The Slow Train to Chiang Mai

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Actually, it was probably the fast train. Once we got out of the Bangkok burbs, the only stops along the way were a few of the larger towns. It still took 11 hours.

When I was here 20 years ago and travelling with Martin's sister, Heather, we took the overnight express bus to Chiang Mai. The problem was that, since it was night time, we didn't see very much. Thai people also tend to be quite small in stature; we noted that, because they required less room, the seats were placed much more closely together. (We also had the seat over the wheel well so that when the man in front of us reclined, his head was in Heather's lap and she was pinned in her seat - not to mention the "eau de toilet" - we were located across from the toilet which was perpetually busy). Thai buses are not great for long-legged galloots (sp?) like Martin, so we decided to take the train.

Spending the day on the train, we were hoping to see the countryside. Unfortunately, al the windows were reinforced by a fine mesh (probably for safety reasons if the glass happened to break) that made it somewhat difficult to see out of and was certainly no good for taking pictures. I did find an open window in the bathroom, but, after years of trying to take pictures out of train windows (and very few good pictures), I decided it wasn't worth it!

Travel on buses and trains in Thailand includes meals en route served by a bus or train attendant, just as flight attendants provide this service on the airlines. I do remember that, on the bus trip, we stopped for supper at a town along the way. For some reason, Heather got a different (and much spicier meal) than I did. She was in great pain until she managed to eat a banana to cool her mouth. I also remember the green Fanta (like cream soda) which was horribly sweet. Asians don't eat much for sweets, but what they do is incredibly sweet. They also use sugar cane which tends to be sweeter than the sugar beets we use.

We booked our train trip and trek (as well as a air ticket to Hanoi) through TAT (the Travel Authority of Thailand). They tend to be quite reliable in their service and are knowledgeable about the country. As a tourist, you are continually inundated with offers of assistance from travel agencies - it can be quite overwhelming. Unfortunately, we found out that a visa for Laos was going to cost us about $100 each, so, because of the cost, and our limited time, we have decided to give Laos a miss. Obviously, someone in the Canadian government ticked off a Laotian official!

I was proud of how lightly I had packed, but once I had stuffed in my cool weather clothes in my backpack and had toted a 35 lb pack around Bangkok, I was wondering if I really needed everything I had brought with me. (I'd like to see some little Thai try to scurry away with my pack - actually, no, I wouldn't!) I could have left my vitamins at home. And that extra pair of earrings. I mean, you need a rain poncho just in case, right? And you need a beach towel for the beach. It's just so hard to prioritize. Martin could probably have done without the seven pair of socks and seven pairs of underwear we brought with him (a psychological remnant of having spent two weeks in Guatemala/Belize a few years ago with only the clothes he was wearing). It's hard to remember how to pack after having travelled for years with everything but the kitchen sink.

One of the challenges about travelling is improvising or "making do". I cut six inches off Martin's hair with the scissors on my Swiss army knife. (Note: His hair is still long enough to put back in a ponytail.) My clothes are not always what most people would think of as colour-coordinated, e.g., I've been wearing my apple green T-shirt with my coral-coloured blouse. But who cares. Besides, according to the TV program, "What Not to Wear", I'd be right in style!

Our fellow travellers are mostly young people and there are quite a few empty nesters/retired folk. As usual, there's not many people are age. German tourists always come up to Martin and start talking as he looks German (which makes sense because his Dad is of German heritage), but then they do a double-take when they see me as I'm obviously North American. I guess my German blood just isn't as visible as his is!

Thais are fastidious about their floors. The walls may be somewhat grubby, but the floors never are. On the train trip to Chiang Mai, the floor was swept twice and mopped tree times. There may have been garbage strewn all over the countryside, but the railway platforms were immaculate.

Most of the land we saw from the vantage point of the train was agricultural land for growing rice, bananas and other fruit. Of course, we saw lots of wats and buddhas en route. Traditional Thai houses are made of teak raised on stilts to allow for air flow and to keep the house dry when the rains (and floods!) come. There are lots of dogs and cats roaming about. Some would come to the train looking for handouts each time it stopped. Most seemed to be cared for (or at least fed). My sister, Diane, has a vet friend from Edmonton who is involved in a spaying/neutering project in Chiang Mai.

Technology has certainly changed the face of travel here. A cell phone rang about every 15 minutes on our train trip. We met two Canadian fellows in Bangkok who had bought Thai cell phones for about $35 CDN and phone rates were about 7 baht per minute (about 25 cents) to call Canada. They insisted we should get one. Considering I don't even like talking on the phone at home, I wasn't even tempted!

Although I enjoy email as much as anyone, somehow it has lost some of its "mystere" and its much more difficult to become immersed in the culture, to "get lost", which is why many travellers come to such far-flung places (at least that's part of the draw for us). I was in India in 1984 when Indira Ghandi was assassinated and the only way of calling home to ensure everyone we were OK was to call - if you could get through. I wrote my mother a letter and all she got was the envelope (someone has slit the letter open, probably looking for money). So it is reassuring for family and friends at home to be able to stay in touch by email. I am able to keep in touch with all three of my sisters: my sister at Kenosee Lake, SK, my sister currently vacationing in Mexico and my sister living in New Zealand.

Travelogues like this one also provide a means of sharing travel experiences. I've always kept a journal, but on one ever read it. (I, myself, seldom referred back to it after the trip, either.) Because I'm writing for other people, I think I also tend to put more effort into it and it's probably a better account than what I scribble in my book.

Chiang Mai is a city of about 2 million. One of its main industries is tourism; people from all over the globe come to Chiang Mai to trek and see the hill tribe people. Its also a shopping mecca and the night market, covering many blocks, is something to behold. The air pollution and traffic are not as bad here; however, you're still taking your life in your hands when you cross the street!

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