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 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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