Getting Stuck on the Train to Bangkok

When I was told the train from Surat Thani in southern Thailand to Bangkok could be very delayed, I brushed it off; the entire trip costs $34, and posed a chance to see the Thai countryside – it sounded like a great deal to me! A local travel agent on Koh Samui booked everything for me: a shared bus from the hostel to the port; a ferry from Koh Samui to the mainland; a bus from the port to Surat Thani train station; and an overnight second-class sleeper bunk. Once again, door-to-door the entire trip cost me $34, and would take 21 hours total. What’s the worst that could happen!

Although the train wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:30pm, we were picked up at noon so we could catch the last ferry of the day; and so my journey began. The ferry to the mainland was the longest, but most beautiful, of all the ferries I had taken up to that point, but none of the hungover backpackers seemed to appreciate the large waves rolling along the coast. Once we made it to port, I snagged a front seat on the second floor of the 3 hour bus to Surat Thani station. Driving along the hectic Thai roads in that double-decker made me feel like I was riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, but luckily we didn’t have to magically squeeze through any alleys.

We arrived at Surat Thani train station around 6pm with several hours to kill. I set up camp in the station’s only coffee shop and passed the time with fellow travelers: an American girl whose month-long trip had been cut short by a moto accident in Koh Samui and ensuing broken arm; a British couple taking a few weeks off their retail jobs to backpack around Krabi and Phuket; a couple of Australian guys who’d been traveling for quite some time doing everything from scuba diving to kitesurfing (why are Australians always so darn sporty?). As the train’s scheduled arrival time crept close, we began to hear the delay announcements: from 9:30pm, to 10:30pm, to midnight, to 1:30am…. By 2:30am, several hours after the coffee shop had closed, I gave up and laid down on the platform between grumpy German tourists and a Thai family who were much more prepared with their blankets and pillows.

Around 3:30am our train finally pulled in and we all staggered onto our cars, feeling too much like zombies to show any relief. As I boarded my car I was surprised at how brightly lit it was; was it going to stay this way the entire night? Indeed it was. When I found my bunk I realized why the upper beds are cheaper than lower ones: quite a low overhead and no windows make you feel like you’re in a constantly rocking submarine. I hoisted my bags up, clambering down the ladder to find the bathroom, which turned out to be a hole in the train floor. Luckily I’d stocked up on bottled water to brush my teeth and wash my face; then it was time to brave the squatting toilet. I began playing the “how-few-surface-areas-can-I-touch” game, and was winning until our train came to a screeching halt. I slammed my hands out sideways as I tried to save myself from hurtling forward. I mostly credit my yoga-hardened thighs and toes with keeping me from flying headfirst across the slick metal floor wet with… yea, I’m glad that didn’t happen.

My dreams that night were frequently dotted with people getting on and off, shouting train conductors, and the glaring light through the neon green curtain. It was trippy, for sure. Early the next morning, people began magically transforming their bunks into seats, loudly slamming them as the upper bunks disappeared into the ceiling and the bottom bunks flipped up into cushioned chairs facing each other. Still groggy from lack of sleep, I reluctantly allowed the no-nonsense train attendant to manhandle my submarine bunk and create two chairs. I sat down next to my bunkmate, a Japanese university student traveling on his winter break, and shared my deer jerky with him that was so lovingly packed by my Aunt Ruth before my departure. “The greatest travel food!”, she told me as she wrapped it up into several Ziploc baggies, “Doesn’t go off and lots of protein!”. I refrained from telling my new friend that it was deer, as I wasn’t sure how I would explain that in very basic English; for some reason I blurted out that it was beef and then it was too late to go back. “Mmm!”, he said as he tasted it, “Spicy! Black pepper??”. I really hope he isn’t from some Japanese deer-worshipping religious sect.

As I was grossly unprepared nourishment-wise for our delay, I was increasingly thankful for the food vendors who hopped on and off the trains at different stops to sell the local food. I tried everything that came my way, much to the enjoyment of my Thai friends with whom I was unable to communicate with whatsoever. Many hand gestures ensued. I’m still not sure what all I tried but it was (mostly) delicious!

By the time our train rolled into Bangkok at 6:30pm, a whopping 9 hours late, I thought I would never be able to walk straight after the continual swaying I’d endured for 15 hours. But at least I had made it, my flight to Bali wasn’t for another 12 hours, and I was in Bangkok!

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