I loathe Corona. Not, mind you, as much as I loathe many other beers in the Anheuser-Busch family, the near-monopoly crap-beer megacorp that co-owns it and is guilty of all of the usual predatory and monopolistic practices that characterize all corporate incarnations of lower-chakra energies. But it’s still a sucky brew, and given a choice between drinking it and drinking nothing (not even water) I will gladly choose nothing and thank you gratefully for the privilege. A Mexican coworker mocked it to me years ago as the peasants’ beer in Mexico, dolled up with a slice of lime to make it into the sort of silly ritual that American bros and bro-ettes would buy into as an entertainment path of least resistance for neurons challenged by anything much more complicated than a remote control. (I confess, some of the words in that analysis are mine and not his, but the concept of the dolled up peasants’ beer is straight from the source.)
That said, kudos to Corona’s advertising team for capturing why this next entry in my blog has been so delayed:
Replace beers and babes with fish-and-chips and ESO (and a few other things) and you’ve pretty much got it. I’m going to try to knock this entry out today, to get at least partly caught up before I go on to the next domicile, and to get it out while most of you still have the day off to read it. 🙂
It was Friday, just over a week ago, that I took the sleeper train out of Chiang Mai, hoping to escape the rather literally suffocating air from the Burning Season. I had my usual breakfast at Coffee Monster in the morning (playing ESO over their great WiFi), told the staff that I’d be gone for a few weeks (they took the news stoically, but I could see they were deeply affected), and then I went back to my air conditioned room at the B2 Black Hotel next door, and packed. At 11:50, I checked out, and rode the motorbike down to the rental place to drop it off. I asked the British expat Robin about a taxi or songthaew (pronounced “song-tau”) to the train station, and while he said it would be easy enough to grab a songthaew, they’re roofed but otherwise largely open trucks and with all the car exhaust problems I’d been having I thought I’d be wiser to take an enclosed car with AC. Robin had offered to walk me over to the next-door hotel and ask them to order one for me, though he warned me it would be more expensive than a songthaew (like 250 baht instead of 150), and when I said I’d take him up on that offer I got a slightly disgusted vibe from him despite his polite appearance. I think I was being a little too cluelessly helpless for his tastes but to hell with that. I have always relied on the kindness of people I’m paying money for services to, and walking a fairly close knife’s edge of being sick from breathing, I’d gladly spend an extra $3 to avoid being sicker.
This turned out to be a rather horrible error. The unmarked “taxi” that arrived was more like somebody’s toothless, struggling uncle had offered to give me a lift in his late-90’s model, 4-door sedan, all he could afford since the Walmart cut back on his hours. (To be clear, his problems at the Walmart are hardly his fault, but when you’re expecting some variant of a Yellow Taxi….) We loaded my backpack, and the smaller bag holding my now-pointless scooter helmet, the tupperware left over from Damien’s party, and the snack foods within it, into the warm car and set off. The AC was on. By which I mean that the power was on and air was coming out, and the air might have even been cooler than the surrounding temperature but if it was it wasn’t by much and it had no chance of competing with the prior, ambient, cookie-baking state of the vehicle, which had built up vast reserves of heat over the morning until Uncle was obliged to take a fare. It felt a bit warm when I got in, and within 10 minutes of enclosed, sun-drenched driving felt like a low-grade Swedish sauna and I was desperately regretting not having taken a songthaew after all.
Uncle wrangled his way through a surprising number of side streets, trying to get to the Superhighway that wraps clockwise around the city, from Nimman on the northwest, past the train station on the east side, and thence south to parts unknown. I’m guessing that the side streets were an attempt to avoid traffic on the default route, because (a) the default route is really simple (south a few blocks from where we started to Huay Kaew Road, east 1 kilometer, and then right onto the Superhighway and around), and (b) I’ve seen how the traffic can get on Huay Kaew. But regardless of his reasons, he worked his internal GPS, I worked my sweat glands, and together we made it to the train station at around 1pm, leaving me with around 3 hours until my train left. The station wasn’t air-conditioned, but it can’t have been over 98º and it was a largely wall-less building with a bit of occasional breeze, so it was Ok. Nothing like escaping a hideously uncomfortable traveling sauna box to make you appreciate honest, open-air, shaded heat. I bought a liter bottle of ice water, and settled down at a cafe(ish) table to wait and let my high-tech, wicking shirt do its thing, while I occupied myself with reading, snacking on bits of food in my luggage, and people watching. The highlights: an friendly Indian woman who asked me to watch her stuff while she went to the restroom, and then recommended I stay in Hua Hin sometime (on the beach, quiet, great internet); a group of school children who came in on a train and looked wordlessly at my extra chairs until I noticed and gestured for them to take them and then helped the smaller kids move them; and someone who looked like my former coworker Raymond from a distance (but clearly couldn’t be so I didn’t call out). Curiously, Raymond sent me an e-mail within a day, asking me how I was doing, so yaay psychic connections.
