The 8pm express to Nong Khai was clattering its way out of Bangkok. Attendants in white uniforms with fat lapels moved through the sleeper cars, making passengers’ beds – snapping sheets, pillow slips and lime green curtains into place with military efficiency, and without the vaguest hint that they’d like a tip. The contrast with Indian trains was stark, but Claire and I were disappointed. Although we had only just embarked, our sleeper car was falling silent.
It was our first Thai train. We had bought beers – two cans of Leo, light by Thai standards at 5% – and curry pies. We had two new books, Bangkok 8 and From the Land of Green Ghosts, our first about Southeast Asia and, without discussing it, we had decided to celebrate this new transportation system, this new magic of A to B overland.
I had resigned myself to disappearing behind my curtain and reading when Claire spied life, past the end of our carriage. It was the dining car, and as we entered it we both cracked wide smiles. The car’s windows were flung open, allowing the full clang-clank, clang-clank of wheels on track to knock through the carriage. Seventies funk was blaring, and the lights of a fluorescent city flooded in. The dining car was like a river boat, floating through a fantasy of urban Asia. It was in the city, but not of it.
All the tables were taken, but the waiter politely forced us in beside two grey-haired men with deep tans. They were both French. The man beside me looked like a refugee. He had long, matted hair and a scruffy beard. The man opposite me, beside Claire, was clean-shaven with a swollen face that drooped down at the same angle as his lips. Neither of them greeted us, or acknowledged our presence in any way. We ordered two 6.4% Changs and looked guiltily at each other. Although the beers cost three times what they would at a shop, we would probably have a second – maybe even a third.
I wanted to take photographs, but the scene was impossible to capture. There was light and dark and movement. There were details on faraway signs – MASSAGE – and small gestures at the tables around me. Giggling Thais at a table in the foreground were taking photographs with big DSLR cameras that – in the circumstances – I was quick to envy. A businessman drunk on Thai whiskey behind me was repeating “China is the father, Vietnam is the mother” to a tourist he was plying with drink. An Italian English teacher next to us, who spoke with an almost perfect received British accent, was telling a German backpacker and a sheep shearer from New Zealand that he was on a visa run to the border – a border run the two Frenchmen had probably been doing for years. It was a scene too large to be reconciled, a scene from a dream in which everything was fluid.
I gave up taking photos after the world outside the dining car went dark. We were still being ignored by the Frenchmen, and Claire, never satisfied until we have at least tried to start a conversation, decided to talk to the English teacher next to us. “Where are you from?” she began, which was how we learnt that Andrew was Italian. The bald Kiwi smiled at us and made approving grunts. The German told us he had been to Cape Town.
I noticed a Flashman book on the table in front of Andrew. I used excerpts from Flashman’s Lady when I wrote Tales of Old Singapore, and remembered a passage about an imagined East, an East that seemed so real now, while we rattled away from Bangkok in the close-knit night. “Beyond the shanties was China Town,” wrote Flashman. “Streets brilliantly-lit with lanterns, gaming houses and casinos roaring away on every corner, side-shows and acrobats—Hindoo fire-walkers, too, my pomaded chum had been right—pimps accosting you every other step, with promises of their sister who was, of course, every bit as voluptuous as Queen Victoria (how our sovereign lady became the carnal yardstick for the entire Orient through most of the last century, I’ve never been able to figure; possibly they imagined all true Britons lusted after her), and on all sides, enough popsy to satisfy an army—Chinese girls with faces like pale dolls at the windows; tall, graceful Kling tarts from the Coromandel, swaying past and smiling down their long noses; saucy Malay wenches giggling and beckoning from doorways, popping out their boobies for inspection; it was Vanity Fair come true—but it wouldn’t do, of course. Poxed to a turn, most of ‘em; they were all right for the drunken sailors lounging on the verandahs, who didn’t care about being fleeced—and possibly knifed—but I’d have to find better quality than that.”
