I started writing this post in the vanishing twilight viewed again from the window of a Thai train. This one's a little different. A sleeper train. Our journey isn't so long - we should get in at a reasonable time tonight without the need to sleep through, but on getting to Phetchaburi station early this afternoon to book tickets, we were told that there were no more seats. Technically this might be true but Sarah and I sit facing our respective travelling companions and no one seems fussed that our seats haven't been broken down into upper and lower bunks.
Last night was a rough night for sleep, a mix of the whirring of the fan of the air conditioning unit and the fact I had somehow managed to roll over on to every sore part of my body following my motorcycle accident, waking me an hour or so after I managed to nod off and the reminder of these tender spots making it hard to get comfortable again. Eventually it happened.
It took me a good few minutes to collect myself when I woke again at 8:30. Breakfast was included in the room rate and so we headed down to the set tables and chairs - a space that is a mix of office, kitchen and waiting area depending on the need. We are presented with bread (the toaster and the tea and coffee are self service) and then a plate with a fried egg, small American hotdog style sausages from a tin, sweet French toast and two token heaps of mixed salad. We eat it - probably because it's free and solves an issue rather than because of how it looked or tasted. With our breakfast we were handed a small blue basket with our laundry in. The Thai must have a national laundry powder to get everything smelling so good.
Packing gets easier on a trip the more you do it, the better you understand what you will need when arriving somewhere new and the things that are handy to keep accessible (ask me another time about our tin cups) so I am mostly packed and ready to go by the time Sarah has finished her second coffee.
We stash our bags with the guest house and walk towards the ancient palace upon the hill and the home of the monkeys. The sun is beating down on us already, whether it's the steady movement South or the memory of the cold spell following our arrival, it feels warmer as each day goes by. We spot the entrance into the compound and climb a staircase that was being built. When I say being, I mean with craftsmen there working on the ornate dragon shaped handrails and a man arc-welding at the top, using sun glasses to protect his eyes.
We see our first monkeys - they're lying in the shade of a small wooden shack along with a few dogs, picking at each other's fur and paying very little attention to us. We walk a little higher where we're caught for our entry fee to get into the museum and the reserve area.
The pathways are steep and made of red brick. An earlier King of Thailand (Rama IV) had his palace built here, and being high above the city allowed him to follow his interests in astronomy. There's also a monastery on the site and several very large 'chedi'. The largest of these that dominates the surrounding area is the 'White Pagoda'. We meander our way upwards as two monkeys chase each other through the trees. They've stolen a person's flavoured slurpie and are trying to toss away the ice whilst getting the most out of the sugary syrup.
They tend to sneak up on you, feigning disinterest and then if they think you've got food, you're done for. A lady running a small kiosk seems to have won their friendship with small pieces of papaya, enough at least to allow her to run her small stall without them taking everything she has.
On entering the palace, I'm struck by how very European the furniture and objects on display are. There aren't many details around but there's the suggestion of German royalty spending some time there as guests.
Carrying on up to the white Pagoda we step through the small stone archways and into the cool interior. It's much darker and there's something soothing about the architecture. We spend some time sitting in the shade before heading back around the top pathways to mop up the buildings that we had missed, including some tiny but stunning little Buddhist temples.
Time is speeding by and we need to think about heading back down the hill and to get ready for the next leg of the adventure. We pause for a drink in the shade and Sarah is a little freaked out by how friendly the monkeys get as they move closer to you. She thinks there are a lot less then there were when she was last here and I'm sure I've read somewhere about steps they were taking to control their population... The ones who are there seem happy enough but they're not running through the webs of cables at night, scavenging for food.
Heading to the station, we encounter our issue with the tickets and the lack of space on the train. It's not a problem we can solve and so pay the higher fare for the sleeper spaces. It's probably time for something to eat as we walk generally in the direction of the White Monkey. Lunch was a good example of how things are already changing in Thailand.
We had walked past 'R-po Chill Burger' on the way in last night. Their logo is a cartoon panda wearing a napkin and holding a knife and fork so they had won me on their cute branding. It was open but quiet and actually the idea of a chicken burger was really appealing. We got comfortable and were brought a jug of ice and water. In every good English we were asked what we wanted, both having chicken burgers. The woman walked away and a few moments later came back and brought a tray of burger buns, explained to us the types she had (charcoal, strawberry, spinach, normal...), we both chose the spinach and then in the moments that followed it struck me. I was sat in Phetchaburi's answer to artisan burgers for the princely sum of £3 each. They were great too! Thailand was changing.
Once lunch was devoured we had to pick up the pace just a little. This meant only stopping for one very quick Singha at the White Monkey, the bar we had been at the night before being closed in the day time. We sat in the shade on the porch, chink, ahhhhh... Laden with our mercifully light bags we walked back up to the station and sat down.
We had gotten overly used to the trains in Thailand running on time, not our previous experience at all. But for all the railway improvements we could see going on around us, foolishly we thought that they had simply fixed the problems. Our departure time creeps near and then passes. No train. Other trains pull in and out with the dutiful station staff making sure we didn't get onto the wrong one.
I watch one woman pack two huge wicker baskets with what look like sweet seed and nut snaps. Every packet is carefully placed in after the last until the basked is neatly brimming at which point she pulls out a headscarf and neatly ties it over the top of each of her baskets. She checks over her work and that the scarf is securely tied down, packs up the boxes and the trolley she had used to bring them all here and sits down, happy with her work.
