and the guy across from me smiled too. We had some excellent nonverbal communication going on.
Again, only few people disembarked and we started up again with a jerking, bouncing motion. Finally we left the city behind and the bright green fields of rice began to dominate the scenery. There is something special about that vibrant, almost neon green of new rice. To look out of the train car and watch it slip past in waves was incredibly pacifying. Occasionally we would pass under clusters of trees and the shade was like a quick wash in the face with cool water. There were many brown and white cranes hoping around the rice paddies and they would leap into the air as the train rumbled past, glide across the field and land gracefully a hundred yards from the train tracks.
As the scenery rushed by, the afternoon sun flickered into the train car in periodic splashes. The breeze whipped across my face and blew my hair around into weird bunches. The smell was green grass in the sun with occasional whiffs of cooking food as we zipped passed small towns. Narrow klongs followed the train tracks and there were tiny huts next to huge suspended fishing nets. The nets were held by large, square, wood structures with a long pole leading back to the small shack. The pole allowed the net to be dropped and raised to catch all kinds of fish. Here and there, interspersed in the klongs were small lotus ponds with a few soft pink and white blossoms suspended just above the water.
As we thundered across bridges the upper parts of the steel frame would rush past the window. The first time it happened, it made me jump. It was less then a foot from the open window. These large black girders would suddenly rip past the window as the train thundered across a 10 meter span and then they were both gone. The noise returned to the continual clickity-clack, and the girders vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
Our first major stop, the City of Chachoengsao was still a long distance away. I settled back into my seat and pulled a book out of my backpack. I was reading “Four Reigns” by Kukrit Pramoj. It was a translated version thankfully, and delved into palace life over the period of four reigns from King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) to King Ananda Mahidol (King Rama the VIII). It was well written and easy to get into. I became absorbed as the train rolled on clickity-clack, clickity-clack under my feet, vibrating through my chair.
An hour flickered by and then, suddenly, I realized that most of the passengers we getting off the train. Everyone in my area disembarked so I pounced on the best seat right next to the window. Only a few people boarded and then we slipped slowly out of the Chachoengsao Station. A young man about my age sat down across from me and smiled. The scenery slipped by and I asked him a question about something outside the train car. I can’t quite remember what it was about but anyways we got to talking about the train ride and life in Bangkok verses life in the countryside. I never got his name but we had a nice time.
His parents still lived in the countryside and he went into Bangkok to work in an air-con factory. His family needed some kind of steady income. His parents were getting older and couldn’t work the fields as well. His younger brother lived on the farm with their parents and handled a lot of the planting on different plots. They owned about 200 hectors and the older brother would come out every month or two to help with the planting and hiring of labor and buying new equipment. I asked him which life he liked more and he said both. He loved his time in Bangkok with friends but he was also very loyal to his father and mother.
I asked him if he had a girlfriend and he laughed. He explained that he didn’t have enough money or time for a girl. Not yet at least. I laughed as well and we agreed that they were awfully expensive but wonderful if you could afford one.
With our banter, an hour or two quickly passed and then we discovered that the train was emptying out. I can’t remember which stop he departed on, but we shook hands and smiled and he stepped off the train. By that time, I was almost alone in that car. I decided to pull down my guitar and tune it up. I whipped into a few recent songs I had learned and tried to pace the rhythm with the train’s clickity-clack, clickity-clack.
The sun was just a few inches above the horizon and falling fast. It was the perfect time to be sitting in a train car with the late evening sun slanting in through the dusty windows, playing guitar and enjoying the rumble and sway of the train car over the tracks. I felt at peace and came to realize why I needed a journey to get away from Bangkok.
I continued to play the guitar, and, after a while, a few kids came down the isle from another car. They sat down next to me and started to babble and chatter between themselves while listening to me. I finished the next song and stopped. They looked at me for a second and then cheered. I asked if any of them would like to play my guitar. One older guy agreed and began a famous pop song and everyone sang along with a few of the guys howling during the chorus. The guy handed my guitar back and I played a fast paced American song. Unfortunately none of them knew it. When I finished they cheered just the same and I handed the guitar back for another Thai song. We spent the next half hour exchanging guitar songs until, to my surprise, we arrived at Aranya Prathet.
All the kids said goodbye and spilled out of the train car. It was twilight and I packed up my guitar and strolled out into the deep purple of a humid evening. The stars were popping out of the purple sky as I looked around at all the tuk tuks and bicycle taxis haggling for passengers.
I decided to walk out of the station into the small bustling town of Aranya Prathet.