We were somewhere around western Vientiane on the edge of the Mekong when the chili began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should go sightseeing by yourself…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around me and the street was full of what looked like a tour group of retirees, all swooping and screeching and diving around the bus, which was parked in front of our hotel and not going anywhere. And a voice was whispering: “Sacre bleu! What are these animals?”
Then it was quiet again. “What the hell are you yelling about,” Monsieur M muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to head out.” No point mentioning those retirees, I thought. The poor buzzard will see them soon enough.
Shortly earlier, the table of our restaurant had looked like a cooking class. The larb had two massive orange chillies, 75 pellets of chopped long bean, five coarsely shredded springs of mint, a shotglass half-full of fish sauce, and a whole galaxy of unidentifiable herbage… and also a liter bottle of Beerlao Dark, a mug of Beerlao Original, a lethal bowl of green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab, two tip khao full of sticky rice and a wine glass of orange juice, with a straw. All this had been rounded up after we finally reached the hotel, crossing the street in a frenzy of hunger — from appetizers to mains, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for lunch, but once you get locked into a serious Laotian meal, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
The only thing that really worried me was the orange juice. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man who drinks orange juice in the land of Beerlao…
Roused from an uneasy slumber around 7 AM by a preordered, plastic-wrapped, garlicky and tepid yet rather tasty bowl of khao tom muu (rice porridge with pork), plus an even more welcome piping hot cup of tea. I perform my morning ablutions at a stunningly unfilthy toilet (even my precaution of stealing toilet paper from the Paragon’s loo proved unnecessary) and start scanning the Isaan countryside for clues of our whereabouts.
It was fairly obvious by now that it would be way past 8:30 by the time we reached Nong Khai, and doubling the previous day’s delay, I guesstimate that around 10 might be right. There is no sign of Udon Thani, 55 km from the border though, but around 10 AM, we finally stop at a larger station, and I check my cellphone to see if we’ve finally reached at least this waypoint. But nay, the cell indicator proclaims BigC-KhonKaen — a town we were supposed to have reached around 5 AM. Oei laew…
Three hours of monotony later, choo-chooing across the heat-blasted plains of Isaan half a year into the dry season, I spot a giant Thai tricolor limply attempting to flap in the distance and the train pulls into Nong Khai station, 5.5 hours behind schedule. An unmanned immigration booth sits in the middle of the platform, separating it into two halves. The notional 10 AM shuttle to have been operated by this very train is obviously out of question, but perhaps there is still hope for the 2 PM train? We join the thronging queue of hopefuls, but my stammering Thai enquiries produce a swift and crushing reply in English: “No train to Lao today. Or tomorrow.”
Only a week later did I find out what had happened. Earlier on FT, old Thai hands had questioned whether the service would really start on time, and I’d answered that yes, it would, since not only had the inauguration date been set, but the Thai princess would be attending as well. Turns out we were both right: the inauguration was held as scheduled with HRH Sirindhorn and the press in attendance, and one train ceremoniously crossed the bridge and back. But the very next day, the Thai and Lao customs authorities promptly resumed their squabble over splitting up duties, and service was immediately halted. At time of writing, the shuttle is back in operation, but the underlying squabble over the more lucrative cargo operations remains unresolved and visa on arrival is not available on the Lao side.
Baw pen nyang (“Not is problem”), as they say in Lao, so we join the hordes hopping on tuktuks for the short haul to the border, laughing at the few deluded backpackers humping their bags the 3 km to the border in the midday heat to save US$0.50. B747-437B covered the Thai-Lao border crossing experience admirably in his Laos-y trip report, so I won’t flog that dead water buffalo again — but I will note for posterity, though, that hanging around the station for a while before heading down was not the smartest of moves, as this translates to crowds out the wazoo on both sides, meaning plenty of comradely socialist solidarity with fellow border-crossers, an upstanding group of hirsute backpackers and sketchy visa-running English teachers with a shared aversion to deodorant. In one token concession to sanity, though, the fine folks on the Lao side have merged the “apply for on-arrival visa” and “get it stamped” steps, so in exchange for your US$35 you can now bypass the longest line of them all and just walk past the stamping counters.
On the other side, ladies with 1950s haircuts and uniforms colored that offputting shade of moldy green exclusive to Communist military personnel signify that we’ve left the royally capitalist Kingdom of Thailand and entered the notionally Communist People’s Democratic Republic. In the spirit of Marxist-Leninism, tuk-tuk drivers selflessly offer their ability of mobility to fulfill our need of mobility, asking only for a few green pieces of paper with dead American presidents in exchange. We select one and gun down the highway.
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.