Friday, October 14, 2005

October 26: Overnight Train to Bangkok (Pai, Chiang Mai)

(1) When I first arrived up north, I purchased an overnight train ticket from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for this day, the 26th, and had to be at the station by 5pm. Not wanting to risk a sold out or broken down public bus from Pai, I paid out for a slightly more expensive 10:30am mini-van ticket from Aya Service. When I arrived in Chiang Mai at two o'clock, I had a little over three hours to kill. Since I never did get to see Doi Suthep, I decided to bite the bullet and pay a red truck driver 300 Baht to take me to the top of the mountain, wait one hour, and drive me back to the train station. The ride up took about 40 minutes, but rewarded my patience with a spectacular (however, hazy) view of the city.

(2) A visit to Doi Suthep epitomizes the extent of Thailand's tourism boom. Here lies one of the holiest sites in the entire country, a place believed to actually contain a bone from the Buddha, and you can't walk three feet without being offered cheap trinkets and other useless souvenirs. Just getting to the long staircase leading up to the temple, one must walk through a gauntlet of vendors, most of whom are selling large painting prints of Thai scenery. Once you push beyond this madness, and up the thousand steps to nowhere, you reach the temple - and it is quite impressive. Of course, this doesn't mean that the capitalism comes to an end... instant photo sales and a myriad of donation boxes are there to remind you that, yes, your money is still good here. Anyway, I walked around for an hour, found my driver, and cruised back to the train station with just enough time to grab dinner and a few snacks for the 12 hour ride to Bangkok.

(3) Train service in Thailand is actually pretty good, but there are some things worth knowing. For starters, when you pay for air conditioning on Thai transportation they don't mess around. One of the smartest things a traveler can do, then, is steal the airline blanket from the flight in... it's human value ranks right up there with the ability to breathe. When purchasing an overnight train ticket, you have several class and amenity choices that dictate how much you are going to pay. I chose the popular second class air-con car, but was forced to take the slightly less expensive upper bunk. I wanted the lower, but these tend to sell out quickly (just like train tickets in general... plan ahead). The lower bunk is slightly larger, yes, but its value doesn't come from its size, but, rather, its ability to block out light. The florescent bulbs above the center walkway stay on for the duration of the trip, and the upper bunk curtain doesn't do a spectacular job of keeping your sleeping quarters dark. Here, again, you can utilize your airline blanket by either shoving it in the open spaces between the curtain and the ceiling or duct-taping it flush to the top of the train, letting it hang down. Fortunately, I had my blanket and eye-shades, so I managed to sleep just fine.

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