Here’s a traveller’s tale set in Thailand. We wanted to journey by train from Bangkok to Chang Mai on an overnight sleeper train. Just obtaining the ticket turned the clock back to a time when Rudyard Kipling was in his youth. First we obtained a number at a kiosk. We took that number, just a simple figure like 8 or 9, to an office where a man wrote our names in a great ledger. We then went to another office where we were assigned seats and canvas bunk beds that unrolled from the side of the carriage. Finally, we went to the last office, where we were issued with tickets for the 6 pm train to Chang Mai.
We were excited. This was our first long rail trip in the Far East.
At quarter-to-six that evening we boarded a train which said ‘Bangkok to Chang Mai’ on the side in big letters. The platform from which it was leaving was registered on both our tickets. We stowed our luggage, sat in our seats and were delighted to be served curry from a man who had a portable paraffin stove set up in the linked bit between the next carriage and ours. We had especially opted for no air conditioning, because we like the climate of Thailand and don’t like to freeze.
The train pulled out at precisely 6 pm.
Once out in the countryside we would stop only at the odd station, but on the edge of Bangkok there were a number of suburban halts where people could board. At about 7 pm a Thai family entered our carriage. There was dad, mum and two children. The mild-looking man confronted us, inspected his own tickets, and said politely, ‘Madam and sir, you are in our seats.’
I took out our tickets, looked at the seat numbers, checked the carriage number, and shook my head.
‘I’m sorry, you’ve made a mistake. These are our seats.’
He shrugged and showed me his tickets. I showed him mine. They were identical. Damn railway clerks, I thought. They’ve either sold the seats twice, or made a stupid error. All those ledgers too! You would think the system infallible with so much bureaucracy.
‘I must fetch the ticket inspector,’ said the Thai gentleman. ‘He’ll know what to do.’
‘Good idea,’ I replied, safe in the knowledge that possession was nine tenths of the law. ‘He’ll sort it out.’
In the meantime I offered my seat to the man’s wife and Annette chatted to the two children.
The ticket inspector turned out to be a corpulent official covered in gold lanyards, medals and scrambled egg. He looked like an amiable general in Thailand’s army. However, he was accompanied by a lean narrow-eyed lieutenant who wore a gun at his hip. This one looked like an officer in the Vietcong, the one from the movie The Deerhunter who keeps yelling, ‘Wai! Wai! Wai!’ or some such word into the ear of Robert de Niro. This man’s hand never left his gun butt as he stared at me from beneath the slanted peak of his immaculate cap.
Neither of these rail officials spoke English.
The ticket inspector studied all the tickets on show and then spoke softly to the gentleman with the nice family.
‘He wants to know,’ said the gentleman, turning to me, ‘why you are on the wrong train?’
We were nonplussed. Stunned.
‘What wrong train?’ I argued. ‘This is the 6 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ came the calm reply, ‘this is the 3 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, running late as usual.’
‘What? You mean…’
‘All trains run late here, sir. The 6 pm will still be standing in the station. The ticket inspector says you will have to get off at the next station and wait for your right train.’
Annette and I stared out of the window at the blackness rushing by. The jungle stations we swept through had no lights whatsoever. They were deep pits of darkness in a world of slightly lesser darkness. I had visions of standing on one of those rickety wooden platforms trying to flag down an express. It was scary. Too scary to contemplate. I’m sure the people who lived near those stations were perfectly respectable citizens, but the night-time jungle does things with the imagination. There was no way we were going to get off our train, now that we were rattling towards Chang Mai.
Through our gentleman translator we managed to persuade the inspector to let us stay on the train. At first he wanted to sell us first class tickets to the air conditioned compartments. When that didn’t work – Annette digging in her heels – he found us similar seats to the ones we already had. It occurred to me he could have done that in the first place, but since all was well that ended well, I really didn’t care.
There is a post script to this short tale.
To avoid any repetition of this near horror story, we chose to return to Bangkok by a reliable bus. Annette and I boarded the coach to find our booked seats occupied by two young men in orange robes. Conscript monks. It seems that Thai men are expected to spend one year in the army and then one year as a Buddhist monk. During that latter year they are apparently entitled to all sorts of privileges, such as nicking booked seats with impunity. They are untouchable in that sense. These two refused even to make eye contact with us.
They wouldn’t budge. They knew their rights.
A fierce woman conductor intervened. She told Annette and me to ‘get off the bus’. We informed her we had tickets for the seats these two oranges were occupying. We were not going to leave. Other passengers began to get restless. The driver started looking panicky. Finally he came to us with his hands clasped as if in prayer and said, ‘Sir, Madam, I beseech you. I implore with you to understand my problem and leave the bus.’ We sighed, gave up and got off the vehicle. It’s a tough man who can withstand a Thai beseeching, I can tell you. Tougher than me, anyway. We collected our luggage from underneath the bus and waited for another coach. Hopefully Chang Mai had run out of monks and we could get back to Bangkok on the next one. And where do Thai bus drivers learn English words like ‘beseech’? I guarantee half the population of the English-speaking world doesn’t use that word. He had probably read Chaucer and Piers Ploughman, while all I know of the Thai language is ‘Good day’.
On My Way To Samarkand is available in ebook and print editions: