Before I had decided to take the time to “get this travelling thing out of my system”, failing horribly in the process, Duncan and I had discussed a diving trip – possibly to Zanzibar. In fact, my original itinerary included a couple of weeks in Zanzibar at the start of the trip, followed by Tokyo. As regular readers of this travel blog will recall – Tokyo ended up being my first stop.
Instead, Duncan and I planned to get some diving done in the celebrated waters of southern Thailand. We were initially a little apprehensive: the timings with the Monsoon season weren’t ideal. Monsoon rains wash nutrients and sediment from the soil into the sea, decreasing visibility underwater. But after quite a bit of reading around the subject, we planned it in anyway.
And what a good decision that was – if only to escape the oppressive heat of Bangkok for the sea breeze. It was at times 41 centigrade and 90% humidity in the Thai capital. Often, we’d dash from one 7-Eleven to another to seek refuge in the air conditioning as we made our way to wherever we were trying to get to.
So one steamy weeknight, we hopped onto a Metro train to get to the main train station, Hualamphong. The Metro system (and most shopping malls) is guarded by a private security firm, a consequence of the recent unrest in Bangkok. For some reason, the local train system, which supplements the Metro, is not policed. Going through one checkpoint with my bags, I set off all the alarms (of course). A quick glance in my daypack was enough to satisfy the guard. He was quite happy to let me saunter through the checkpoint without having looked at my 75-litre rucksack. He even gave me a salute as I went past.
Arriving at the station, we found our train pretty quickly. The train next to it was being hosed down by a chap walking along the carriage roof, shooting steam off the hot metal.
Jumping on to our carriage, we found our seats and then took turns to forage for food in the station waiting hall. The waiting hall was jam-packed with travelers, most of whom were sitting on the floor. The ones that weren’t were monks. Monks have their own reserved seating area, nice if you can get it.
I stopped to get some spring rolls from a stall and water and beer from a supermarket. I thought this was good preparation for the trip. Duncan, having traveled extensively by rail through India, had a better idea:
As we pulled out, we were offered a look at the menu. Food was extra, but the menu looked good, so we ordered a curry each. Later, a chap who presumably was hitching on the train to sell, walked down the carriage trying to sell beer. His sales pitch was almost persuasive – proffering the ice-cold bottle and pressing it to our hands.
The carriage layout was unusual for a sleeper. Instead of arranging the sleeper into compartments of four, as per the Vietnamese model and most other sleeper trains I know of, the bunks lined the length of the carriage. Duncan and I had a lower- and upper- bunk respectively. At the beginning of the journey, as we lurched slowly out of the city (after 1 hour we were already 1 hour late), our bunks were not made up and the lower bunk served as two window seats facing each other. Later in the evening, a guard made his way down the carriage and made the bunks up for the passengers. The lights in the carriage stayed on the whole night, but a curtain for each bunk ensured privacy.
I slept pretty fitfully. The bunk was long enough to fit me, but I never really feel rested on sleeper trains. Perhaps I’m just too excited. In any case, it was far better than the alternative of sitting upright for 10 hours.
As we left Bangkok, two guards came through the carriage and checked our destinations, making notes on a clipboard. These notes came into play at 0600 as we neared Chumphon, our transfer point over to a ferry to Koh Tao. The guard made sure we got off at the right stop. It also became clear that there was a massive advantage to the train being delayed. The ferry company allows 3.5 hours between the scheduled arrival of the train and the departure of the ferry to Koh Tao. This is mostly to allow for the train to be late, and given that the train was late, it meant that we could have a lie-in on the train rather than waiting at a train station in the dark.
The Ladyboy ticket agent at the ferry company office denied that we had a transfer to the ferry included with our ticket. This was despite assurances to the contrary from our ticket agent. Tip: Make sure you get three tickets if you ever do this trip: 1 ticket for the train, 1 for the ferry and 1 for the transfer to the ferry.
After a little bleary-eyed drama, we made it to the pier where the catamaran waited to take us on a ninety-minute journey to a whole new side of Thailand.