At some point people started getting on our train, one or two at a time, and I decided to also, about 1/2 an hour before our 4:00 departure. Here’s a little scenic bit of the train station, with my train on the left. I should note that nearly every reference to the Chiang Mai train station that I’ve seen mentions that it used to look really nice, before the Allies bombed it in World War II. Let it go people. Let it go.
First class was car #2, and the compartments were not bad at first glance. Here’s a few pictures:
A few things to note. First, there was a pillow and fold-up mattress stashed above the door where I’m standing taking the picture, and some clothes hooks on the wall around it. Second, the sink briefly displays some innocuous little bugs when opened, but they quickly vanish from sight so no harm done. Third, the fold out desk that you don’t see next to the window required some significant repair work by me before it would, in fact, fold out. It really wanted to just hang on loose hinges; probably tired (like the rest of the room), and it quite never reached the Platonic Ideal of a level surface. Fourth, the AC was awesome after my time in the station (and “cab”!), a bit less so when I came to understand that it was not adjustable, and the room was either too cold and breezy or too still and warm (I’ve had worse). The bathroom down the hall was a horror, warmish, noisy, with a flooded floor that made me quite determined not to drop trou until I arrived someplace vastly more civilized (like a hole dug in a forest floor). (FYI, I was successful in my goal, though no forest was involved.)
I’ll confess that, on arrival, I was fairly pleased with the place, but its pain points developed over time and I came to be reminded yet again that “First Class” in the developing world is entirely relative to the surrounding context, and the surrounding context is generally a tin-roofed shack on a durian fruit farm. Let’s be clear: I knew this going in and have no complaints. (What, those lines above? Ignore them.) But you can’t spend a lifetime living like a character in a Merchant-Ivory film and not be tripped up by occasionally misleading expectations in quaint local countries. It’s a requirement of the role. I’m rather looking forward to one day riding a sleeper car in Europe, and thinking rather too much of its superior nature. Regardless, what was very clear was that there was going to be no murder on this train. Thailand simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to support those sort of great expectations.
We left the station promptly at 4:00 pm, and I was treated to 20-30 minutes of rather suspect city scenery followed by a transition to country and farmlands. You may recall that the plan was to travel south overnight to Bangkok, arrive around 6-something the next morning, and catch an 8-something train out to Surat Thani the next day, arriving at 4:40 the next afternoon. The route can be seen in this railway map, Chiang Mai at the upper left terminus, Surat Thani at a little hook in the southern peninsula, near the train station at Phun Phin (which, despite the name, is neither a dolphin resort nor an aquarium):
Once we got out of the city, the scenery, most of it in mountainous areas and soon dark anyway, was not much given to dramatic views. It was a lot of greenish brown fields, mountainsides, and farming communities, and then a national park that we passed through:
There’s a lot more of this. I kind of hated looking away to read a book or Twitter (yay cellphone data plans), because it would be dark soon and it seemed a shame to waste the few remaining daylight hours reading and ignoring the scenery when the scenery is much of the point of train travel. But very little of that scenery stands out in my shots because, of course, when you’re on a train and you see something, it’s generally gone before you can grab your camera phone, activate it, and take the shot. And, even when you get your camera in time, suddenly trees get in your way. I will say, though, that riding through those green and brown mountain farmlands, I had “Take Me Home, Country Roads” running through my head the whole time.
The. Whole. Time. And I didn’t mind it. It’s weird: I’ve never really lived in that environment (Alabama had some modest similarities, but we were hardly rural), but that song tugs on so many archetypal chords for me that it crops up in my mind whenever I’m in scenery like this. Of course, I’ve never been an archeologist adventurer either, yet the Indiana Jones theme plays in my head whenever I’m weaving through traffic. Brains are strange.
There was one scenery quirk: at one point the farmlands became so amazingly green and lush and, well, manicured looking, and with such well formed little lakes that it looked just like a golf course, which was weird out here in the middle of nowhere. On impulse, I checked Google Maps:
A few times we rode through burned areas (part of the annual crop burning that I’d been breathing for several weeks), and several times we rode through active burns where I’d look up and see fire chewing away quietly at the landscape with no visible evidence of monitoring. No sounds of concern came from the body of the train around me, so I trusted that all was as it should be. Context.
Dinner rolled around. I had planned to eat in the dining car, but a lady had come with room service menus by while we were still in the station and suggested that the dining car was hot and I wouldn’t like it, so I let her persuade me. I’m pretty sure I was being taken, a bit, and I’d have been perfectly happy with the dining car. This page turns out to warn against exactly that “scam”, in so far as it really is one. The room service people are really just a bit aggressive about talking you into using their service, which provides adequate precooked foods heated on the train and brought to your room. That said, I’d have been better off in the dining car, and I’ll know better next time.