My editor had deleted the date I attributed to to Flashman’s Lady. It was fiction written in 1976, more than 150 years after Singapore first started to boom, when it was a city – in the line that I used to promote my book – of pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers. I didn’t mind. The dates had been deleted from other books from the Tales series, and Flashman captured, in first person, fantasies about the Orient. “Singapore was,” to Flashman, “the last jumping-off place from civilisation into a world as terrible as it was beautiful, rich and savage and cruel beyond belief, of land and seas still unexplored where even the mighty Royal Navy sent only a few questing warships, and the handful of white adventurers who voyaged in survived by the speed of their keels and slept on their guns.” The deletion was, said my editor, an in-house joke.
Andrew gave me his book and I paged through it. It was about Flashman’s exploits in Mughal India, defending the Empire against a fictional Asian horde. We ordered another beer and the music changed from Funk to Psychedelic Rock from the seventies. I thought the waiters must be indulging us, recreating the mythical Southeast Asia of the Vietnam War. They strode through the carriage, encouraging everybody to drink, warning us that the carriage would close at 10:40pm. “I know several South Africans,” said Andrew. They were teachers in Trat, he said, where Claire and I had boarded a speedboat to Koh Mak. He – an Italian English teacher – told us how surprised he was that Afrikaners could speak English as well as so-called native speakers. Claire and I spoke briefly about how easy it would be to stay in Thailand. Work, said Andrew, was guaranteed, and the boat from Trat to Koh Mak only took an hour.
The clock on the wall was stuck at 9:45pm, but at 10:40pm exactly the music stopped. The drinkers drifted off, returning to air-conditioned carriages and the reconcilable world. After swigging the remainder of our Changs, so did we. In the berth next to mine, a Swiss backpacker was trading train stories with a British expat on a border run. “Chinese trains are the worst,” said the Swiss. “At ten thirty – poof – the lights go off. Everybody has to go to bed.”
I struggled with my curtain but was eventually comfortably behind it, with Bangkok 8 in my hand. I read the author’s note first. John Burdett, a lawyer who had “spent most of his adult life in the Far East”, contextualised the sex industry in Thailand – “smaller per capita than in Taiwan, the Philippines or the United States” – and described his book as “frivolous…an entertainment within a very Western genre”, because it played on every stereotype of the sensuous Thais. Bangkok Eight is a whodunit. Its protagonist, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is a Buddhist arhat and ex-yaa-baa-junkie, the son of a Vietnam conscript and a Thai whore, and Burdett’s note read like the casual apology of a man throwing up his hands.
Even with the curtain closed, the carriage lights were too bright. I dug through my daypack and found my eye-mask. When I woke, the lime green curtains in front of the other berths were still closed. I couldn’t see the landscape I knew we were rushing past. Claire was still asleep. I woke her excitedly and we went to the dining car, where I found the businessman from the day before, in the same seat, drinking a 640ml bottle of beer. The windows were still wide open. There were dry, stubble-filled rice paddies outside. Water buffaloes wandered through them, looking for somewhere to wallow. A waiter told us the train was delayed by five hours.
We ordered two cokes, but the breakfast was too expensive. Instead, Claire bought a bag of crisps on the platform of a nowhere station, looking over her shoulder, worried that the train would move off without her. When it arrived at Nong Khai at 12:30pm, we still hadn’t had breakfast. We bought tickets for the train over the Friendship Bridge into Laos and queued at the immigration desk to officially exit Thailand. The talk in the line was of the price of Laos’ visa. The Swiss backpacker was telling the German who had been to Cape Town that there was no standard price. “On Sunday maybe it is one price, on Tuesday maybe another price.” But once we had crossed the mud-brown Mekong, the process of obtaining a visa was straightforward: there was a laminated list of dollar denominated charges, and the immigration officials’ only liberty was inflating the exchange rate a little, which irritated tourists without American currency.
We shared a tuktuk into Vientiane, the capital. It dropped everybody off at the same place: a temple at the centre of the tourist ghetto. Claire and I said our goodbyes and began lugging our backpacks into the unknown city. Laos was a blank spot on the map of the Old World we were gradually filling in. It had borders, and we knew something of its neighbours – but I had never read a news report about Laos or met a Laotian. It was a mystery, which made it a perfect fantasy, and fantasies are always the best places at which you can arrive.
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