Shortly after graduating from college, when I had enough money saved up, my fearless friend Lani & I bought Around the World plane tickets for like $2,000 that literally took us around the world in 80 days. We began in Hong Kong and ended in Paris and in between stopped in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius and the UK. This except was from the Thailand portion of this trip. It was my first time ever in Asia, and the entry comes from a journal entry kept at the time, so it is also one of my earliest exercises in travel writing, before I worked professionally in the industry.
I had two main reasons for choosing the top berth on the overnight train to Surat Thani. The first was that it was cheaper. The second was that if I was on the top bunk it would be harder for roaming bands of thieves to steal my backpack while I was sleeping. Of course by cheaper I mean, it was about 60 baht cheaper. Sixty baht is about a buck-and-a-half, which in the scope of things, or not even in the scope of things, is not a whole lot, in fact it’s a pittance. Lani being so much more sensible than me, and not worried about the extra $1.50, chose the bottom bunk.
At first the train seems all right. It pulls out of the station just as the sun is sinking low in the sky, and Lani and I settle into our seats, which had yet to be pulled out into beds, order two Chang beers in a can, and make small talk with the British boys sitting next to us.
“Where are you going?” they ask.
“Koh Samui and then Koh Pha Ngan,” I say.
“You should skip Koh Samui,” the blonde boy says. “It’s old news. Even Koh Pha Ngan is getting old.”
Thinking he is just talking like a wanna-be pretentious backpacker, I smile, nodded my head, and say we’ll think about his suggestion. I’m still determined to go to Koh Samui, one because our boat ticket is already taking us there, and two because I am sort of convinced that it isn’t all that played out and people just say it is because they have read the backpacker mantra turned Leonardo DiCaprio disaster, The Beach by Alex Garland, which sort of reads like a Lonely Planet guide to Thailand. Garland didn’t have much love for Koh Samui (or the Lonely Planet for that matter). The Lonely Planet still has much love for Koh Samui, and I am trusting them for the time being.
“We’re thinking of skipping Koh Pha Ngan and just heading straight to Koh Tao,” the blonde boy continues. “That’s where it’s at. That place is still real.”
“I thought none of Thailand was ‘real’ anymore,” I counter sarcastically. I hate people that talk negatively about countries they are traveling in just to try to sound cool and “backpackerly.” “I mean for real you have to go to Laos or ‘Nam right?”
“Yeah man that’s right,” the blonde boy’s companion says. He’s a chubby, badly sunburned brunette. “You know we’re not staying in Thailand that long. Just enough to get a tan, then we’re heading to other parts of Asia.”
The funny thing is Lani and I run into these same boys more than a week later on Hat Rin beach in Koh Phagnan. They’re wandering aimlessly between huts and spot us.
“The girls from the train,” they say.
“Oh hi,” Lani replies.
“You never made it to Koh Tao?” I ask.
The boys looked confused.
“Why go there?,” the blonde one finally responds “when the weed is so good here?”
“Yeah man, we’ve been stoned all day all night since we got here,” his friend says with a grin. “You girls want to smoke?”
We shake our heads: no thanks.
But back to the train. Tired of the inane conversation, I turn to my new book. Having dumped half of the “essential reading material” in Hong Kong, I have now purchased a new set of books at a second hand shop in Bangkok.
As soon as I crawl into my top-bunk I realize I should have spent the extra $1.50. The bunks have curtains to separate you from your other second class sleeping companions, but apparently the lights in second class stay on all night, and the curtains do zilch to block out the florescent light directly above my bunk. There is also no air-conditioning, and no fans. Lani has kept the window open, but the window is next to her bunk and her bunk manages to keep any cool breezes from filtering up to my high berth. So it’s stifling hot, and brilliantly bright. I try to stay positive. I put on my discman and tell myself that in just eight hours this train ride will be over and in about 15 hours I am going to be sitting on a beautiful white beach staring into the gulf of Thailand and sipping a yummy tropical concoction served out of a coconut. That, and the pillow over my eyes, works for a little while until my legs start to itch.
I take off my earphones and listen for the offending mosquito. Except for the quiet laughter echoing from three or four bunks down, the train is silent. There is no unmistakable buzz of a mosquito. Okay, I think, it bit me and moved on. I tuned back into my music and scratched my legs, but now my arms are itching too, and come to think of it so is my back and my butt and even my chest. I squirm around, not sure what is going on. I sit up, but I still feel like I am being eaten alive. It’s not very comfortable. I get up, walk to the bathroom and then lean against the door of the train, which is left open. I breathe in Thailand. I’m still itchy, but I don’t feel like I’m in the process of being bitten anymore. I stumbled back to my bunk. L’s sleeping soundly, snoring lightly. I crawl back in and try to sleep, and the invisible army of bed bugs begins their offensive again.
The bed bugs bit all night long. I roll around, curse, try to think nice thoughts, but it doesn’t do any good. I sleep fitfully and wake up when a small Thai man comes screaming through the train compartment saying “Up, everyone up, we’re almost at the station.” I jump up. It’s 5:30 in the morning. My head is pounding, my eyes are full of sleep and I feel like shit. Nevertheless, sure that the train is about to stop and if I don’t get off I’m going to be stuck going to Malaysia, I start cramming my stuff into my pack and screaming to L to get a move on it. Lani slowly gets out of the bed, peers up at me and says “what?” sleepily.
“Our stop is next. The conductor is getting everyone up.”
“What time is it?”
“Early, but hurry up we have to get off like NOW.”
Lani actually looks refreshed. She starts packing her bag.
“How did you sleep?” she asks.
“I didn’t. That fucking light stayed on all night and then there were bed-bugs. It was horrible. Next time we’re taking that bus.”
“I didn’t have any bed-bugs. I slept great,” Lani says. “I love trains. I just let the wheels lull me to sleep. It was wonderful. There was even a breeze.”
“I didn’t have a breeze,” I grumble.
“Well, I told you to get the bottom bunk, you wanted to save $1.50.”
I just glare at her. My legs are covered in itchy white spots and right now I feel like pummeling her. To make matters worse, our train is no where near the station, the Thai Railways employee simply wanted to put the bunks up! I had finally fallen somewhat asleep and I was awakened because the guy wanted to get his job over with, so he could probably go back to sleep. Fucking great.
Once the sun rises though, the night’s misery is quickly forgotten. I’m on a train in Thailand. That’s pretty damn cool. One night of sleeplessness seems totally insignificant now that I’m passing rivers shrouded in mist. The train stops for a moment and I watch as local children jump off a wooden dock into the gray waters. I snap pictures left and right. I rub the sleep from my eyes. My headache dissipates and I’m just happy to be alive, to be here, to be experiencing this. The train is leftover from the 50s, it’s all metal and torn cushions, but suddenly it’s wonderful. We must be at a local village because all of the sudden small Thai women come on board with giant plates of chicken, which they sell to the tourists for pennies. I eat chicken for breakfast, lick my sticky fingers, and even grin at the British boys. I can’t wait to get to the islands. I’m on the adventure of a lifetime and no stupid bed bug is going to get me down from now on. Well, from now on I’m going to pay the extra $2 for the bottom bunk.