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Tag Archives: Train travel

Wrong Train


I wrote this a little while ago about a two-day span of incredible bad luck that left me feeling unsafe and terrified during a stay that was relatively unmarred by anything remotely dangerous.

Re-reading this now, I sound like I was terrified of poverty. Keep in mind that I had spent the month and a half previous to the incident working at a newspaper based on stories from the townships and was repeatedly told by other journalists that I should never, EVER, for any reason take an unknown train, be out late at night or head into townships without one of them for whatever reason.

This was from people who grew up and lived in Cape Town, South Africa.


I didn’t realize immediately where we went wrong. I was still in a state of shock from the night before. Those tiny, grubby faces surrounding me, the band-aid on the face of the oldest and the crazed look in the eye of the youngest haunted my recent memories of the train station. [“Give me your cell phone.”]

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Train to Chiang Mai: Standing room only

Over the past two weeks, I figure I’ve spent 75-80 hours in transit. Be it a bus, a train or simply waiting for either. That’s almost 5 days out of the last 14. My pores have never felt so clogged, my ass has never been so numb, and never have my ankles been so swollen.

Taking the train into Chiang Mai, however, was a whole new experience on its own. When I asked at the train station about booking advance tickets, they told me it was completely sold out. Considering that it was Songkran (Thai New Year), I wasn’t surprised. However, they did tell me that I could show up before the train and get a ticket and that’s exactly what I did. Prepared to board the 5:00 train, I show up at the station only to be told that they have standing room only tickets.

“Standing room only?” I asked doubtfully, as if there was a possible communication error. Nope, they really meant standing. So, calling on my sense of adventure and desire to pay as little as possible, I buy a ticket.

The difference between the tourist-centric sleeper and the second and third class trains are night and day on a regular day, however this is Songkran where everyone is heading home to welcome the new year with family and friends, so when they said ‘standing room only,’ they really meant it. People were packed in like sardines, filing the aisles and sitting on the open stairs, with only a guardrail beside them to prevent falling to their death. So I claim my spot where the trains connect and prepare myself for a long train ride. With one foot on one train, and the other foot on the other train, I took deep breaths, imagined myself doing the splits should the trains detach for any godforsaken reason, and tried to ignore images of my life passing before my eyes.

It really wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the people constantly moving the length of the entire train selling food and drinks, forcing me to suck it in and push myself against the chains keeping me from falling off the train. If those sellers weren’t there, I would have been able to sit, just like the lucky souls who claimed a spot in front of the open doorway, or on the stairs.

Nonetheless, I made friends with a group of guys who were playing the guitar and singing some rather beautiful Thai songs. I tried coaxing them to sing a song in English, despite their combined knowledge of three phrases; “Where are you from?” “What is your name?” and “where are you going?”

Eventually they started singing Zombie by the Cranberries (which is actually quite a popular song here, I imagine because of the simplicity of the words). Then they sang Bruno Mars, The lazy song, and I was able to teach them how to say certain words and sing along with them. Singing and laughing with them made the time fly, and then eventually it was 5 hours later.

It may have been the pathetic way that I was trying to sleep standing up, or maybe it was in the even sadder way that I started trying to sit between people moving between the trains that caught the attention of a Thai woman and her New Zealand husband, but they set down a mat for me and I sat at their feet for the next 4 hours until I couldn’t feel my butt, and realized there were seats open in 3rd class where I caught a few hours sleep before arriving in Chiang Mai.

Having traveled on the sleeper, standing in third class, and sitting in second class on my return from Chiang Mai, I can honestly say that I like the atmosphere in third class better because you can truly enjoy the Thai people that you are traveling with and anticipate the next person to walk up the aisle singing “nam yen, bia,” (Cold water, beer). To truly travel as Thai people travel, take a third class car, but maybe only if you’re going a short way – most wouldn’t enjoy my uncomfortable 12 hours. However, for a painless ride, the sleeper really had it figured out. The rocking motion of a train can put anyone to sleep (even standing!) and the comfort and privacy of those bunks is surprising.

Then again, my ticket was only 200 baht ($6.50) whereas sleepers can run anywhere from 650 to 1000 ($21 – $31.50) and when you’re on a budget and already living in Thai Baht, that makes a big difference.

It was worth all the pain once I got to Chiang Mai and started seriously living it up for Songkran. I have a lot of research and writing to do in the next couple days to do the holiday any justice!

Using Public Transport to get to know the locals

Riding the train daily is giving me real insight into the lives of the people that I routinely see. Waiting for the train to leave Cape Town station is always a buzz of activity. People swarm the platforms yelling “chippies, cool drink?” as they lug their boxes of multi-flavoured chips (Greek lamb is actually very good) and buckets of soft drinks for sale to waiting commuters. Apart from this ingenious idea of making money, there are blind beggars that ride the trains. Yeah, we have this type in Toronto, but they’re the “deaf” people who hand out cards. These guys ride the train with someone who can see and collect change while they sing and play a keyboard hanging from their shoulders with rope.
These are all part of the many everyday things that I wish I could photograph. I don’t pull out my camera at every opportunity for two reasons: 1, I don’t want to be robbed, 2. I don’t want to look like a tourist. I always knew that fitting in would be a struggle, but one reporter warned me harshly that I shouldn’t even talk on the train because people will instantly know that I am a foreigner.
Yes, I have an “accent” and it’s not the “aboot” that everyone thinks Canadians talk like, but I guess it’s just more the lack of an Afrikaans accent missing from my speech.

For now I hope you’re all enjoying your heat wave while I’m sitting here in a long sleeved sweater shivering a little (but not enough to even worry about.. haha.)
It’s hilarious here seeing people layering it on for their winter while I’m wearing a thin sweater and maybe a jacket. Then again, here at the office they’re laughing about today’s “heat wave” in Toronto. Apparently they had a heat wave a few years ago where it was above 40 degrees all week. And that’s not “what it felt like” that’s what the thermometer read! SO glad I’m not here during summer! haha.