Fellow travelers (if not in space then at least through time),
We are about a week and a half into our month-long Thailand journey and already too much has happened to it all share here. So what I'm opting for is to present you with a small vignette from one of our more challenging (though also exciting in a life-affirming way) moments. Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures in that moment itself because it was (1) not very photogenic and (2) not at the top of my list of priorities to take pictures. I think I could've done better on the second point because even when the pictures are 'ugly' there is always a reason to document whatever's going on.
Alas, I'll resort to sharing some general highlights from our trip so far and will report back with a more extensive photo report next month. Enjoy this selection of my current favorites while I talk you through what happened to us on the night of January 22nd, 2024.
Taking a gamble
'What are you doing?! Where you go?!' a man in his fifties or sixties (or seventies, it's hard to tell) hangs out of the train window, naked torso on display and the cigarette smoke leaving a trail behind his words. 'We go here! Pathiu!' we yell back as the train speeds up again in front of us. I catch a final glimmer of his doubting gaze. Are we not making a mistake?
Just thirty minutes ago, still onboard the train, I realized our accommodation for the night was right in the middle of the upcoming stop, Pathiu (also spelled Pathio and Pathiew), and the final one we booked our ticket to: Chumphon Town. Getting off one station early would shave off a good half hour of our train journey, and the final drive would be an equal twenty-something minutes. The map indicates Pathiu to be a mid-sized town with a couple of 7-Elevens, a Lotus's Express supermarket and online blogs refer to it as an incoming transit hub for the nearby regional airport. Enough indication for us to think we might be travel-hacking our way into our destination Hat Thung Wua Luan, one of Chumphon's beaches.
The train has cleared the platform so we cross the tracks into the train station. It's deserted, save a handful of locals either servicing the only ticket counter or waiting to catch their own train into Bangkok, the city we just left. We look around to explore our options but don't easily spot one. If nothing is here, we figure, we can always go to the closest 7-Eleven, conveniently located on one of the main roads, and flag a taxi down from there. Just to be sure though, I go to the ticket counter and ask, 'Sawadee krap, do you have taxi here?' I say to the man who immediately gets up to grab one of the youngins working in the back. 'Hello, no taxi, no taxi here in the night' the young man says while shaking his head in sympathy. Oh shoot, I think, now what?
What follows is about an hour of the locals calling and texting their friends while interacting with us mostly through Google Translate. Charlotte (my girlfriend and travel companion) makes a new friend who insists on taking selfies for her Facebook and uses her limited English to trick Charlotte into befriending her on the platform as well. Eventually, I'm tapped on the shoulder by one of the younger guys and he shows me his phone, 'Transportation fee 600 bath 2 persons' I read on his screen. I nod in a mix of approval and gratitude and he returns to his phone. Another ten minutes pass when a new guy pulls up in his pickup truck. Another show of the phone, 'You go in the back,' followed by 'Change the car halfway.’ I realize this might be our only option to leave this town, so I break Charlotte away from her conversation and we hop in the back of the pickup, accompanied by one of the younger local guys. We're about to head off when we get one last show of the phone: 'He is coming with you for company.’ We nod politely but also with slightly heightened suspicions as it's now two random Thai guys with us instead of just one. Do I need to feel safer by him joining or perhaps a little threatened instead? We take off.
It's always good to be a little more cautious in these types of situations, despite the general population of Thailand being extremely friendly and harm not coming your way easily. Still, we are two travelers who very clearly are on our own and have all our belongings on our backs so they could just take the stuff and, you know, leave us to our faiths. I'm about 90% sure they won't do that but I'm keeping a close eye on my maps app while remaining very friendly and in continuous contact with all the people we interact with regardless.
Another phone screen points in our direction, this time from our accompanying friend, 'Where are you from?' we read from the Google Translate page. We take some time to type and show him our response: 'From Holland, Amsterdam! We want to see the real Thailand that's why we come here'. We hope sharing little bits of information about why we are in this forgotten part of the country helps cultivate some kind of sympathy or understanding for our presence. Our friend nods in understanding as we approach a house alongside the road. We are now really in the middle of nowhere but my maps app tells me we're still going in the right direction. Our driver gets out and walks over to another car and backs it out of its parking space. He gestures to us to get in while he walks to, I assume, his house. A woman and a little boy, maybe two years old, appear at the door to see what's happening. Our driver picks up the boy, gives him a little kiss on the cheek and puts him on the middle console between himself and the other guy. Seatbelts are not mandatory for children under three years, it seems.
I'm a little puzzled by the inclusion of the little guy but then it hits me. Just as our earlier companion's purpose was, this little boy tagging along is meant as an extra affirmation from the locals to us that they are, in fact, to be trusted and do not intend to take our stuff and dump us on the side of the road. It's as if they are saying, 'Hey man, we are regular people just trying to help you out. Look! Here's my home, my wife, my baby. We are good people, no worries.' It makes sense. What sick mind would intentionally bring along their child for an inbound highway robbery? I share my thoughts with Charlotte and she nods in agreement. She also had a similar feeling.
The remaining ride is calm and amicable and we are dropped off at our hotel a little after 11 PM. We get out of the vehicle and pay the helpful people 800 Baht to signal our gratitude and appreciation for their kindness. We exchange head bows with our palms firmly pressed together, accompanied by many khawp khun krap's (Thai for thank you, Google Translate tells me it's properly written as ขอบคุณ, the anglicization doesn't really do it justice). We made it. Not faster as intended, but as safe as always and with another story to tell under our belts.
I can't wait to see what happens in the upcoming three weeks.