The Thai, I think, are very proud of what they do and do the things that simply need to be done themselves rather than having other people do the work for them. I have seen the neatest looking member of the train staff, in full uniform, break out a dustpan and broom, sweep a carriage and then mop the floor, step back to check his own work and move on to the next one. They're not scared of just doing it and they take pride in having done it well.
Our train still isn't here. No one seems overly concerned. The food and drink sellers are sat laughing and chatting in small groups along the platform. The Thais in the waiting areas accept that this is just how things are and the few monks in their varying shades of oranges know that all they can do is wait.
Almost an hour behind, the train roars into the station. Now there is an explosion of activity. Bundles being taken off, others being loaded on, exchanges of people, the shuffle of people to the right carriage. Ours is beyond the end of the platform and so for a way we walk down the track bed and pull ourselves into our allocated carriage.
This train runs almost all the way to KL. It like most trains runs basic 3rd class carriages the whole way, then there is a second class seated section, where there are banks of seats that spin round depending on the direction of travel, then second class sleeper carriages, like the one we are sat in, and then first class cabins which I've never taken as whilst they afford a traveller privacy, they are supposed to be very claustrophobic.
In a carriage like this you sit facing one other traveller and these blocks of two are repeated either side and the full length of the carriage, taking 30 people in total. Then the guard will make his way down the aisle. You stand up, and two seats you and your opposite have been sitting in unfold to form the bottom bunk, the guard then unlatches part of the ceiling that drops down to reveal a top bunk. Both are neatly made up, by the guard with a flat sheet, a pillow and a blanket, folded and wrapped in plastic. He then moves on and repeats this the whole way down. Except not for us. There seems to be a little confusion over the four of us and so for now we sit here. Clip boards are consulted, records are checked and for now we wait. There is a sense of record collecting for the sake of it in Thailand and whilst the Internet is here, an amazing amount of this record keeping is done on paper, by people and so there's a feel of something Gilliam-esque in that sooner or later, due to human error, we find situations were these records don't match and small cracks start to show in the system. I think most of the confusion is because we are only going as far as Chumphong - not all that far down the line really and even running behind we should be there by 10.
Whilst this decision making process and discussion continues I look out the window and over to the ridge range that I recognise from our last trip to PKK. It stands tall and jagged from the flat farming land around it. I reach into my bag for a handful of pistachios, something I had half forgotten that I had been carrying but was grateful now were there. I shell each in turn and enjoy it. When my hand is full of the shells, I put it out of the window and let them go into the wind.
Eventually the guards make a decision and our bunks are turned into beds. There are regular luggage racks between the seats, the sides of which are ladders that give you access to the upper bunk. The guard who makes up the beds looks as smart and turned out as the rest of the staff but he has stood on the heels of the back of his black shoes making them more like clogs so that he can slip them on and off as he steps up and down, folding hospital corners and plumping pillows.
We both have upper bunks. They're not really tall enough to sit upright in and you don't get the window of the lower bunk. You do get these wonderfully strange ceiling fans though that keep you feeling cool as they spin around. Their orbit is guided by a mounded ring in the ceiling and a steel bar like someone has hacked a desk fan to adapt it for a new role.
I lay back. The guards have left the carriage end doors open too and so there's a good breeze pulling through. I tug the curtain just enough to keep the light out of my face and doze, It's the jolt of pulling into a station that wakes me. I look over to Sarah's bunk, she's still awake and we pass the bag of nuts back and forth. We work out that we're about fifty minutes behind. Shortly after our own calculation the guard walks down the van to our bunks and announces that "Chumphong. Next stop. 40 minutes."
There's not much to do but read and admire the small details that have gone into the Thai State Railway. Yes the rolling stock is ancient and slowly crumbling, but it's been lovingly patched too. Each of the bunks has its own curtain into which the number (your seat number becoming your bunk number) is embroidered in gold thread.
Pangs of guilt hit me as I lay on this pristine white sheet in my dirty travelling clothes. Something feels very wrong about it. I lay back again and listen to the noises of the train and the tracks float their way through the doors, the whirring of the fan as it moves round and round and the slight flicker of the fluorescent lights. The guard comes back. 5 minutes. This is Thai code for any time now. We grab out bags off of the rack and move to the carriage end. The train is slowing and the station is there. I step off the still slowly moving train in the still, more humid air of Chumphong.
After the reasonably sleepy Phetchaburi, Chumphong is a bustling tourist hub. The platform is littered with weary, dred-ed, backpackers, there are big lights declaring in English various cuisines over the road and the sense of the place being much more awake. In part this will be because it's the weekend, but it feels like there's just more happening here.
Tracking our way through some quieter streets we find the Chumphone Palace Hotel. It's a step back in time. They cannot find our reservation but on showing them our booking they quickly find us a room and hand us the key. Opening the door into room 401 we walk into a world of faded pink. Partly through use, partly through time. You can see where the carpet is worn thin and sun bleached where as between the bed the colour is still rich. It doesn't matter. We drop our bags, kick the room's fan into action and go back out into the night to the Tesco Express Lotus down the road in search of deet and beer. It provides us with both.