“When you open a bottle you gotta expect consequences.” A Canadian from Saskatchewan
I round off this trilogy going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Whereas I could modestly portray myself as the drunken hero in the first two installments of train stories, in this concluding tale I must cast myself as the drunken fool.
It was as recently as March this year (2008) that I lived in Thailand on the mostly idyllic island of Koh Phangan. I write “mostly” because other than the moronic full mooners and the attendant flurry of coppers and pros (looking to take their money) that comes in their wake, things were incredibly quiet and well ‘island’ really. The jungle grows quickly, the roads quickly deteriorate in the tropical weather and the 11 thousand locals work slowly or not at all. Koh Phangan is a place where nature has excelled itself by imitating heaven; and it’s a place touched by the spirit of Bob Marley even though he never visited.
I had been living on the island for a year or so when business called for my brother and me to go to Bangkok to buy lamp shades. Mundane things for sure; but nevertheless, we felt important items to get right for the house we were building. Anyway, I’m never really bothered about catching the train in Thailand because you have to pay some ‘agent’ to purchase sleeper tickets for you and other than getting a bed it seemed just the same amount of hassle and time as taking the cheaper option (the bus) where at least you get to watch frightening and frighteningly poor Hollywood movies nearly the entire journey. Thinking retrospectively, I should have insisted we took the bus.
We completed the two hour boat trip to Suratthani port and after the inevitable wait around we boarded a bus to take us to ‘Suratthani train station’. I use speech marks because it’s a misnomer – the train station is actually in a nowhere place called Punpin which is an hour’s drive from Suratthani port. The distance from the port didn’t matter for even though we caught the last boat from the island we still had hours and hours to kill before our train arrived at 7 something pm.
You’re with your younger brother, you’re in Thailand, it’s hot and you have time to kill. What are you going to do? Well in our case we found an outdoor restaurant across the road from the station and forced ourselves to eat the same old Thai food that our bodies had been hurriedly processing for the last year; and chugged on a cold and chemical Chang beer. A marching band went past and everything seemed very much in order.
You can only prolong a beer and a plate of average rice and something for so long; so we gave up our uncomfortable metal chairs and headed back to the station to kill some time on the platform. We had no problem locating seats on the platform for other than the food and drinks vendors who fruitlessly went up and down the platform, nobody was there. And then my brother wandered off and I was alone. Unlike Agent Scully’s sister I wasn’t abducted by extra terrestrials and indeed the solitude was in sharp contrast to the intensity of Chinese and Indian train stations. Thailand is famous for being overwhelmingly un-frenetic in comparison to its bigger more polluting Asian brothers. And then my reverie was broken by the clanking return of my travel companion. Not only had he bought 4 big Chang beers (translated as ‘Elephant beer’) but he had also purchased something called ‘100 Pipers’. The label proudly declared it was whisky but it tasted nothing like any category of booze I’ve ever had before. At least Chinese alcohol goes by the more honest moniker of ‘white spirit’. No pretensions there to being related to fine and ancient European traditions.
I believe it only took 1 pied piper to clear an entire German town of rats and children and my brother and I had 100 of them to deal with.
Several German towns’ worth of rodents and kiddies later we felt all loose and slightly pie-eyed. As the conversation roamed freely aided by the bewitching effect of the pipers, the light started seeping out of the sky and other passengers started mulling around. There was a Scandinavian couple kitted out for all contingencies, a solitary Frenchman in Sinbad pants, no T-shirt and pied waistcoat, and some unhurried Thais. At this point we were getting to the childish giggles stage of inebriation and so we thought it best to hide our precious rat and child exterminator in a plastic bag just in case there was some archaic and usually ignored law banning articles of mass intoxication from train station platforms in Thailand.
What can only be described as ‘eventually’ our train pulled into the station. It had only taken 4 Elephant beers and 90 pipers to arrive. Seeing the train and finding myself capable of standing I felt considerable relief.
Second class Thai sleepers consist of a long carriage lined with upper and lower bunks. During the day the lower bunk becomes 2 seats and a table. At night the table is collapsed and the 2 seats are miraculously folded into a bed and the upper bunk is unhitched from the wall. The whole thing is completed by a thin wire strung across each bunk which provides a curtain rail (with curtain) for privacy. As it was an evening train the bunks were already made. Due to my seniority I got the more expensive lower bunk and my brother the cheaper bed above.
Since we were only 10 pipers away from the finish line my brother and I started our final lap semi reclining on my lower bunk. We continued our muted but ardent conversation about something important at the time, while the other passengers made ready for sleep. And then it all went wrong.
Just like those poor rats in Hamelin, nature piped her pipe and I couldn’t resist her call; and so scrambled to my feet and lurched towards the John. On returning, I experienced the exact opposite of déjà vu. I couldn’t recognize a thing. Where but a few moments ago there were a few open curtains and people about to retire for the night, there was only an unbroken line of drawn curtains running down both sides of the carriage. The only noise I could hear was the train clunking slowly along. Had the pipers lured everyone off the train to go for a night swim? Had those ET folk got bored of Agent Scully’s sister and thought to sample Thai train dwellers? I froze for a moment half way down the carriage and then whispered out my brother’s name. My plea was met by silence so I decided to let instinct, that trusty blade, guide me. I feel heavily into my lower bunk, only it wasn’t my bunk. I had burst in upon a fully clothed (thank God) middle aged Thai woman. She spoke loudly. I cursed her (“shut up, bitch’) and quickly got up and found my bunk opposite. The last thing I remember before passing out is hugging the empty bottle of 100 Pipers left in my bunk.
It was only the following morning that I discovered what a good pal my brother had been. He filled me in on the eventful hour after my passing out. Even my cracking hangover couldn’t compete with the pain caused by the shame I felt at being told of my moronic actions. It turned out that the nice Thai lady didn’t heed my request and instead proceeded to wake up several other passengers with her hysterics. She thought she had nearly fallen victim to some wild-eyed and long haired crazy foreigner sex offender. Word soon spread of the foreign menace on the train and the Thai train policeman was called for. He promptly arrived to investigate proudly wearing his tight uniform and side arm. The upset woman pleaded her case to the policeman as she pointed at the spectacle of me gently snoring fully clothed and in the foetal position. My brother who (unlike me) had bothered to study the book and CDs about learning Thai, proceeded to explain in Thai that I was his brother and that I was drunk and in my drunkenness had mistaken where my bed was. And he further attempted to clear my name of the allegation of sex molester.
By that time a mini lynch mob had gathered in the carriage. Naturally they were eagerly hoping for some extreme official response or at the very least some honest bribe action. My brother must have remonstrated like the apostles just after JC took his cue to leave because the young guardian of the law decided to give the 2 falang the benefit of the doubt (there was no doubt in the woman’s mind that I was another Freddy West) and asked everyone to get back to bed.
Oh boy did I feel stupid when I heard that. And I still do. As further expiation for my sins, on returning to the island my brother told all our friends about my shameful misdeed and I silently suffered what footballers call ‘a lot of stick’. In such a situation it is common to fall back on reassuring clichés and over-used idioms and say, “oh well, shit happens” and “never mind” and “no damage done” which is sort of true apart from the mental shock and verbal abuse suffered by that woman who fell incidental victim to the curse of a 100 Pipers.
Sorry once again to the anonymous Thai lady.