One of my girlfriends warned me that air tickets out of China were getting sold out. So, without any particular destination in mind, I purchased air tickets to Bangkok. I figured, from there we could decide where to go. At first I thought to go to Phillippines, but why go to a beach in the Phillippines when there are great beaches in Thailand? After much research, I decided that the island of Koh Tao in Thailand would be our vacation destination. So, how to get to Ko Tao from Bangkok? One option is the night train. It will be an adventure. Some adventures are a bit too much adventure while they’re happening. Those mis-adventures are usually the ones that make funny stories. If you live to tell about them, that is. (Travel tip #4: always carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, thermometer, tweezers, any medicines you might really need ranging from Imodium to antibiotics, you get the idea.) Nothing terrible happened on the night train, but I thought I would describe my experience, since I did live to write about it.
The web site http://www.seat61.com has train information and train schedules from all over the world. It includes photos of both first and second class sleepers in Thailand. Second class sleepers do not have private compartments (as first class sleepers do), but they are air conditioned, and the editor says most westerners find them perfectly adequate.
The train station was rather quaint. Trains run every few minutes, and the first challenge was to figure out which train we were supposed to be on. The train conductor on the night train to Chiang Mia (north of Bangkok) looked at my ticket and told me not to get on his train. Many other trains, I wouldn’t have wanted to get on. They had open windows with people staring listlessly out of them, sometimes hanging head and torso out of the windows to see better, some freight cars that seemed to be full of people.
The second challenge, beyond figuring out the right train, was to stand in the right place, so that you are standing at your car when it stops rather than at a car 16 cars removed from yours. We figured out that signs posted on the track indicated roughly the location where each car would stop. The sign for our car, Car #17, was about 50 meters further than the last seats for people waiting, so we waited at the seats. As we were waiting, I began to notice that there were actually two tracks, separated from each other by a chain link fence. The northbound train to Chiang Mai had stopped on our side of the tracks. What if the southbound train to Chumphon actually were coming on the other side, and we wouldn’t have time to get there? My cheerful “other half” consented to inquire at the station. Not once, but twice, they reassured him that we were standing on the correct side. But there is always the possibility of language difficulty.
A woman with a baby had come up to J and encouraged her baby to talk to J in English. Since the mommy spoke English, we decided to ask her if we were on the right side of the tracks. This led to conversation with the entire family, who were very friendly and helpful. The dad said yes, indeed, we were waiting in the right place for the right train. He was putting his father on the same train, headed for the southern provinces down near Malaysia. He said we were also standing in the right spot, except that the train wouldn’t stop as far down on the tracks as what the placards indicated. He advised us not to go too far down. As he spoke, another train headed for northeast Thailand pulled into the station. It stopped a good 50 meters further down the track than where the placards indicated it was supposed to stop, sending the waiting passengers scrambling in a mad dash to run for the train and board it in the minute or two it would sit idle in the station.
The man we had befriended had lived in the USA for nine years. He told us that besides getting on the right train, which he would help us do, our next big challenge would be to know when we were in Chumphon and to wake up for our stop. He asked his father, who didn’t speak any English, to arrange for the steward to wake us up in time and help us know when to get off the train at the right place. Our train was to arrive in Chumphon at 3:00 A.M., and from there we would somehow get to the long distance ferry terminal and catch the 7 A.M. ferry to the island of Ko Tao, where we had arranged to holiday. It turned out that the father was ethnically Chinese, and he spoke a dialect that was readily intelligible to us, so we were able to converse in Chinese as much as our language skill would allow.
When our train arrived, the train overshot even the space where we had been standing by about 25 meters, and so we had a bit of a frantic dash to collect ourselves and our luggage, but soon we settled into our seats. To our amazement and relief, the steward spoke good English. He brought us a menu to take our dinner order (200 baht extra per person) and asked us what time we would like our meal.
