Chiang Mai

 
David Whitley goes all insomniac on the overnight train from Bangkok, and when he finally gets to sleep, he wishes he hadn’t 
I woke, flustered, to see a twenty-something Thai man in front of me. “Den Chai,” I burbled, still punch-drunk. “Den Chai? Den Chai, yes?”

The man just looked confused, and gingerly stepped away. Other passengers looked at me in mild annoyance. That’s probably because I’d been so far gone that my alarm – a particularly rousing heavy rock number – had been blaring at full blast for ten minutes. Good work, earplugs.

Earplugs are something you’re going to need if you’re even going to consider an overnight train in Thailand. Pinching that eye mask you were given on the flight over is a very good idea too. Trains make some ungodly noises, even if your fellow passengers are being saintly, whilst the corridor lights stay on for safety reasons. Blocking a lot of it out is the key.

It is, of course, possible to just book a seat. Given that the second class sleeper tickets cost roughly as much as a night in a guesthouse would anyway, opting for the cheap-arse alternative would be senselessly tight.

You’ll also probably want a bottom bunk – they’re slightly more expensive, but bigger and a hell of a lot more convenient. The top bunks don’t have windows either, so you’ll not be able to look at the scenery in the morning.

For me, the lack of sleep wasn’t about the sounds or the lights – it was about the motion (albeit with a helpful dose of jetlag thrown in). My body felt like it was constantly being lurched around, jelly-like, as the train wobbled from side to side. Eventually, I just gave up and read until about 3.30am when sleep took over.

My train was heading to Chiang Mai, but I wasn’t. I was due to pull into a place I’d never heard of called Den Chai at 07.11, and from there, I’d got to find my way north by alternative transport. I’d taken the precaution of setting my alarm for 06.50. Hence the panic when it didn’t wake me. I flapped around, saying “Den Chai?” a few more times. No-one could answer. So I grabbed my bags and waited patiently by the exit, hoping the station would arrive. One did, although it was more a slab of concrete next to the tracks. “Den Chai?” I asked the guard. He shook his head.

I waited another half hour and eventually was told to sit down. I kept asking where we were. Were we near Den Chai? The only response was that we were not in Den Chai. Handy – but I kinda wanted to know whether we were on the way or had gone sailing past.

Waking up on a train in a country you’ve never been to before, not knowing where you are, and with the growing fear that you’ve missed your stop is, frankly, a horrible feeling. I was groggy, disorientated and working on the assumption that I had some pretty major plans to rearrange on the hoof. I scoured the guide book. It was fairly irrelevant anyway – there were no signs to cross-reference with out of the window. Just paddy fields and papaya plants. Gorgeous scenery, but not quite what I had in mind.

Minutes turned into hours. I resigned myself. I was going to have to get off in Lampang, have a little cry, then work out what the hell I was going to do. The shacks started emerging on the outskirts of Lampang, urbanisation creeping in as the train started to slow. A conductor came round, comparing names on his sheet to sleeping berths. “Den Chai! Den Chai!” he shouted. I’ve never been so happy to be on a train that’s running two-and-a-half hours late.

For full information on Thailand's train options, and the often ludicrously complex booking systems, the Man In Seat 61's guide (seat61.com/Thailand.htm) should become your instant best friend.

Hill Tribe

 

 

David Whitley plots his course around Thailand, and wishes that visits to hill tribes weren’t part of the mix

 

There are a lot of things that appeal to me about Northern Thailand. I like the idea of trekking in the mountains. I like the idea of riding elephants. I like the idea of boat rides along the Mekong River. I like the idea of learning about the opium trade. And given that I’m going there very soon, I’ve been looking into tours or guides that can help me arrange to do a couple of these things. After all, trekking around without a map isn’t a particularly good idea and I’ve no idea where I’d commandeer an elephant from.

 

However, almost all of the options seem to include something that I’m not at all interested in – visiting hilltribe villages. I’ve no problem with walking through villages, staying or eating in them – they’re as good a place as any for that. What I’m not interested in is visits to such villages being promoted as some sort of cultural experience. That’s blatantly going to mean some poor sod doing a traditional dance whilst women follow you around trying to sell “handicrafts” made from cheap beads.

 

But for many people doing these trips, the chance to meet people from the remote hill tribes will be the main attraction. And I really struggle to understand why. Living in a village that’s not particularly well connected to the world doesn’t necessarily make someone interesting. In fact, there’s a strong chance that their life is going to be incredibly mundane.

 

I grew up in a village. It was really, really dull. I don’t see how transplanting a village to a Thai hillside and filling it with people who have a different ethnicity to most of the Thai population makes it worth seeing.

 

If the sole reason for going there is to say you’ve met someone from a particular tribe, then it’s little more than a slightly sinister trip to a zoo. Any interactions are likely to be highly contrived exercises in small talk that are just awkward for both parties. It’s experiencing a different culture in the same way that eating ready meal pasta is experiencing Italian fine dining.

 

Just because something’s there it doesn’t mean it’s worth seeing. That applies to people as well as places. Everyday life in a Thai hill tribe is no more or less interesting than everyday life in a suburb of Northampton. But neither makes for a good tourist attraction – and that they’re even looked upon as a tourist attraction is somewhat disturbing.

 

Does the idea of visiting remote hill tribes appeal to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

 

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