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Night Train to Laos

A Cozy Mobile Office from Bangkok to Vientiane

By Dave Fox
Chugging Through Thailand

My tuktuk driver is making me nervous. I have to get back to my hotel to pick up my bag. I have to buy sunscreen and a Laos guidebook. I have an overnight train to catch from Bangkok to Vientiane. And my tuktuk driver keeps asking if I “want lady.”

Named for the sound they make, three-wheeled "tuktuks" are a fun and popular way to get around in many parts of Southeast Asia. They are often cheaper than taxis -- but always agree on the price before you get in, and be aware that in Bangkok and some other cities, drivers are known for pushing additional, illicit services.

I do not want lady, I tell him. I want him to take me to Khao San Road as we discussed seven minutes ago when I climbed into his tuktuk.

“Three-hundred baht,” he says,

Three-hundred baht, around ten US dollars, is a one-hundred baht mark-up from the price we agreed upon seven minutes ago.

“Two hundred,” I say. “Khao San Road. Come on man. Be my friend. Be honest with me.”

I say it with a laugh. I figured out a while back that when people are trying to rip you off, getting cranky just exacerbates things.

“Thank you,” he says. Our drive continues.

“You want happy ending?” he asks a few minutes later.

“On a tuktuk ride?!”

Globejotting.com mascot Sven Wondermoose zooms through Bangkok in a tuktuk. "I likes to feels da winds in my antlers!" Svenny says.

He doesn’t get my joke. “Happy ending” is tuktuk speak for… well… he asks me another question to clarify.

“You want lady massage?”

“No! I do not want lady massage! I want to go to my hotel on Khao San Road!”

“Okay!”

A few minutes later as he slams on the brakes and sends me lurching. Tuktuks have no seatbelts. “Traffic,” he says. He coughs and gestures at the exhaust fumes. “Three-hundred baht.”

“No. Two-hundred.”

“Traffic very bad today.”

“Traffic in Bangkok is very bad every day.” I say it like I know what I’m talking about. It’s my third and final day here.

I have no clue where we are. As we swerve through rush hour, he yells in Thai to another tuktuk driver. The other driver looks at me and laughs.

My traveler’s sixth sense is kicking in. I worry this guy’s taking me somewhere for which I have neither time, nor money, nor my wife’s permission.

Getting There: Overnight trains depart Bangkok each night at 8 p.m. and arrive around 8:30 a.m. at Nong Khai on the Thai / Lao border. You clear Thai customs there, then take a short second train ride to Thanaleng, Laos. At Thanaleng, you can obtain your Laotian visa and catch a taxi or tuktuk to Vientiane, about 30 minutes away.

I sit for a minute in the exhaust fumes and try to come up with a strategy. These situations must be finessed. If I am wrong – if he really is taking me where I want – accusing him otherwise will be awkward. And it will blow my cover that I am not the Bangkok traffic expert I claim to be.

“Khao San Road,” he points.

I see nothing I recognize.

“Very close,” he says.

Will this be one of those moments when a driver tells me it’s faster to walk the last two blocks, when Khao San Road is actually eight miles across town?

But suddenly, he pulls a U-turn. I look to my left, and, hey, it’s Khao San Road! I slap 200 baht in his hand and he thanks me.

I scurry. I’ve got ten minutes before I have to find a taxi. I grab sunscreen at a pharmacy and find a Lonely Planet Laos guide at a used book store. I retrieve my backpack from my hotel storage room. I try to cram my daybag into my bigger bag. It doesn’t fit. After several creative rearrangements of toiletry kits and books and Sven Wondermoose, the official Globejotting.com travel mascot (interview forthcoming) I am ready to go.

It's the rainy season in Bangkok. The railway station begins to flood.

I step out onto a very different Khao San Road from the one where I bought my sunscreen and guidebook ten minutes ago. Giant table umbrellas are flying through the air and inebriated tourists are running for cover. T-shirt vendors are scrambling to cover their wares. Light sprinkles are falling amid potent wind gusts. In the 60 seconds it takes me to walk to the end of the block, those sprinkles turn ferocious. I duck under an awning, flag a taxi, and he takes me on an amphibious voyage to the train station.

At the station, at least a hundred travelers are wanting taxis. Two inches of water are flooding the gutters. Grabbing my backpack, I run for cover into the station.

Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station opened in 1916.

Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong railway station was built in the 1910s. It has worn tile floors and a grand, arched ceiling like the ones you see in some old European stations – only this particular roof is made of corrugated metal. The downpour outside sounds like massive waves pounding a shoreline. Passengers-to-be are sitting or sleeping on the floor. Food vendors are hawking snacks from little stalls – everything from satay to skewered hotdogs wrapped in waffles. The waffle dogs look tempting but I learned years ago to be gentle with my digestive system on overnight trains.

The overnight train from Bangkok to Nongkhai, Thailand, near the Laotian border: Second class sleeper cars consist of two rows of bunk beds, each with a curtain for privacy. Upper bunks are cheaper than lower bunks. You can choose a compartment with or without air-conditioning. If you go with aircon, bring a sweater!

We chug out at 8 p.m. The rain has stopped. The sun has set. We roll for a long time through urban sprawl.

I used to take lots of night trains in Europe, but it’s been years. This is my first train ride in Asia. I have a second-class sleeping berth and I’m remembering how fun night trains can be. Unlike the European trains, which put anywhere from one to six bunks in a private compartment, Thai night trains, in second class, put all the bunks in one open car – two rows of beds running along the train walls. I especially love the curtains. When you’re ready to sleep, you have total privacy. The conductor folds your seat down, converting it to a bed, and sets up your sheets. Your curtain creates a little tent.

The Globejotting.com mobile office: A netbook, a notepad, a guidebook, and a moose.

In the darkness outside, there’s little to see through the windows. I’m bummed about that. I’d like more scenery but I’ll wake up to it in the morning. My train arrives around 8:30 in Nong Khai near the Thai-Lao border. We change trains there and continue on to Vientiane, Laos’s diminutive capital.

Dave and Sven share a quick beer before dozing for the night.

In the meantime, I’ve set up an office in my bunk – powering up my netbook to crank out this story, sharing a quick can of Chang Beer with Sven as he helps with the editing. I’ve written stories in some cool places. My curtained-off, private fortress on the night train to Laos is among the most memorable.

Published on Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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