Serpent Across the Mekong: Night of the Unswitchoffable Thousand-Watt Fluorescent Light

Bangkok-Nong Khai by Train

Monsieur M sneaks out from work early and we head to a hole in the wall in Siam Square for a meal of blisteringly hot but rather tasty green curry, a dish I will without any conscious effort find myself eating nearly daily for the next week and a half. A little more shopping for sundries with the capable assistance of Mr M’s girlfriend Mademoiselle Tam and it’s time to boogie, saliva production still in overdrive thanks to capsaicin molecules jabbing their pointy little jalapeno-shaped tails into my tongue. Mm, Thai food…

On arrival at Hualamphong, we’re delighted to find a train waiting at platform 3 NONG KHAI as promised, although by minor, entirely understandable oversight, the State Railways of Thailand have neglected to attach any carriages to the engine yet. Rectifying this small issue takes another hour and a half, but a mere 40 minutes behind schedule we choo-choo off into a dark Bangkok night.

2nd class AC sleeper on Thai Railways is, as promised, quite comfortable, at least in the sense that paying twice our $15 pricetag for 1st would be unlikely to do much to improve your comfort. Beds are laid out two to a side, one upper and one lower each, with the lower bed converted into a bunk during daytime. The hinged upper bed can also be lifted up, although there’s sufficient space to hang our below even while down. Poop-brown curtains allow a modicum of privacy, and there’s a baroque maze of metal tubing clinging from the ceiling for placing your bags and for housing motionless, dusty and unneeded fans. Attendants troop past every now and then, converting seats into beds, handing out bedsheets, blankets and pillows, hawking water, beer and snacks and taking orders for tomorrow’s breakfast.

After chewing the fat and experimenting with the cameras (hopelessly, as it turns out later, since even SLRs and fast glass are no match for dim, contrasty lighting and constant vibration), I clamber into my upper bunk. The bedding is clean, the pillow is comfy, the bed is just long enough for me to reach from end to end, and the climate control is set to crisp Arctic levels that remind me of my army barracks in Helsinki on that week in February when the heating broke down for a week. This does pose a small dilemma though: should I wrap my sweater around my head, to filter out a bit of the 1000-watt flourescent lamp half a meter from my head, or should I wrap it around my body to delay hyperthermia? Wrapped up either way and soothed by the narrow-gauge railway’s spastic clunks, lunks and jerks, I curl up fetal position and float through the amniotic night at an altitude of two meters, ensconced in my upper bunk.

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