Eye of the Tiger

Crossing Thailand By Train
  |  Gorp.com

It's about 600 hundred miles from the southern border of Thailand to Bangkok as the crow flies, but distances tend to lose meaning in third world travel. Buses and trains in this region gauge length not in miles but in time, and the long, constricted hours can stretch into days of rumbling slowly and circuitously towards the desired location.

Having witnessed the finer points of bus travel through Malaysia, Jill and I decided to try our luck on the train. It offered the possibility of no traffic, better scenery, and little chance of plunging off some deserted road with a crazed driver and four dozen screaming passengers.

Crossing the Thailand-Malaysian border in Sungai Kolok, we race to the train station just ahead of the daily monsoon shower. To our dismay, the ticket attendant tells us second class is full. The computer is down, he says, no way to check if a seat has opened up. From the forlorn look of the rustic station, we're stunned to hear the computer even exists. It's like a spoof of an IBM ad, but we're damned if we'll wait for the repair technician to ride out of the jungle on an elephant, so we buy third-class and walk the length of the train through the mud and rain.

Inside, the ceiling fans rattle, the ones that worked at least, and rain from open windows drenches the wooden benches and flows down the floor in a muddy brown river. Jill goes to find a conductor, but encounters only childish men, whistling and shouting to impress her: "You. You. Lady. You. Where you go?"

"I don't know if this is good or bad," she says when she returns, "but at least men are the same everywhere."

While she was away, other passengers and I manage to close the windows. Now third class has warmed up and taken a smell of its own—a pungent stew of sweat, mud, feet, and animals. The old man in the seat next to us lights a cigarette and adds cheap tobacco to the pot pourri.

Thus begins our 19-hour passage to Bangkok.

The bell rings out a warning, and we began the clack-clack, clack-clack rocking rhythm that could soothe even the most indignant of nerves. As we roll out of Sungai Kolok our anguish starts to wash away.

Once underway, we can open the window without too much rain seepage. Half-naked boys run splashing beside the train, arms outstretched for any token we'll toss them.

Moving through the outskirts of town, we watch the train-window spectacle that would define our trip. People love to ham it up for the train. They come out of their huts and shanties to see us pass, and everybody smiles and waves. Even the children stop their can kicking and stick-fights to shout, jump, and be noticed.

I turn to the old man. He puffs his cigarette and smiles a tooth-missing grin.

Suddenly, all my frustrations—with the rain, the smells, and the getting stuck in third class—dissolve. In one of those moments of insight that travel will offer, I realize I can't change what's happened, so I may as well make the best of it. This poor man, I think, is as old as trees. He has no teeth, yet reason to smile. Death may knock on his door, but he won't answer until he finishes his smoke.

Third class suddenly seems a great way to travel. Children poke their heads out the window, feeling the wind in their eyes. Traveling salesmen shower in the sink, then put on clean, pressed clothes they pull magically from filthy bags. Young girls smile at poor boys with too much cologne. There is no pretense in third class—we may all be in the back of the train, but it's still the same view as up in first class.

Not ten minutes from of Sungai Kolok, we spot an elephant chewing silently in the jungle. Rice paddies reflect the clouds and mountains in their placid waters. Village after village rushes past in a blur of green and brown and red and blue.

At Hat Yai, the sun turns orange then red, and twice as many people board as disembark. The new arrivals squeeze in, sitting on the floor, bags, and each other. Others crowd into the bathrooms or the space between cars, tucked into the stairway-platforms with the rushing wind.

As darkness rolls over the foothills, the benches seem to harden as the "Bangkok Express" stops in town after town. Very few people get on or off, yet we wait at each station for ten to fifteen minutes while hawkers board to sell their packaged meals, bottled water, cigarettes and candy. They weave their way through the crowded aisles, doling out food, and somehow manage to jump off just as we get rolling again.

A black-hole darkness swallows the landscape—the light of our windows penetrates but a few feet. There are few lights outside, just an occasional candle in a passing hut. The locust sounds rise, challenging even the train, and passengers grow quiet as they begin dozing.

For me, sleep is a dream. We are crammed four in a booth built for two small people. I cat-nap through the night. Finally I just stare out the window, waiting for the sun.

We stop at dawn beside a small station where women shout the names of foods they sell. I pass a ten Bhat coin for coffee with fried dough. They are sweet and warm.

Outside, dew glistens. Rice paddies again reflect mountains and sky. At Thap Sakae, a rainbow appears over mountains. Then a cell phone rings. Jill and I look at each other: what a discordant sound in third class.

Soon, we leave the Burmese border and rumble towards Central Thailand. Farmland replaced rice paddies. Mountains fall away in the distance. We pass through fewer villages and more towns, each webbed in wires, sprouting antennas and emitting neon.

We hit the sprawl of Bangkok and with it, the smell of civilization. I could reach out and touch passersby as we meandered through the metropolis. The sun baked us in our oven-car. I don't know what smelled worse, the city, or me.

Having passed the night together, the passengers share an unspoken bond, and the man beside me is practicing his English by offering a dissertation on the Thai economy. Over the past decade, he says, Thailand had become an economic powerhouse of South East Asia, a "Tiger" in the language of globalism.

Manufacturing and textiles boomed, and urban Thais enjoyed huge salary increases, gluttonous bonuses, skyrocketing property values and expensive wine with ordinary meals. Living standards quadrupled in a generation.

"But now," he says, "no good."

I nod sympathetically. Even in rural Malaysia I had heard news of the regional crisis.

"No job—no work. Many people—lost."

He refers to the devaluation of the Thai currency, and the ensuing turmoil.

According to writer Vithayakorn Chiangkul, the problem was that economic control had been vested with a few elite conservatives. Business policy was devised to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. A corrupt government went for short-term gains and quick profits, operating without vision. And development policy was aimed at mobilizing foreign investment without concern for building a domestic capital base. In order to become a player on the global market, Thailand prostituted itself as a labor base for larger economies.

Like a bodybuilder junked up on steroids, the economy experienced reckless expansion and high-speed growth. Cell phones were ubiquitous. In the course of five or six years, people went from riding bicycles to driving Hondas, to owning a Mercedes to buying a second. Loans, one writer said, were handed out like candy.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Bhat plummeted from 25 to the dollar to nearly 50. Thousands of jobs were wiped out. The prime minister was forced to resign. The International Monetary Fund was called in, and shockwaves reverberated in markets throughout Asia.

"Thai people—"my friend says, "no good now—they take you money."

As I step off the train at Hualamphong station, into the chaos of gesturing taxi drivers, hawkers and beggars, I would quickly come to learn the full meaning of his insight.

Their taste of the Western lifestyle went sour, and now many Thais are auctioning off estates, BMW's, and diamond necklaces. Ex-millionaires are selling fruit or washing cars. The crime rate has increased as well as amphetamine trade. Hospitals and suicide hotlines are reporting an increase in economy-related depression. Some housewives, I've heard, have turned to prostitution to support their families.

Writers, intellectuals, and even the king are calling for an end to corruption and a return to traditional values, starting with a renunciation of materialism. Thailand's track to the high life may have been a first-class express, but the return trip to stability will be slow and rough going, a lot more like the third-class red-eye that has left Jill and I tired and hungry.

Until the next time, safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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