M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

Sleeper Trains & Food Poisoning: A trip to Northern Thailand
January 4, 2010, 8:42 am
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , ,

First, I’d like to apologize for letting my journals go so long without an update.  Building a nest and settling into a foreign culture is more stressful and difficult that I had imagined, so I’ve had little down-time besides when I’m down on my bed asleep.  I’ll try to get the journals back to present day without leaving out any attention to detail or Thai oddities that happen on a daily basis.  Eventually you might understand through this site what it is like to live here.


How to Survive a Sleeper Train in Thailand: Leo

We departed Ayutthaya heading north to the hilly regions of Chiang Mai province, part of the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia where the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge (also the largest opium cultivating region after Afghanistan).  Our train was a second-class sleeper, some cars with air conditioning, some without.  The ride took about 12 hours, most of it spent inebriated or sleeping. However, I somehow woke up at sunrise and watched the lush countryside and jungle start to illuminate with the hazy red light of morning.  The veil of mist that hung low over the fields and trees, combined with the mist that veiled my morning eyes, created a surreal approach to Chiang Mai.  In a couple more hours we arrived at the station and found our way to a guest house, home for the next 9 days.

The city of Chiang Mai is one of the largest in the country, the metropolitan area including about a million people.  The city proper is much smaller, around 150,000, with very few tall buildings, but it definitely still feels like a large city.  Our guest house was nestled into the winding narrow alleys of old-town, an area surrounded by a small moat and holding most of the oldest wats and chedis.  As this area seemed to be the main cultural and tourist hub of the area, we focused our explorations of the city within the moat.  A day’s walk is really all we needed to see what we wanted of the old-town, and because we focused our last 3 days exploring temple after temple after temple in Ayutthaya, we had no problem exploring other things here.   Avoiding being run over by the traffic was our first priority, after that watching out for massive potholes and holes in the sidewalk, then finally dodging the other tourists who all looked and acted like they were being filmed on the Amazing Race.  It only took a day for us to realize that we would be better off exploring the countryside than the city.  The city has a lot to offer: there is in incredible diversity of international foods from burritos to kebab to burgers, bookstores on every block, and bars and venues playing good music.  However our impression after the first day didn’t change after our last: It’s a big, dirty city.

Gold amidst the gray

The next day we rented a motorbike, the first time we dared take to the roads in Thailand on motorized wheels.  That I’m writing this to you means we survived, but I’m not sure how we managed.  Chaos… like riding a bicycle here but much more sobering.  As it turns out I’ve been riding a motorbike for over a month in Thailand as I write this, and I’m loving it. However that first day was akin to the feeling you get in your stomach when you walk into a theme park and you see the rollercoasters towering over you.  I managed to wriggle my way through city traffic without incident until we were on a narrow, two-lane road winding its way up to a mountain temple outside of town.  Tree’s rushing by, the wind blowing through our hair, I’m gunning the throttle and Jennifer’s whooping a yeehaw from the back, we conquered the road from the gravelly shoulder at 15km/h with cars passing, annoyed at the stupid tourists holding up traffic…something like that.  The last steep push to the temple was a hair raiser, but soon we were parked at the door, or rather the bottom of a staircase with at least a thousand more steps to go before the top.

This temple was built with an interesting story:  In the late 14’th century, a holy Buddhist relic that was to be enshrined in a temple being built in the area mysteriously duplicated itself.  After seeing this, the monks decided they must find a place for this new relic and build a temple to enshrine it.  They built a portable shrine on the back of an elephant to put the relic, and let the elephant decide.  The elephant wandered around for a long time and eventually climbed to the top of the mountain, circled 3 times, trumpeted 3 times, and died.  This was interpreted as an auspicious sign to build the temple, 3 being a holy Buddhist number.  The view from the top was spectacular, a bird’s-eye perspective of the city and the rivers snaking through the countryside.  Ornate golden statues and a large golden chedi in the middle decorated the temple grounds, fruit trees casting their shade on the tiles and orchids adding even more color to the scene.  We stayed here a while soaking up the view and atmosphere, but the hordes of tourists eventually chased us back down the mountain.