The seats were set up in a more accommodating fashion than hard sleeper seats on Chinese trains. Two seats faced each other. At night time, the cushions on those seats pulled together to make one bed, while a second bed was pulled down from its resting place near the ceiling. Our four seats were all in the same spot, together. As a family, we quickly concluded that the younger generation would get the two top bunks. J climbed up and down the ladder numerous times, impatient for her bunk to get pulled down from its resting place in the ceiling. The dad of our train station friend came to check on us. He pulled a different steward over to us and asked that man to make sure we were awake and off the train at the proper stop. Then, he invited us to come visit with him in his car (also a second class sleeper), but we were tied up with the arrival of our meal.
Our food was tasty, and each one of our set meals would have been enough for two people. The main dishes were all too spicy for J, but she refused the rice and fried egg which came on the side. She and I both also enjoyed the soup, which was vegetables and tofu in a clear broth with rice noodles. Since I enjoyed other things on the table besides the soup (unlike her) I gave her my soup as well. In Thailand we live in fear of spiciness. In Chinese food, if it’s spicy you know it in every bite. Some bites will be more spicy than others, but there’s no mistaking which dishes are spicy. Thai food is not like that. Individual flavors of vegetables and meats are more individual, less integrated into the taste of the dish as a whole. Thus, any given food may seem that it’s not spicy, but then you take that “one bite” that you remember forever. It’s as if the cook is saying, “Ha, ha. Gotcha!” I had this experience last night. I was eating a very mild version of coconut and lemongrass soup, when I got one bite of pepper which left a trail of chemical burn exactly as wide as the pepper, going all the way down my throat. Well, J complained that her soup was spicy. I couldn’t taste any hot pepper in the parts of it that I tried, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!
We were the last people to finish eating. The head steward collected the plates and, to my amazement and horror, proceeded to stow the dirty dishes behind and underneath the seat I was sitting in. Then, to my additional horror, J pointed out a visitor under my seat, a small Asian cockroach. He pounced upon the plates with relish. C pointed out to the steward that the dishes were under my seat. Instead of taking them away, he put them on top of the table in front of David, cockroach and all. Having grown up in Florida and having one too many cockroach tales to tell, I have a phobia about them. I had nightmarish fantasies about the little guy running off the table and jumping onto one of my family members sitting across the way. David reassured me, saying, “He’s not going to leave the food.” Sure enough, a few minutes later the steward came and cleared away all the dishes, carrying away bug and all.
Anyway, while we were eating, a second steward had come around and started making up everyone’s bed. This included putting freshly washed sheets and pillow cases on the beds, in addition to setting up the bunks. By the time we finished eating, all the beds in the sleeper car had been made up except ours. As peoples bunks were made, they would pull the curtains shut and disappear inside. Our supper finished, we decided to try to locate the Chinese speaking father of our train station friend. We were unsuccessful in finding him; we supposed he may have already gone to bed inside his bunk. When we returned, our sleeper bunks had been made up, as well.
I quickly realized that the people in the top bunks had the better end of the deal. Their beds were made of mattresses, while the ones on the bottom consisted of cushions on top of wooden frames. Not only that, the family reached a consensus that my bed was particularly bad, since the seats supporting it were rather “shot.” My bunk had a distinct, raised spot at the middle section. C got J to switch over to her bunk, the two sisters sharing, so that one of the parents could have a top bunk. D insisted that I take it. C also offered to move down to the bottom bunk so both parents could have a top bunk. It became apparent, however, that D wasn’t moving anywhere. He is more stubborn than me, so after a few hours of trying to get him to take the vacant top bunk, I gave in. Though a lot more trouble to climb into, it was also much more comfortable. No Asian bed is soft, but at least this one wasn’t lumpy. It was okay.
We weren’t on an express train – those tickets had been sold out – and so we stopped about 11 times between Bangkok and Chumphon. At some point, the steward came around and asked if we would like a beer. We said “sure,” we each wanted one. I was thinking that he would be bringing around two cans of beer. What he brought was a double size bottle of Singha beer. I tried to stop him from opening both bottles, but he was quick, and, “pop, pop!” — It was too late. Besides, I rationalized, after the cockroach experience I needed a big, cold one, and it would help me sleep as well.
