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It’s been a few weeks since we have experienced life on the rails. The Bangkok Express lumbers rowdily along tracks less smooth than those we experienced back in China. I pass an open door on the way to the bathroom affording irresistible views of the rice paddies now gleaming under a Thai sunset. I stand by the open door taking in the fragrance of the jungle transfixed as the sun slips slowly below the tree line. The passing of each day is beautiful but more so in recent weeks I am also left with feelings of melancholy.

Nong Khai train

Heading south to Bangkok

The last of the sun is extinguished and the spell lifts. I return to my seat which is now being converted into a bed by an enthusiastic and high-spirited conductor. He is a good natured man and while tucking in sheets explains the dinner choices on the menu. I order the set 2 option which consists of red chicken curry and some steamed rice with vegetables. The beds in 2nd class are not contained within a private compartment but they are extremely wide and could almost accommodate two people. My only complaint being that the main lights in the carriage are never darkened during the night and the pale blue curtains do a terrible job of blocking it out. But more so I am just grateful to have a bed to sleep in.

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

Our train makes steady progress during the night and we arrive into Bangkok just before sunrise at 6.30am. Despite being the final stop the conductor is keen for us to vacate the beds so he can pack the sheets and convert them back into seats. I try to extend my stay in the bed with desperate and tired looks but he is having none of it and claps his hands with a smile to hurry me up. I exit another train and step onto the platform of yet another city. The ground beneath my feet feels a little unsteady as I walk towards a sign that says Bangkok.

Bangkok train station

Bangkok Station

Despite feelings of tiredness we wait in line to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I ask a man for two sleeping berths to Surat Thani. He seems a little surprised by my request and casts me a doubtful look before searching. I can see already by his expression that the news is not good. There are no seats available for several days; it would seem we have stumbled into Thailand during summer holidays. I ask him to check the morning train which is notably slower than the evening express trains. He finds two seats but it doesn’t leave until two days later. We could try for a bus but I feel a longing for the romance of trains and a weariness for buses. We book two tickets on the day time train which at least has the bonus of allowing the scenery outside to be observed, even if it is at a greatly reduced speed.

We then try to book onward travel south into Malaysia but advance bookings can only be made in Hat Yai from where the train departs. This is an issue as we won’t be in Hat Yai until the day of departure so securing a reservation might be difficult. And there I was thinking that things were becoming too easy. The disappointment is fleeting and washed away by positive thoughts. I think the philosophies preached to me by the station master in India are finally sinking in but do they extend to the Thai Rail network. I feel a consultation is in order. I want to ask him for emergency quota or tourist quota but those days are now many months behind us. There is nothing more we can do for now and that is comforting in a small way. I oddly begin to feel that some adventure has crept back in and I am almost a little happy by the uncertainty of it all.

The normally busy streets of Bangkok are empty and still in the early morning light. A city still sleeping after a busy night. It looks lethargic and unwilling to wake up which I can currently relate to. It’s a place renowned for its smiling people, glittering temples and garish girly bars. I remember back to a time when Bangkok was the most exotic city I had ever visited. But Bangkok once so far removed now seems an oddly familiar place. Women walk to work in designer outfits. Packs of teens take selfies and giggle on their way to school. Buildings are tall and sparkling. The streets look clean. Has Bangkok changed or have I?

We arrive at the Four Seasons hotel looking ragged and very much out of place. The staff also seem surprised and unsure about offering assistance. I don’t think they are used to seeing clients arrive with luggage strapped to their backs. I am feeling very tired but we are just in time for a buffet breakfast. This has become a recent treat while travelling; an all you can eat extravaganza that lasts for hours should you want it to. I see a boy aged around 11 at a table nearby. I notice he has taken a huge chunk of camembert cheese; in fact he has taken the entire block from the cheese counter. I stare at him with distain as he pushes the cheese around his plate with no intention of eating it. I look at his parents, both of whom haven’t even noticed as they’re so engrossed with their smart phones. As we’re leaving his mother has taken her attention momentarily away from her cyber life but only to ask the waitress to clear the plates. The lump of untouched cheese is taken away. I shake my head as I walk past thinking of the many children who might have appreciated just a small slice.

With little time remaining we make use of the fast access to internet and commit to booking flights from Singapore back to Australia. The thought of flying feels treacherous. For almost one and a half years I have noticed thin white streaks passing high above me in a blue sky. I always considered them the enemy in some way. A representation of modernity and fast paced life not linked to our world of buses and rickshaws.

It seems incomprehensible to me that we are planning our final days on a journey that stared so long ago. I feel as though any movement forward is killing me and the trip. The trip has become an entity in my mind, the memories make it whole and I don’t want to let it go. For so long we have been going forward with purpose and commitment on our journey, now ironically I feel am being carried unwilling to an end I no longer want.

We scan the internet for the best possible deals around a date that allows us sufficient time to reach Singapore. The traditional carriers are all very expensive but we find a reasonable fare with the budget carrier Scoot airlines. They offer such luxuries as in-flight meals, entertainment systems and extra leg room at an extra cost. But none of these seem relevant at this point in time so we purchase two tickets at the lowest possible price. With the push of a button we have now for the first time a line in the sand, a date that we must finish on. I feel like I am on some sort of travel death row. I know it all sounds terribly morbid and negative but there it is.