My Wheels in Chiang Mai

The next day we took our motorbike further out into the countryside to the Mae Rim valley, a beautifully lush area with national parks, gardens, elephant camps, coffee plantations and farms.  It took us a satisfyingly long time to get there, where we spent the entire day exploring Queen Sirikit botanical gardens.  Set on and amongst the hills surrounding the valley, the gardens are a combination of meticulously manicured landscapes and wild, untamed jungle.  It feels like a garden and a national park mixed into one.  Here we wandered aimlessly along trails, through waterfalls, into deep dark forest and bright, open flower beds.  I stopped and took far too many photos of interesting flowers and plants, exotic orchids and climbing vines, water lilies and lotus.  Towards the top of the hillside the park operates a compound of glass-houses, each specializing in a particular ecosystem or variety of plant:  Glass-houses for orchids, vines, cacti, carnivorous plants, and everything else under the sun.

Posing in one of the glass-houses

It was up here that I met the two cutest dogs in the world (besides Lain), we (Jennifer) named them Denali and Delilah.  Fuzzy and stubby like a corgi, and scrappy like Benji, they tugged at my heart strings from the start.  Delilah was sniffing out a cat in one of the glass-houses when I snatched a few pets, and after that she was following us all over the gardens.  Her mate (I think) Denali, equally as scrappy/stubby, followed her obediently.  Eventually it was time for us to go and I started formulating a way to take the dogs with me.  Reason took hold and I decided against it, but still to this day I wonder about going back and smuggling them home with me.  The dogs did in fact follow us almost all the way back down to the parking lot, and imagining them chasing our motorbike down the road after us, we decided to ditch them.  They eluded our attempts several times until they caught the scent of a squirrel or some other rodent, at which point we sprinted down the hill before they lost interest.  I still feel like a left a little piece of my heart back there on that hill with them.  Nevertheless, they have a paradise they call home in that garden, and they seemed well fed and taken care of.

Denali & Delilah

The next few days were an unfortunate series food-poisoning related events leading up to our departure.  Jennifer was the first to succumb after eating at a surprisingly nice restaurant.  Whatever it was, it put her down for the next two days during which I was feeding her Thai Gatorade and plain food until she recovered.  After she improved, we hatched a plan to join a 3 day, 2 night trek into the jungle near the Burmese border that the guest house arranged.  Bamboo rafting, mountain biking, elephant riding, sleeping in hammocks, it sounded like a great adventure.  We put down a deposit, packed our bags, went to a logistics meeting for the trip, and were ready to walk out into the heart of darkness.  That night I was smacked down by an immensely unfortunate bout of food-poisoning.  Like Jennifer’s episode, I purged everything in my body and resorted to getting what I needed from Gatorade.  I tried to muster the strength to join the trip up until the last minute, then saw my situation for what it was: lucky to be sick in civilization.  A couple days of cramps, sleeping a lot, and drinking most of my meals, and slowly I recovered, however it took almost a week before I could eat any Thai food.

Corn Flakes & Gin Tonic: Comfort food for dysentery.

So ended our time in the north, defeated by bacteria or a parasite or a virus or whatever it was.  In total we spent 9 days in the North, and decided it was time to continue our explorations further south.  Next stop (and as it happens, last stop) Kanchanaburi, the small river valley city of WW2 infamy and supreme natural beauty.  A sleeper train whisked us away, departing only 6 hours late, back down to Bangkok.  A connecting commuter train clanked its way west of Bangkok towards Burma, into the countryside and a saner pace of life.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I think the Golden triangle is where the borders of Lao PDR, Burma, and China converge. I could be wrong. I also don’t think Burma and Cambodia share a border. I love the travel writing…

Comment by Aimee

Sorry you’re right Cambodia and Burma definitely don’t share a border. My brain was thinking Laos but my hands were typing Cambodia in this case. I’ve corrected the typo. As far as I’ve researched northern Thailand is included in references to the golden triangle both as a point of trade and cultivation of opium, mostly in the hill-tribe regions close to the border with Burma. Much of the refined opium then travels south to Bangkok for international distribution. I’m no expert though 😉

Comment by mavanwey

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