Friday, March 11
17:40 – Since my last post I have survived another 16 hour overnight bus, this time from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Unlike the bus I rode into Luang Prabang, this one had fully reclining seats as opposed to “cozy” double berths. It was an uneventful trip except for the early morning border crossing where a 300 pound man who was in the line beside me suffered an epileptic seizure. He went down like a Douglas Fir, taking out the 100 pound female customs officer and smashing the flimsy table she had been seated at. The man was okay after about 10 minutes but the customs agent was winded and possibly broke a rib or two. I doubt this was a ploy to avoid interrogation but if it was, it worked! Once the man was able to stand up, security guards escorted him through the line and straight out to our bus without so much as a question or a check of his passport!
So, back to Chiang Mai. I’ve been here for four days and I knew after about 15 minutes that I’ve seen all I need to see. Some people love Chiang Mai and I get that; I’m just in a different space right now. It’s time to return to big city Bangkok and do some final planning before I head off on the European leg of my adventure – Switzerland, Spain, the Camino de Santiago, San Fermin Festival and a few weeks in Portugal with friends Patrick and Raymond.
I’m writing from a bench in the train station in Chaing Mai. If State Railway of Thailand’s Train No. 14 is on time, I should be in Bangkok in 13-1/2 hours. But who’s counting?
Saturday, March 12.
03:00 – That’s three in the morning in case you were wondering. I’m wide awake and have been ever since I boarded the train nine hours ago. The issue isn’t so much that I have an upper berth in AC2S (air-conditioned, second class, sleeper car) and the porter made up the beds about an hour into the trip – which means I’m confined to my upper berth while the two armchairs below have been converted into the lower berth. No, the issue here is that nobody is actually sleeping on that lower berth… or in any of the 24 berths on this car. The motley collection of passengers includes 20 well lubricated French tourists who are traveling as a group, a middle-aged man with a Cambodian passport, a female porter who went AWOL as soon as she made up the beds, and myself. I’m sharing a four-berth cabin with a French couple and the Cambodian man.
03:10 – Who pops the cork on another bottle of wine at 3:10 AM? Jacques and Addie, that’s who. After ignoring me for the first nine hours, Addie is now very drunk and very talkative. She claims that she thought it was just “luggage” under the blanket on the top berth. Addie is a very bad liar! In what is likely the truth, she claims that she was born in the UK and only moved to France in 2014 when she changed schools. She knew Jacques vaguely from school but it wasn’t until the first day of this organized tour that they decided to “shack up” rather than pay the single supplement at hotels. They appear to be getting along just fine. Jacques has spent the last 20 minutes tutoring Addie on the fine art of French kissing.
03:20 – Not only do I have Jacques and Addie to deal with, but most of the others in their moist and vociferous group have been dropping by our cabin to chat. Actually, chat isn’t the right word. They talk loudly and laugh even louder. When six or eight of them aren’t congregating in our cabin or just outside in the hall, they’re telling jokes so loudly that people in the cabin at the far end of the car can hear. I don’t know what bothers me the most: the fact they’re keeping me awake or that I don’t fully understand their seemingly hilarious stories. At least they’re happy drunks, I’ll give them that much.
03:38 – The Cambodian is having his own little party out in the space between train cars. Want to know what he’s doing? Well, he’s watching porn on his phone and alternating between long drags on a hand-rolled cigarette and horking up ping pong ball-sized gobs of phlegm that he spits onto the tracks below. At least that’s his intended target. Some of his most productive work has blown back onto the windows of the train. A real charmer, this guy.
03:45 – My window doesn’t close perfectly so there’s a high-pitched whistle about 10 inches from my right ear. This is annoying but at least the window closes well enough that I don’t have to be concerned with splatter.
