I had initially planned to travel to the border town of Nong Kahi by a sleeper train, but by the morning of the day of travel, all 3 trains have been booked out. The day train from Bangkok to Udon Thani departs at 9.40am and it arrived right on time. Unlike all other trains I’ve taken so far, which were pulled by diesel engine, this one was a train of diesel-powered cars. I got up onboard and quickly find my seat properly kept vacant. Next to me sits an elderly Indian gentleman who looks faily intelligent and polite, from the way he goes about things like getting out of my way to allow me to sit down on his window side.
The car has its doors in the middle of its length, diving the seats into the front and back sections which face towards each other. The seats are fixed in place so if you sit in the front part of the car, you are sitting with your back towards the direction of the train’s movement. The windows are tinted with screen, so the view is not the best, but I’m sure it would be very hot without such screen, especially sitting on the window seat for hours on end.
The Indian gentleman turned out to be an Indian Malaysian. We talked bits about what’s happening in the politics in Malaysia, Thailand. The red shirts were active and Thaksin Shinawatra was on TV the night before. Thaksin is the former prime minister in exile. With strong support from the rural population, he climed up to become a prime minister. But he was power hungry and thoroughly undermined the competitors in the country’s politics while it was said that he was even trying to overthrow the monarchy and claim himself the King of Thailand. Following one of the most peaceful coup d’etat, military temporarily took over the control of the country’s leadership. With well-respected King finally stepping in to call an end to the chaos, a new government was put together. That was back in 2006. Now in exile, Thaksin has called for his supporter to rise to overthrow the government ‘which was not chosen in a democratic manner’. The supporters of his party, the red shirts, surrounded the government house. By the time I got back to my flat in Singapore, he was calling for ‘revolution’ and the situation became violent and messy. The ASEAN summit meeting was compromised because there are substantial number of Thanksin supporters among the police and military who were supposed to barricade the resort which hosted the meeting. So much for the security.
Then we went on talking about the spiritual stuff. He told me he counsels people of various capacity in society, advising what to do. A bit like a fortune reader, I guess. He firmly believe in a certain teaching of Hinduism and the wisdom in it which allow them to predict the future. Apparently, there had been signs for many of things that affected them, such as the 2004 Tsunami. He believes that there will be a serious crisis coming our way, and global warming as we call it is only the beginning of it. He believes that there will be the tough times with potentially millions of people dying. And it is coming very soon, in 6 years. I mentioned to him what I read about the world running out of the sustainable supply of oil in around 2015 according to a prince in one of the nations in the middle east (see Extreme Future).
We take a break from conversation and just sit back in the rocking train as it travels through the plains. Unfocused outline of rice paddies flew past outside the tinted window. He is familiar with this train, travelling a few times a year. His late wife came from this region of Thailand. He is often the only foreigner, with his Indian look, who steps off the train at a small station in her town. Now he is on his way to visit his step daughter.
For some reason, I did not ask his name. It was just nice to talk like people do when they happened to share the train. And somehow I did not think he was looking forward to doing much to do with me, and I thought I’d respect that. Maybe I was wrong. As for me, I was hoping to see him again. But somehow, I was optimistic. If I wanted, if I felt like talking to this guy with his eyes to the future, I can just come down to Thailand, get off the trian at a quiet country station, and ask everyone around about a girl with an Indian step father who comes by a few times a year. They would know. I’m sure they would.
He was telling me how particular food seller who comes to take orders half way up the trip has great food. Unfortunately they did not show. He tells me that the food sellers who were on board from the beginning of our journey had a uniform on, which he’d never seen before. So something might have changed recently, he says, and we settled for one of their lunch boxes.
He got off Ban Phai or somewhere around there, and as the dark comes nearer the train became deserted with only less than half the passengers left on board. Some more get off and some new people get on along the way. As I look at the beatiful country side outside I was getting more anxious. I had little idea about what Udon Thai, the train’s destination, is like. Lonely planet doesn’t get into much detail but gives me the impression that it is a developed town. I’ve no business with a modern town, so I wanted to, if possible, reach Nong Khai today. After all, I kept reminding myself, I am already half day behind. I was supposed to have arrived at Nong Khai at sunrise and spend the day discovering what the town has to offer; at sunset I was still on a train heading north.
The train was due to arrive at 10 minutes after 6pm. The bus is about 1 hour from there to Nong Khai. Time it takes to get to bus station – will I be able to find it easily? Would that be near the train station? No map of Udon Thani here… And what time would the next bus be departing? Then I thought about arriving in Nong Khai. Yes, the map of town is there, and I think it is relatively small. But I still do not know. Arriving somewhere after dark without a booking at accommodation is not among the best of my choices.
And then the train arrived, pretty much on time. It’s nice to know that trains can run on time after all these hours. Maybe not so lucky during the wet season with heavy thunder storm blocking the view of the driver. Maybe.