Heading up to the Grand Palace

Heading up to the Grand Palace

We try to turn things around by focusing on where we are and making the most of the time we have left. We head for the river and catch a high speed long tail boat up to the Grand Palace. Apparently the public boat is not due for 90 minutes. It seems unlikely but I need a rush and some instant gratification. Our boat driver seems to understand and obliges with death defying speed on the water. We arrive at the pier a man tells us there is a 30 THB or about $1USD landing fee. He even has tickets as proof. I ask him to come to the office with me but suddenly he moves on to the next tourist. Apparently sceptics need not pay landing fees.

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

The Grand Palace is by no means an exaggeration. A striking collection of buildings and temples adorned with golden tiles and colourful glass mosaics. Tourists pay $15.00 while Thais are admitted for free. At least in India they deemed the local population partly responsible for the upkeep of their own treasures but here in Bangkok the burden is exclusively shouldered by foreigners. I don’t blame them in some ways as I don’t think the Thai’s hold the behaviour of western tourists in high esteem. They wander the temples wearing clothes provided at the entrance as most have arrived inappropriately dressed.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The distance to Wat Pho is short however the late afternoon sun makes for a difficult walk. The road side vendors selling water and orange juice are greatly appreciated. The entrance to the temple is only 100 THB or around $3.00 USD…Thai’s are still admitted for free but it doesn’t matter despite the fleeting irritations, I love the inconsistencies of Asia. The Wat Pho temple houses an immense reclining Buddha that stretches the better part of an Olympic sized swimming pool. His huge face smiling down on mere mortals below almost looks appreciative to be out of the blistering sun. My mind wonders back to the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya India where he originally sat gaining enlightenment 2500 years ago. I contemplate the power of ideas and how the teachings of the Buddha have reached across all the lands we have traversed to get here but in an ancient world before trains and buses existed.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Small metal leaves hanging from the eaves of the building begin to tinkle. To the west is a bank of grey cloud. It billows thousands of meters into the air like a vast volcanic eruption. The brass leaves rustle metallic in a cooling breeze. The sound and the smell of the approaching storm is refreshing. A few drops of heavy rain strike my face. We take refuge in a building nearby which conveniently offers massages for 450 THB or around $15.00 USD. The rain is now coming down hard so we decide to take stay and pass the time with a traditional Thai massage. Actually we probably would have had one even if it were not raining but the weather outside helps remove any fiscal guilt. I ask for a firm massage demonstrating hard gestures. She calls for a stern faced replacement who looks like she enjoys administrating pain. Small in stature she has learned over the years how to harness the forces of gravity with excruciating results. A combination of pride and ego prevent screams from escaping but eventually I yield to her tortures. She seems pleased and smiles.

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

The storm has helped reduce the temperature outside but the humidity has increased as compensation. I guess any change is appreciated. We will be returning soon to winter in Australia so any complaints are quickly dispatched. It’s time to play our favourite game of guess the Rickshaw price back home. The rickshaws in Bangkok and particularly those tethered to the Grand Palace are some of the sleekest found anywhere in Asia. More streamlined and high powered than any we encountered in India and Africa. Their owners obviously have taken great pride and it shows. Fluorescent upholstery, low profile wheels, colourful lights and booming sound systems dazzle prospective clients. I think it is the only place in the world where a Tuk Tuk commands a higher fee than a taxi, but looking at the machines I can understand why. We strike a deal for 300 THB the original asking the price starting at 500 THB back to Siam square.

The sound of the engine is in accordance with the style of the Tuk Tuk. Deep growls released through chrome exhausts power us around and through seemingly impossible holes in the traffic. It’s an exciting ride and almost an essential experience with any trip to Bangkok.

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

The following morning and we are headed back to Bangkok station. It’s early and for obvious reasons I get a feeling of déjà vu. Was it only two days ago we arrived. I find time is not behaving in ways I am used to or perhaps more in ways I don’t want. We wait on platform 9 for the 8.20am train to Surat Thani to arrive. Without apologies it finally shows up just before 10am. We were to arrive in Surat at 4.30pm with a chance to reach Krabi 3 hours away an outside possibility but already that seems in doubt. I notice for the first time some signs of the coup that occurred in Thailand a few months ago. There is an increased number of soldiers carrying guns and wandering around the station. But I can’t say aside from the presence of the army that there is any change in behaviour or attitudes.

waiting on platform 9

waiting on platform 9

Our train leaves Bangkok just before 10.30am. I don’t expect it can make up time along the way and nor do I want it to as the ride is very rough and terribly un-assuring. A few hours later we pass through Hui Hin and a few hours after that the rails draw close to the coast and the gulf of Thailand. To our right is a long chain of green mountains that mark the border with Burma. We continue to run south down the Thai peninsula reaching a point that is only 30km wide. Eventually we reach Surat Thani just before 6pm. A tout offers to take us 17km into town for 150 THB. He hold up a picture of a Bus with a time underneath indicating a 7pm departure. Maybe we can get to the beaches of Krabi tonight after all. He loads us into the back of a converted Hilux jeep with 3 other tourists from Denmark. The jeep accelerates to frightening speeds and sweeps around bends without concern for physics or its consequences. The Danes are going to Koh Samui and headed for the ferry, 10km later we are transferred with some gratitude to a less menacing Tuk Tuk. By the time we reach the town centre we are dropped outside a fruit shop that apparently runs a bus to Krabi in the morning for 300 THB per person. I ask to be taken to the actual bus station which is difficult to convey but we eventually get there. The station looks devoid of activity and a little gloomy. There is no 7pm Bus the last one left at 5pm.

We are stuck in Surat Thani for the night…

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