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Published: January 21st 2016
How things change! On coming away travelling I was quite set on this idea of only ever taking short bus and train journeys - why go longer when I can stop and see somewhere, and (perhaps the bigger reasoning!) I badly misjudged what such long journeys would be like. Whilst I was also, honestly, not too hot on the idea of those sleeper trains.. no thanks! I will keep to short movements across the country, said I.
The beauty of our time in Malaysia was that we didn't much think about next places (unless it was for food or sunset spots or live music). But finally I was indeed back on a next step, and I decided to get back up to north Thailand, above Sukhothai again.
So here's how it went! -
A) Georgetown, Penang
Keen as I was to get some more vegan porridge in from a cafe around the corner before leaving, I had to jump in a Taxi (mode1) to make the connection I needed at the port.
Here I got the free ferry (2) over to Butterworth - a big open industrial type ferry, where we all sit on spread out metallic benches, a
Ferry to Butterworth
courtesy of the Penang travel website
short read and we're on the other side.
From here I had my ticket for a 2nd class sleeper train (3) right up to Bangkok, leaving at 2pm and scheduled arrival of 8am next day (it at least sounds hard work, right?).. Time to mooch around, stretch, people watch and stock up on supplies.
The elegant traveller I sat beside at the station was also my on board neighbour (opposite me on our double seats by day and in the bunk above by night). The train was comfy, my pre judgements already being mocked. Food orders for later (dinner) and laterer (breakfast) were taken and me and Peter (The Grand, I'll call him) swapped stories, where to be honest his totally and naturally swamped mine! 30years of travelling about from opening up financial markets in Hong Kong to working for shipping companies, living in local villages.. Africa, Europe, Asia.. He told his stories with wide eyed enthusiasm; whilst we also talked UK economy, with less wide eyes.
The carriage atmosphere was really nice and there was small talk all around and jokes on snoring and the hours ahead. Young French toddlers coming to say hi, 2 student friends
from Kuala lumpa next door who were really friendly and smoking buddies for the one workable station stop, Australians retirees with great laughs, to mention a few.
I was also able to provide some carriage entertainment, you know the scene on public transport when you pull out your headphones from your bag to have some precious you time, and they're bloody tangled? Suddenly those eyes all about you are fixed, on your fumbling hands. You want to shake those headphones so hard so they miraculously fall loose but instead you're grinding your teeth and feeling the audiences' judgement on how long you're taking to complete this. You're muttering insults to the headphones, why are they so stubborn, we're a team goddamit, but! you could never actually give up on the detangling and throw them back in your bag; you have to finish, for you, for your dignity, for a return to normality for all involved. Well, a similar thing here, except the fiddly item was my unzippable/rezippable trousers/shorts!.. naturally I wanted to upgrade to the full length for the ride ahead, but the zips were playing up big time! I felt the eyes, stuck on me and my unwantingly
exposed knees. I had to speak aloud about it to break the spell, commentating on my slow progress (i'm now going to try the other way folks) and soon I was being rooted for.. there was a half time break (1 knee gone) and a total time of about 40 minutes. That last, knowing pull of the in-place zip - a sweet victory fist before the final whistle! A carriage hoorah, sigh and back to business.
Dinner and sharing fruit was then served, the border crossing and visa checks at one station stop.. Before long it was time for the carriages to transform. Well rehearsed limbs moved quickly through, tipping and turning and making beds.
Now the scene was like a modern 2 story hospital ward with blue curtains decorating the aisles and metal fans turning over above. As it got darker the scene became eerier and cooler to my mind. I had a wander through the quiet and found the all night cafe carriage at the far end. With it's well used christmas decorations and grey cushioned interior, serving staff nattering behind counters as some customers napped by empty bowls and others stared into the distance; and
with the quiet only interrupted by the turning fans and hushed voices at the other end, it all seemed like something from an American motorway stop in the 1970s - who knew the stories and interrupted/broken dreams it held.
I loved my little carriage night den, so comfy and I chilled about the duvet with my snacks and bbc 4 comedy and history podcasts as the night rushed past in line with my horizontal frame.
Morning! The sights beside my pillowed head were slowly lighting up. But I wasn't budging just yet. Peter had already joined another early riser and as we didn't arrive in until 11am, I had a great lay in! In fact, in my carriage at least, i admit that my bed was the last to be packed away; and on sitting up again I felt liked I'd emerged from a dream or a cave.. eyes readjusting and recognising faces of yesterday.
Back to Bangkok! So, now what? I checked out times and destinations of the train board and got a next standard train (4) to Phitsanulok, the northern transport hub, booking a cheap hostel by it's bus station in preparation. This
time it was a 3rd class carriage as i'd got before, so it was full seats and the breezy open windows, again an atmosphere I liked but different - I think I was the only farang in sight and station stops added new food sellers on board as well as passengers. It all felt very familiar. I read, wrote about some recent times and joined others at the back of the train for some of the way, it was nice to stand and watch the scenery and diverging track from this open viewpoint.
Night was coming in and I started to strain at each station sign not sure how many to go til Phitsanulok. 9pm and here it was. The station exit led straight into the night market so I wandered about and grabbed a drink, more scene watching. And noticing the dustiness that covered me.
Next mode! - onto a tuk tuk (5) to the area by the new bus station where I thought I'd get a bus the next day to Chiang Mai, I could sleep on it at least.
When I got there I was surprised to see many people waiting on buses
and ticket sellers calling out for so many different stops. Hmm shall I stay or go? Buses enquired, my hostel I couldn't find at first, but I sat in a café for tea and wifi, and located my intended stay.
A change of heart - room cancelled as I walked in and a Chiang Mai bus for 1.15am booked! Dinner and wash up at the bus station (travelling is dusty work). My phone being charged up at the nice ticket sellers stall, I then had a read of Chiang Mai, then Pai. Pai, the short pages in my book sold me a place of chilled time; a small, traveller vibe mountain town and big landscapes. Hmm.
The night coach (6) came and was the least comfy mode, just as i'd fashioned a more helpful pillow from what was in my rucksack, it seemed to be time to get off. D'oh. 7am morning grumps! At the city's big bus station terminals, I wandered about til I found an open coffee joint. I was now capable of brushing away the tired grumps and thinking yeah, let's go straight to Pai. A bag of fruit and cereal bar in hand, I
was lucky to find and catch a quick bus up there, it was now 8am, three hours away and then I knew I could (probably) have a lay in a hostel bed!
I got the lucky front seat (more space) in the minibus (7). Here I dozed, had nightmares based on things I'd seen on the journey and had that strange experience where your body is in a deeper sleep than your mind. The roads to Pai are famous for their turns up and around and around and up the forested hills. I was imagining riding these on a motorbike soon perhaps, the famous route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. Whilst my nightmares responded to the upcoming bumps and roadwork scenes as I envisioned crashes and capturings and secret plots off the journey!
B) Pai, Northern Thailand
Arrival in Pai. I walked the short distance down to the river, through a few little streets I'd soon be well acquainted with, got to Canary hostel that I'd seen online, and there was available space, hooray!
I lay out on the grass and started my Pai time - I had got there.
It had been a longer,
more interesting journey than I'd imagined first taking. And I now knew I was wrong, long journeys can be the way. Whilst they give a good chance to meet and chat, to read, to reflect on things and enjoy the passing scenes.
And I was now ready to chill at my destination a while..
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