The Bangkok rail station is a Victorian relic with digital screen additions, a pleasant empty space with large arched windows filled with plain stained glass, as I remember, primarily in pink. I found my platform and talked with a young couple, traveling first class, happy and exhilarated because they were going on an elephant trek.
The first class attendant looked at me disparagingly and sent me down the platform to second class where, after figuring out the system, or so I thought, I seated myself. An attendant came along and removed me to the next car. As I settled in, another attendant showed up and moved me back to where I had originally seated myself.
My companions in the cubicle, which is not closed off from the corridor, were three young Thai men, with phones, cameras and backpacks. I can remember when no Thai knew what a backpack was. I felt I was the local anomaly.
We crawled out of Bangkok in darkness alternately passing great avenues of light halted for our benefit and through desperate slums of houses fabricated from whatever can be found, scrounged or stolen lit from inside by small charcoal cooking fires, their outer walls hedged by squalid heaps of garbage.
I slept neither well nor much that night. I was awakened by the restaurant waitress’s voice, a Thai version of Ethel Merman. I ordered rice soup with chicken for breakfast. It arrived with some lethal looking orange juice of chemical origin. But the coffee was quite okay.
A delightful mystery, last night the john at the end of the car was spotless and odorless. This morning it was a little damp but still spotless and odorless. On a Chinese train it would have been awash in urine and stinking.
As I ate my rice and chicken breakfast we passed through, on either side right up to the tracks, the greenest, most luxuriant jungle, plant clambering on top of plant for sun, vines climbing ruthlessly over everything. I had forgotten how the bamboo throws its high feathery arches over its lowly neighbors. Not one flower anywhere, just a seething wave of green rising and falling from its tree heights up the hills, which are the early, ripples of the Himalayas.
There were open spaces planted with orderly rows of rice in squares with a brown thatched hut beside them on skinny poles. The paddies were green velvet carpets in the most vivid shade of yellow green.
A military man came through to tell us we would be two hours late but that the scenery would be lovely. The young men sitting opposite me were unimpressed. I wondered if this is a friendliness ploy by the military who are in control.
I was met by my friend Mike who has recently moved to Chiangmai from Taipei. We caught a bright red song taew, a sort of truck with an open back and hurtled through a city where I recognized nothing, not surprising after an absence of twenty-five years. The air pollution was not dire but it was definitely there. Leaving the four-lane highway we had been on we wound through little lanes to a charming, small hotel, the Zzziesta, cuddled up in trees. There are cupboards at the foot of the open stairs for your shoes. Behind the stair is a long fishpond full of yellow, purple and the usual red and white koi lazing about. They come to the edge of the pool to gaze up at you if you approach. My room was large, airy with a handsome black stone bathroom and a balcony looking out on nothing in particular.
I took a shower, hung my clothes in the cupboard and then Mike and I walked to a restaurant down the lane and around the corner called K’s which serves excellent Tom Kha Gai and a very hot pork dish that was superb. I wish there were some way to store up these lovely Thai food experiences for the doldrums of Barcelona’s Thai restaurants.
We caught another song taew to the center of town and Wat Chedi Luang, which I did recognize, but oh my, it is so clean, neat, spiffy and manicured now. The wat I remember was crumbling, sprouting trees and flowers from it joints, in a sort of vegetable slumber. Behind the sparkling wat is a brick structure, some centuries old, surrounded by perhaps half life sized elephants, their ears spread and their trunks curling down. Many of the elephants are missing but enough remain to give an idea of how impressive the structure must have been. I remember them well but surely their ears, so thin and fragile are redos. Behind the elephants are two small wats one in dark wood that I also recalled because it’s façade has inlays of, purple, gold and clear mirrors that are striking against the darkness of the teak.
Another song taew to the Temple of the Golden Mountain with pleasant views and then, at the urging of our song taew driver another wat, even higher, where one takes a form of transport halfway between a tram and an elevator that pulls one up the steep hill sideways. The hill ends in a series of terraces many of which, oddly, considering the orchid growing abilities of Thailand, are covered with bushels and bushels or plastic orchids, roses, frangipanis, tulips, very strange, and any other bloom you can think of.