Udon Thani sure is a much more developed town than Ayutthaya was. Without World Heritage registration many of those historical towns could evolve into those tasteless mass-produced middle class towns. It may be inconvenient for people living there, but I guess as a visitor who is looking for a bit of taste of history, we must appreciate the effort. In front of the train station is a rotary. Only a few taxi drivers or tuk tuk drivers, which I forgot, asked if I needed a ride. Not many tourists arrive in this station, I can imagine. There seem to be a tourist information office in the station but didn’t look particularly useful. Instead, I spotted what seemed like a map of town just across the rotary. Having approached it, to my relief I find everything was writting in both Thai and English. Excellent! Bus station seems to be on the side street or a back street, only a few blocks away on the main street. So I set off. I see a huge hawker centre on my right. It is tempting to sit down, eat good food and relax for a couple of hours. I am sure there are guesthouses, though slightly more expensive. But I did not want to lose the time I could spend looking at a beatufil old town… so I kept pushing on, passing another massage parlor, a tour company, and still seeing no sign of a bus station. Then another block down, I saw a couple of coaches parked on the road side. Yes, I know I’m near. They must be parked near the bus station until the time of departure. Turn the corner into a back street, and now I see half a dozen. I look up the street, and down the street, same view of buses, but I don’t see the bus station. I walked up the street, back towards the general direction of the station, but no improvement. Now I come back down, past the side street I came from, and further down to see a few hawker stands selling satay and stuff. OK. This is good. Soon I was looking at a bus station with more food stands around it.
I got myself a ticket for a bus for 40 bahts (less than SG$2, cheap for a one-hour trip, don’t you think?) and looked for a chicken grill stand. On the journey here, I saw lots of food sellers on train offering those grilled chicken, fish or beef? on bamboo sticks. They looked red-brown and juicy. The Indian gentleman told me that that was best in Udon… so I looked. There was a grand-ma managing a small dirty shop doing the grill, but the meat looked far from fatty. I dismiss other noodle stands, walk to the other end of the bus station. I found myself on a busy street with many people passing by in front of a Seven Eleven. On the side walk spread a few tables and there was a couple of ladies fixing beef noodle. It looks good, so I point at the noodle and ask for one noodle soup (in English, why of course) and sat down at a table near by. Though I did not get to have the famous Udon’s chicken grill, but this noodle soup was very good. Very satisfied, I walked back to the bus station to use the bathroom (10 bahts) before the departure. Never know what may delay the journey, besides, how would I know I could find a room as soon as I arrive in Nong Khai?
The bus was one of those high-floor coach. Some people seem to get off somewhere along the highway. As the view of highway turns from a series of farm machinary dealers and hardware stores into more car dealers and then suddenly it got a bit busier. I knew we were already at a part of Nong Khai, but I couldn’t tell which direction we were coming in from, with dark and all that. When the bus stopped to drop somebody at an interseciton, I went over to the driver and conductor with a map on Lonely Planet and pointed the place I wanted to go to. They said something but did not nod back to me in an assuaring manner. So I sat back, hoping miracles may happen. But the bus soon turned into a narrow corner where the bus station was, and I was watching a gang of tuk tuk drivers pointing fingers at me yelling something outside the window. Great…
I picked up my backpack from the boot and told tuk tuk boys that I’d be walking, with two fingers gesturing a man walking, and took off. I knew, had I gotten off where the bus stopped last time, it saved me a kilometre’s walk.
I walked back towards the direction the bus came from. There were some cars and bikes on the main street, with only a few restaurants still open. The guesthouses are on the river bank side so I cut across to a side street. It was dark but well lit. Nothing scary about it, and I even felt good knowing that this is a living town, not a tourist money generator.
I walked into one of the guesthouses that sounded okay in Lonely Planet listing. But there was no bed available. Next door was also a guesthouse but there was ‘no vacancy’ sign at the entrance. I walked on a bit more, checked another place, but no room. I was getting a bit tired. Around the corner I came to a street where there were a few side-walk eateries. An uncle asked me if I’m okay, and I said I was looking for a guesthouse but they are full. He pointed ahead saying there are more there. Then I came across another one, Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse, which also was listed on Lonely Planet. It was more like a typical Thailand guesthouse for backpackers, in a sense that there was a bar by the river, rooms are set up in a way that remind me of university dorm in Australia. I got myself a room upstairs, a bathroom with hot shower shared by 3 rooms, I was happy. I filled out the book with my name and passport detail. Though the payment was at check-out, they did not keep my passport or anything. Hmm… rather friendly place I see. They explained how it works – they wrote down my name and date of check in on the book with my room number on it. There were many more books like that in the shelf and each seems to be slotted into a shelf with a room number next to it. Basically this is a self-service system where you put down if you take a tea or coffee from kitchen, or if you order food you ask the lady in kitchen to fill out the book for you. At the check-out, you pay the sum. Simple. I said I would probably not be using it as I would eat out and leave the next morning for Laos, and thanked them for showing me. I am more relaxed now that I got a room, and I went back to have a shower and sleep. Nothing to do at night (unless you drink, which I don’t), so much to see in early morning, as they say about early birds.