I can’t say that I slept, so much as I can say that I rested. Train travel has a distinct advantage, however, in that you have liberty to move around the car. I always take advantage of this freedom.
About half an hour later, the steward came around again, this time with a third, opened bottle. I was about to say “no more!” when he asked a question of David. Waving the open bottle in the air, he asks, “Tip, tip?!” Smiling with the look of somebody who realizes he’s been had, David asks, “how much?” The steward replies, “150 baht.” “Okay,” I hear David say. From then on until his entire bottle was dry, the steward would come around about every five minutes to drink a toast. I threw my bottle away when it was half empty, already tasting bitter and flat. After that, I was relieved of the toasting requirement.
Well, I’d say my mind was stretched by all this, and I was musing about the adventure of independent travel. That very day, I had sent email to some family members to tell them our itinerary. In that email I had said something like, “you, too, could do this!” If the cockroach and drunken steward episodes didn’t already make me wonder how many people, actually, among my friends could do this, I had even more to ponder after my first visit to the bathroom.
Let’s just say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll (eventually) upload a picture to accompany this Blog entry. This toilet wasn’t nearly as bad as some. Some toilets inspire a real “double take,” and you say, “I’ll just wait a little while longer.” But on a train for a nine hour journey you don’t really have the option of “just waiting.” And neither does your seven year old. Even though the stewards were making frequent trips to make sure to keep it clean and stocked with toilet paper, I think cleaning could only do so much. This also happens to be my least favorite kind of toilet – the hybrid that’s not exactly a squatter and not exactly a sitter. Like, what happens if your feet don’t go exactly the right spot? (Don’t answer that question, please!)
The adventure was all a bit too much for me. When we fly to China, we always book tickets in the “steerage” section of the plane for about 1/5 the price of business class. But about 15 hours into the flight those business class seats begin to sound pretty appealing. Same with this trip. We saved a bundle of money by being independent travelers and using transportation that is still better than what many ordinary Thais rely on for their own travel. But at 1 A.M., taking a child to use that toilet, the thought of an airplane ticket directly to one of those multi-thousand baht per night, western resorts in Ko Samui began to sound pretty good.
During the middle of the night, I got up and decided to go see if I could see anything. We were in the last car on the train, so I could even go look out the back window. The car was laid out so that you exited the sleeper compartment to get to the bathroom compartment, where there were two enclosed toilets and two open lavatories. Beyond that was another closed door which led to the small corridor that is normally between the cars, where the doors are located to enter and exit the car from outside. As I walked through the back door to the entrance / exit part of the car, I noticed that a small mat had been laid on the floor, between the bathroom door and the exit door. I wondered why they would put a mat there. Not thinking too much about it, though, I went on back and looked out the window. Sometime during the night, I figured out this was where one of the stewards was sleeping. The first clue was that I noticed he was leaving his shoes outside the door. Later, I saw that he was actually sleeping on the mat on the floor. After I learned this, I felt very badly that I had walked on his bed with my dirty shoes on.
This was the steward who woke us up at 3 AM. David tipped him 100 baht. Well worth it to get off at the right stop. Unlike in Chinese trains, where the stewards come around and wake up those who are supposed to be getting off, there was no warning of when the stop was coming and no announcement of what the stop was.
When we arrived in Chumphon, at least we had been resting horizontal for several hours. So even though I’m sure we looked as haggard as all the other travelers in that middle-of-the-night train station, we weren’t dead tired as we could have been.
When we got off the train, we were stopped by a man selling ferry tickets to the islands. There were three choices, all including taxi fare from the train station to the ferry terminal. A high speed catamaran for 550 baht that took two hours to arrive, another high speed boat that was not a catamaran for 550 baht that also took 2 hours, and a slow boat for only 400 baht, which took four hours. The ticket agent explained that the slower boat departed from further upstream in the river, only 10 kilometers away, while the faster boats departed from a different pier that was 20 km away.