03:50 – I’m sure there’s a team of people in Cupertino as I write who are trying to determine if it’s a glitch within iTunes shuffle mode or if some guy in Thailand really is listening to John Prine, Depeche Mode, Edith Piaf, Prince, Johnny Cash, Sweet, Marilyn Manson, Fefe Dobson, The Proclaimers, Sia, Lenny Kravitz, The Smiths, Andy’s Automatics, Dwight Yoakum, Justin Bieber, Pussy Tourette (that’s NOT a Bieber pseudonym), Chuck E. Weiss, New Order, Ed Sheeran, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Tom Waits, Bob Marley, Pet Shop Boys, Matt Mays, New Country Rehab, Sam Roberts, Swedish House Mafia, The Wombats, Lady Gaga, Green Day, Gord Bamford, Hayes Carll, Erasure, and The Ramones.
06:10 – When I mentioned that I was stuck in a train with immature and inconsiderate people who know each other from school, you probably assumed they were students, right? Sorry, students everywhere. The average age in this group is closer to 55. In fact, it’s probably 55 on the button as one half of each couple has recently retired from the same French school board and many civil servants in France can retire in their 50s. Thankfully the wine-soaked teachers are now down for the count.
07:15 – We pull into Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station right on time. I always marvel how these older trains can be so punctual while Canada’s VIA Rail trains are almost ALWAYS late.
07:45 – I still have a Starbucks wifi credit left over from my last visit to Bangkok so I’ve found a cafe near Siam Centre and will attempt to get connected. This is easier said than done. Not many businesses in Thailand offer truly “free” wifi and those that do will often make you jump through hoops to log on. Government regulations require that you provide a street address, email address, and your passport number. Enter a fake number and somehow they know! Starbucks is one of the few wifi services that doesn’t require a local phone number to which they text you a PIN yet it still takes me a good 10 minutes to get connected. Let the search for a hostel begin!
10:30 – It’s a bit out of the way but Once Again Hostel offers early check-in so that’s where I’m headed. This will require a combination of metro, sky train and tuk tuk. I’ve spent enough time in Bangkok that I now know my way around much of the public transit system – and it’s pretty vast.
11:10 – I’m in the back of a tuk tuk, writing a note to myself and keeping an eye on the blue dot on Google Maps. Thankfully this app works offline so I can navigate for the tuk tuk driver. When I flagged him down and told him where I was going, he quoted 400 Baht. It wasn’t too hard to talk him down to 60 Baht. Only after we started moving did he question me about where we were going. Essentially he agreed to take me anywhere in the city for 60 Baht or CA$2.27.
11:20 – I have no idea how I found anything before Google Maps. The app uses GPS and works offline so I am able to direct the driver right to the front door of the hostel. It looks more like a $400 a night boutique hotel than $18 backpacker hostel! I’m okay with that.
12:50 – I order a latte while they try to find my reservation. Apparently very few people book through HostelWorld.com and then show up at the hostel 15 minutes later so they need a while to confirm my booking. I was fading quickly but the latte is a good pick-me-up.
13:00 – Some might find the sleeping pods at Once Again Hostel a tad claustrophobic but I’m okay with security gates (you don’t have to close them) and privacy curtains (you really should close them). Unless there’s something that I’m missing, this is a 5-star hostel with fleabag hotel rates.
18:10 – I’m back on the skytrain and headed to the opposite end of the city to meet up with an old friend from Canada. Howie is originally from Norway but he worked in the US for a few years and for the better part of a decade with the Bill Cass Stable at Mohawk Racetrack. Unfortunately he had to return to Norway around the time I left Canada so we’ve both been out of the racing game for the same length of time. He’s currently managing the front-of-house staff at a Thai restaurant in London. He’s in Thailand for his boss’ wedding and a little beach time.
23:45 – It was great to catch up with Howie and swap racetrack stories over frosty jugs of Thai beer. There aren’t many people who work directly with the horses as long as Howie did and then just get up and walk away from the game. If I had to lay odds, I’d say it’s “1-9” that Howie is caring for two or three racehorses within the year. His first question for me was about when I might return to the track. I told him that it’s a possibility but at this point I really don’t have any plans. For several years I’ve known that my two-year adventure will conclude with a 900km hike across the north of Spain (the Camino de Santiago) and it’s on that mostly solitary journey that I expect to “figure things out.”