inside thoughts on China and beyond

Thailand Express (TT.1)

Thailand ExpressLet’s start by saying that we are in the year 2557. That’s about how old Buddha would have been had he still been around, which, in many ways here in Thailand, he still is. We -my family members and I- haven’t really changed a lot since we left China in the year 2014, but gosh, it does feel ages ago. Nor has Thailand since the last time I was here, which must have been somewhere around 2532. I am always astonishing how, each time I revisit a place after a long time, these memories (or at times just deja vu’s), seem only a few days ago and at the same time from a different lifetime. It leaves me with a pang of good-old-days-long-gone sadness mixed with an eerie sense of disappointment to see all that has changed. Even when these changes are for the good. Even here, where nothing had really changed. Not the smiles and kap kun kaaa and kap kun kap’s; not the devout prayers of passengers when they gently move their hands together in front of their nose whenever the bus rushes by yet another Buddha altar; not the street noises that always sound louder in this dense humidity. Not even the trains that could easily be the masterpieces of any museum. And we are to take the 9:06 from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Our taxi to the station went in the wrong direction (as they used to do -on purpose!- during my first visit) and because my day had started of wrong, I put up an act that made everyone else in the cab very quiet. I was about to pull the driver away from behind the wheel, was it not that he started to apologize and reset the meter. Instantly feeling better I calmed down and he continued apologizing. All in all, by the time we arrived at the station (20 minutes early) the driver had reset his meter 3 times, I felt irreparably embarrassed by my own conduct when for a moment it looked like he was going to pay us. He didn’t, I’m glad to say, because as it was, I definitely hadn’t felt this bad in years. Friendly people, the Thai.

The station was small, yet it still employed a good handful of people. It had its station master and its station master assistant (each with their own hangout sign in front of their offices that seemed straight out of one of those black and white Charley Chaplin movie), a cashier and some others whose roles weren’t quite clear to me. And by the look of it, not to them either.  A dozen stray dogs ran around, clearly at home here. And all that for two rails that you could freely crossover or sit on or sleep at, unless of course, a train is using it. The train schedule was displayed on a large notice board -all in Thai- one that obviously hadn’t been changed ever since the British engineers built this line more than a 100 years ago. Whenever a train arrived or set off, the station master skillfully waved his 2 flags, one green, one red. The station bell was rung -also by the station master- to signal your last chance to board the train.  All this under the watchful eye of King Bhumibol, whose life size portrait behind an incense altar is the center of each station, as it has been for the last 70 years. Time here doesn’t rush, it crawls. But this timelessness may not last though. Not only will the King’s days come to an end (although he does seem to live forever), but far above His Majesty’s eyes the unfinished remnants of a high-speed rail remind us that, whenever Thailand has money and is not in turmoil, they too will ‘progress’. It’s all a matter of time. It just may take them another 70 years.

Our train couldn’t wait for that and arrived right on time at 9:06. We thanked the station master, who was too busy banging the clapper against the bell to notice us, and quickly got on. The adventure could begin! -wasn’t it that we couldn’t find our carriage, let alone our seat, and before we knew what was happening, a boy took our tickets and there was panic all around. With assuming authority, the boy was obviously on his own turf and knew what he was doing. He must be the carriage master, surely, and this was his train, and, as we soon learned, not ours. We were on the wrong train. Trains always have delay, didn’t we know that? We disembarked at the next station -with its own flagging station master and bell and King- and waited for our train. Delayed too. Another inheritance of decent British railway design, a reliability on its one.

Our seats were near the backdoor, numbers 1,2 and 3. I am telling you this so the next time you’re here, you know what seats to avoid. Each time the doors slid open a cool breeze gushed in accompanied by sand dust and screeching train noises of passing rails and a strong smell of raw metal. The doors never really closed. The train shook and jerked and blew its horn every other minute as it slowly plowed through the timeless landscape of central Thailand. For an Express train, it surely took its time. It suited us fine, though. We planned this train travel as a goal on its own, an experience we would remember forever, not merely a means to get us from A to B, or, in this case, from B to C. We passed rice fields and villages of pole houses with rusty tin roofs and slumps on river sides and jungle hills and tunnels and all the while, my wife was sleeping and my son was listening to music, both oblivious of the outside world. The success of this trip now depended on me. After all, we choose to go by train rather than by plane to admire the landscapes. I had planned to write and read a lot on the train, but so far -and I have no idea how far that is- I hadn’t seen or written one letter of the alphabet. I just needed to look around. I needed to. (One of the many urges I can’t control, as if I’m worried that life would pass by just when I’m not looking!) God forbid that I would miss an ancient tomb or a stunning scenery. So far, I haven’t missed a thing. Nor has my wife.

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