I had already read Blogs with stories about seasickness on the catamaran. But something must have even made the German newspapers. There are a lot of German tourists down in these islands. One of them said, in English, that he didn’t want the catamaran because it was “very dangerous.” Another made pantomimes graphically illustrating retching, as he pointed to the high speed catamaran picture. David said he overheard another one say that 20 people had been killed aboard a high speed catamaran ferry. I wonder if they were referring to a wreck in Hong Kong – as a ferry collided with a shipping vessel in dense fog about two years ago. Regardless, I had already made up my mind which boat I preferred, even before the Germans came along. In addition to stories of the seasickness, I prefer a boat that allows you to sit outside to see the view. The red ferry had an outdoor sitting area, and so we decided we would buy tickets for this boat.
The guidebooks say to just get yourself to the ferry pier and buy a ticket there. It’s easy to get there; the guy was plainly lying when he said the ferry pier was 20 km. It wasn’t more than five. But we figured, if the options at the train station were adequate, just take care of it here and now, especially since this means everything will be taken care of from this point. So what if the travel agent makes a few baht on us. We tried to haggle a bit, but the best we could do was procure fee fare for J. This was a price reduction of 225 baht (originally he told us she would ride for half price) but who knows.
After we bought our tickets from the train station guy at 5 A.M., we stll had an hour to kill. As I wandered around, I noticed the owner of the convenience store where we were sitting, in the train station, was cooking a big pot of something over a fire. It turns out she was making Asian breakfast — a rice porridge to which cooked meat, fresh veggie, and some spice is added. I ordered a bowl, and it was pretty good. I like the Chinese style better, but in general I like rice porridge — zhou as I call it. I knew the food was fresh and boiling hot, and I had seen locals coming in to get some. My only qualms had to do with the cleanliness of the dishes I used for eating. I could imagine dysentary as an easy way to ruin a family vacation. Nevertheless, there is value in doing as the locals do. I ate it, and it was the best thing on the menu in that shop, and I had no bad side effects.
If I was feeling intrepid, I was even more astounded when the 5:00 train arrived from Bangkok. Several young families got off, some of them with toddlers and babies. One blonde haired, blue eyed mom and dad got off the train with two little children who looked to be maybe three years old and six months old. I couldn’t imagine traveling in these conditons with a toddler and an infant. Another mind bending experience, or maybe I just felt sorry for them. I hoped they were on their way to a five star resort somewhere. Someone did call for them with a placard, so maybe their resort had arranged for them to be picked up. I hope.
At about 6 A.M. the bus driver came to collect us for our ride to the ferry terminal. The other passenger on our boat was a Swiss girl who was traveling alone in S.E. Asia for four months. She said it was a bit lonely at times, but she was enjoying it. The driver then made the rounds of several more guest houses to pick up more passengers, calling on her cell phone to see which guest houses needed her to pick up from them. Some other passengers were divers, and a fourth passenger was a man who had sold everything and moved to Ko Tau because it was such a special place.
We arrived at the ferry terminal just about sunrise. The river was already bustling with small boat traffic, long tail boats ferrying passengers from place to place. The sunrise was beautiful, the water smooth. I had expected open water between the mainland and Ko Tao, but to my surprise there seemed to be Karst topography almost the entire way: small, steep mountains rising up out of the sea, dotting the entire area. In the two hour ride, we were only out of sight of land for a fairly brief period of time. When we arrived at the island of Ko Tao, my main impression was that it was very beautiful. Hills green with palms seem to rise almost straight up, and much of the island’s coast consists of boulders and rocks, but there are white, powdery sand beaches as well.
We are staying in a small bay, at one of the white, powdery beaches. The weather is perfect, and the coral reef begins just about 50 meters off the shoreline. If you walked too far, you would walk into the coral. This is enough for now. I will write more later.