At around 8pm, the porter came by to make up my bed, and I was asleep by 9:30. Interestingly, I slept pretty solidly, despite the rattling and rolling of the train. It wasn’t that noisy, the stops didn’t wake me or didn’t do so for long, the mattress was very firm but comfortable, the blanket was adequate, the couple of night time bathroom trips weren’t traumatic, so that all went well enough. When I woke before dawn, that washcloth I previously mentioned buying stood me in good stead, as I took a pretty thorough sink bath in my cabin, shaved, and felt ready to meet the world by about 5:30am. We arrived in Bangkok around 6:30, and then I just hung out on the platform drinking the water I’d bought the day before, eating cashews, and waiting for my next train.
The leg to Surat Thani was 2nd class seating (at best), and I think the main difference between 2nd and 3rd class was air conditioning (except in the restrooms) and prepackaged meal containers. (Think of slightly alien airline food and you’ll be on the money, though the foil bag of salted sardines was yummy despite the sardines’ slightly odd texture.) People got on and off at stops all the way south, mostly locals and some tourists, and in the middle bit the train was fully booked. The landscape opened up, the fields got wider and greener and often had standing water and even what looked like long lines of water fountains — fish farms maybe, aerating the water? I don’t know.
Cell phone data service came and went, but I got some decent Twitter browsing in while we were going, and for the most part it was a very enjoyable ride. The major exception was the headache, which came on during the day and caused me to spend a fair amount of time managing it and keeping it from getting out of hand. I don’t know how much diesel exhaust I was getting on that train, but we weren’t far from the engine, the bathrooms were open to the air, and it felt exactly like what I’d felt in Chiang Mai during exhaust exposure. So, not special. But at least it was in nicer scenery than that box in Old City.
We arrived in Phun Phin an hour late, not that that was a problem, and about 15 minutes outside of Surat Thani. I came off the train, crossed an over-track bridge to the main street, dodging people trying to ply me with transportation services until I happened upon one that I liked who offered what I’d been given to understand was a decent rate to get to my hotel (140 baht). He directed me to a songthaew that already had a local mother and son on it, and soon had me, my giant backpack, and 8 French/German/Belgian tourists all crammed on to it, the young tourist ladies looking a bit uncertain about all of this. The songthaew drove us through more traffic, with me trying to breathe as little as possible, and then pulled over and the driver came around and said, basically, “Your hotel’s just a few blocks that way!” This is not the sort of thing you normally expect from a taxi driver, but in fact I’d been following our position on the map, knew exactly where we were, and had been thinking, “You know, it would be pretty easy if he just let me off and I walked the rest of the way.” In retrospect, I have no idea why I was thinking that. Maybe I feared he was going to take me way out of the way dropping these other people off first? I don’t know. But the thought served me in good stead here. I squeezed out between the tourists, who looked as surprised and amused as I felt (though minus the self-consciousness, I’m sure), and they all drove off, and I walked the few remaining blocks across 4 lanes of busy traffic and two more neighborhood blocks to get to the Princess Park Hotel.
I had picked this place because my Airbnb place in Khanom, a little south along the coast, wasn’t available for a couple of days, and I just needed a place to crash. The HotelWiFiTest site gave them decent marks for WiFi, and that was good enough for me, and I was rather hoping that their Halal restaurant menu would mean decent food (though some of the Travelocity reviews hated on their breakfasts). The WiFi was indeed great, and the people were lovely, and the fairly large (and seemingly empty) 6 story building was clean and neat and marbled and surprisingly upscale. The muslim matron who ran the place was very warm and genteel, spoke excellent English, and though her staff of muslim twenty-something girls didn’t, she was always available. My 5th floor room, while basic, was clean and serviceable and the window had a bit of a view over some lower buildings and trees in what appears to be a pretty quiet section of town. Quiet enough that the owner expressed surprised that I’d even heard of the place. Apparently, it’s not on the normal tourist circuit, and I totally forgot to tell her that it was the HotelWiFiTest listing that had brought me to it.
Oh, here’s a quick pano of the room with most of it visible:
Sadly, though, food was not to be had. Her cook was away that weekend (it was now Saturday) working for some convention someplace else, and while she offered to cook something for me, some discussion suggested that the nearby Tesco grocery store was my best bet, so I went there. I’d seen it on my walk in, just a couple of blocks away (across only 2 lanes of busy road), and it turned out to be part of a small mall with actual restaurants including some minor US chain that I’m totally spacing on the name of. (I’d say this will drive me nuts trying to remember it, but I’ll have forgotten the question too in a few minutes.) I got some tuna and cheese and juice and similar food for a couple of days, went back to the hotel, and feasted, watching Youtube until bed.
And I think that will end this installment. Time for real-time dinner, and I’ll do my best to catch up further in the next few days, and we’ll see how that goes.