After a night amidst the foreigner chaos on Khao San and the surrounding area, I had a good portion of the day to pass until my train to Chiang Mai left around 18:00. The place I stayed overnight did not offer luggage holding and storage for a fee.
Instead, I took my backpack with me over to Café Lampu and spent most of the afternoon there, eating, playing pool, and chatting with the 2 British guys I had met there the day before. I did leave at one point to run a couple errands.
When the time was nearing for me to go to the train station, I thanked Mama for her hospitality as she waved me off. Roger and Link would be staying there for an indefinite amount of time, so I also said goodbye to them as well. Mama also made me promise I would come back when I returned to Bangkok.
Hailing a cab and arriving at the train station 30 minutes later for just under 100 baht. I had about an hour wait until the train began boarding. So, grabbing myself a hotdog, Thai-style (on a stick and in a bag with ketchup squeezed in) I spent the time reading over the Lonely Planet guide about Chiang Mai.
Aside from the short ride from Gloucester to Boston back last spring, I had never actually ridden a train. So, I wasn’t entirely sure how the whole system worked as I was boarding. I had gotten a second-class sleeper ticket, bottom bunk. It was still early in the evening as we all boarded, though, so there was no beds set up.
Instead, there were doublewide benches facing each other. I ended up sitting across from two American girls who were on a trip together as one had just finished up a semester abroad and the other was beginning one. We chatted a few times throughout the night and throughout the onboard dinner.
Come 20:30, train personnel began to come through, asking us to stand up and move our luggage as they set up the beds. My lower bunk provided more space than the top bunk did, and was actually more comfortable to lie on than I expected it would be.
Still, comfortable as it may have been, whether car or bus or plane or train, I cannot ever seem to bring myself to sleep properly while in transit. I was out for brief periods, only to reawaken for longer periods.
I spent a good bit of the night looking out the window and seeing the khom loi of Loi Krathong the festival I had wanted to be in Chiang Mai for. These khom loi (or ‘balloons’ as they seemed to be commonly called) are large cylinders covered in tissue paper (usually while or orange) and are then lit are the base and function much like hot air balloons, lifting off and then the flame’s light glowing through the tissue paper. These are lit by the thousands during Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai and I had wanted to be there to see it. Unfortunately, this was the soonest train ride I could get, and so I was stuck watching whatever parts of it I could out of the window.
The lack of ability to sleep did come with one nice advantage though. I was awake to see the night give way to the first light breaking over the distant eastern mountains of the Thailand countryside.
Soon, this countryside gave way to the mountains itself, and our train was passing through the bases of forested peaks and eerily unnatural-looking cones. These were cut across by random rivers and enshrouded in a secluding fog. Throughout this all were spaced towns that appeared s if they would have no other connection to the world other than this train that whizzes right past them without even giving a hint of stopping.
We arrived into Chiang Mai around 10:00, 4 hours later than the usual 12-hour ride it takes because of some delay having to do with the flood. I had heard rumors while in Bangkok that the route had actually been shut down for a few days because the rails were flooded. It wouldn’t have surprised me, as I could have sworn I heard the train cutting through water in the silence of the night
The train station was full of every way into town Thailand has to offer; motorbike taxis, regular taxis, tuk-tuks, and songthaews. I negotiated 100 baht for a ride to Julie Guesthouse in the central part of the city.
A few weeks earlier, a contact of my mother’s had offered me a cheap apartment to stay in for however long I needed. But I’d be stuck in an apartment soon enough once I got settled in Bangkok after ATI in a couple weeks. For now, I was willing to sacrifice a small bit of comfort and privacy for the social aspect that travel and hostels provided.
I got checked into Julie Guesthouse quickly enough and met my roommates, a Dutchman on a 3-week holiday through the area, and an American girl who had just gotten out of a volunteer position in the U.S. Peace Corp in the Philippines. We all went down to the open-air lounge area to grab a drink and talk for a while.
Julie Guesthouse had a kind of interesting take on the honor system. Each room had its own book, and each guest wrote their name in the book and each item they took from the cooler or ordered from the menu, and that was totaled up at checkout.
More people joined us as we were talking, and before long, we had a group of about 10 swapping tales and questions. Chiang Mai has a reputation of Thailand’s foreigner paradise. It seemed to be living up to that so far.