Coming down we tried to find postcards in the hotel’s neighborhood but there were not any, not even in the very dull mall on the main highway. Conceding defeat I went happily to my motionless bed.
I came down stairs to find it was raining, not the heavy, “let’s get this over with”, pour of a monsoon, but the slow, “I think I’ll do this all day,” sort of rain.
There are two breakfasts available at the Zzziesta. One is western. I never tried it. The other is a Lanna breakfast of four different kinds of pork with black and white sticky rice covered with sesame seeds, chemical orange juice, coffee, and Thai bean deserts. There was as well a heavenly hot sauce with the pork.
A song taew took us to Chedi Chang Lom that is sort of at the back of Wat Chiangman. It was quiet, serene with few people about. There is another old chedi with elephants whose ears surely have been repaired. A gold top has been added. The elephant’s trunks touch the ground and curl up. People have put into that curl three or four short pieces or sugar cane.
The grounds are perfectly kept and wandering in them with an air of imperial possession, erect tail and large green eyes was a grey mottled cat, obviously a monk’s pet. It did not encourage gestures of intimacy. As Mike and I circled we came to a new building, where we sat down out of the heat, with modern, not very terrific paintings, but there was one of my favorite Buddhist scenes. Buddha, in the maelstrom of temptations thrown at him by Mara, the demon, called upon Earth to help him. She wrang out of her hair all the offerings he had made to her of clear, pure water that drowned all the demons. A lovely little parable of what goes around comes around.
Having asked for a store that sold postcards, we took a red song taew there. It was run by a chubby middle-aged man who was arranging his stamps for sale. We agreed on a bargain price for 100 postcards—I write in the vicinity of 300 every year—and I harvested them from their slots on the stands outside his door. When I came back in to pay, he had been joined by a companion with a female form and a deep voice. Mike and I speculated on this being a case of a Lady-Boy.
We then, foolishly, considering what experienced people Mike and I are in this eastern world, allowed our tuktuk driver to take us to a “handicrafts place”. I think this was my fault. It turned out to be an endless stream of “handicraft places” starting with the silk weaving store with very ordinary, not particularly good silk and none of the really extraordinary silk one used to be able to buy in this region of Thailand, a silver shop, then a dress shop, followed by a really bad jewelry shop and a carpet shop. Here we were greeted by that East of Suez phenomenon, the Kashmiri salesman. These are gentlemen of infinite wheedling charm. Never have I bargained with one successfully. I own a beautiful silk carpet that you can’t walk on because of one of these mesmerizers. He showed us carpets. He explained weaving methods, materials, dyes. I enjoyed the entire process but was not tempted by the extremely low price he offered.
Mike managed to kill off the driver’s eager offers of further buying opportunities. He took us to a wat; I’ve no idea which one. As I removed my shoes, I could hear chanting. We went in and listened to the monks in their orange rows, their voices making the same pattern over and over. Mike translated for me, “Take refuge in the Buddha; take refuge in the Dharma; take refuge in the Sana.” At the end of one of the orange rows, a large white dog with brown spots lay comfortably on the carpet before the altar.
I could have stood a long time listening. That repetition can either be soothing and hypnotic or totally irritating. Our sullen driver pounced on us as we came out the door. He would only give us fifteen minutes more. That was enough, however, to see a small building at the back whose walls were covered with delicate faded, blue murals, largely destroyed by water damage, but still beautiful.
And so to bed at the very nice Zzziesta. The next day, both Mike and I being watted out, we went to the Lanna Museum. The Lanna are the original inhabitants of northern Thailand. It is a beautiful little place, just the right size, constructed from dark, honey colored wood, high ceilings, with all kinds of details, such as etched glass guardian figures. The first floor is full of things peculiar to the Lanna—amulet bowls and boxes, carvings from temples, bronze work. Upstairs is room after room of glorious silk and embroidered fabrics or clothes that the men and women wore—short quilted jackets, long, full trousers.
After lunch we returned to the Zzziesta to pick up my bag and go to the station, allowing me the chance to really look at. It is memorable because it is an open-air station. There are practically no walls. You look out at trees, green and tracks from a roofed shelter that’s painted a creamy yellow.
Once on board I wrote, and watched the jungle come and go as night fell until the attendant came to make up my berth with crisp white sheets.