So…where to start on this subject!? The sleeper trains in Thailand are, for me, both Jekyll and Hyde. I have made some of my most colourful memories in Thailand, and some awesome new friends (at the same time as having had the most disastrous night’s sleep aboard these trains). You see, I’m an insomniac. A precious ‘light sleeper’. So I felt I ought to make some serious preparations if I was to board a sleeper train and travel half the length of Thailand for 12 hours.
My friends who had taken a sleeper train before promised me that the train would rock me to sleep gently, but I still felt I ought to make the necessary prep in order to stay sane for the night. I went to the gym at my hotel the day we were due to leave, and ran the treadmill like I had run no other treadmill. I took myself very seriously. Rather like Rocky Balboa with stunted growth and a sweaty ginger beard. I thought if I tired myself out, it could only help. I then went to the pharmacy and asked for a strong sleeping aid. I’m not quite sure what I was given to be honest, but I was pretty sure that the pharmacist knew what she was doing, so I paid her gratefully, and then made my way back to Khao San road, where I found myself a nice new whiskey flask, and a bottle of Sang Som local brew.
I was taking no prisoners! Sleep would prevail! I was feeling quite tired by the time myself and my two travelling buddies jumped in a tuc tuc to Hualompong train station to board the night train. Of course rather embarrassingly, we sang the Faithless song of the same name all the way to the station, much to the drivers delight!
So… all aboard! On we get. The train doesn’t look nearly as squalid as I had prepared myself for. It had a pleasant aroma of cleaning product (that’s a good sign, surely!?). The seats were more than comfortable, and praise the good lord, there was a bar! Not only was there a bar, but in the bar carriage there were speakers the size of my bedroom that literally spanned wall to wall of the train, and I could plug my iPod in. This was heaven!
The beginning of the journey was quite fascinating. The train rocked along (as I had been promised) at quite a slow speed through the shanty town areas of suburban Bangkok.Children were playing games along the sides of the tracks, waving frantically at us with big wide smiles, sending us on our merry way southwards. Chickens and goats joined them in their farewell. I guess the reason we went so slow through these parts was because they are so populated, but it was a really nice experience, as I hadn’t seen that part of Bangkok during my Thailand trip so it was quite eye-opening.
The train then entered country-side territory and began to gather pace. There was a lovely balmy breeze coming in from the windows. This wasn’t so bad, I thought, I can handle this! After a little supper of eggs and rice which we bought from the wizened old lady selling meals from a large basket, the warden came around to make our beds. This was about 8pm, rather early by normal standards, and way too early if you’re an insomniac like me, but I guessed the rest of the carriage weren’t going to pander to my precious needs, so I kept it zipped.
When the beds are made, they are three tiered bunk beds. Of course being the only male of the group, and a gentleman I volunteered to take the less comfortable and roomy top bunk. Up I climbed. Getting undressed in a top bunk aboard a swaying train in the dark is quite a task. Oh, and did I mention I was half a bottle of Sang Som down at this stage?
Eventually, having almost managed to strangle myself with a pair of Thai fisherman pants, I poked my head out of the curtains to say hey to my buddies, expecting a pre-bed chat (you know, like a sleep over). No response. I dangled myself over the edge my bed and rustled the curtains of the bed below me to get Jo’s attention. Nothing! It was 8:30pm at most. Eventually, I came to the grim acceptance that my travel companions had been rocked to sleep already. I could even hear snoring. And I’m sure you know how infuriating the sound of snoring can be when you’re not asleep yourself and would like to be. I rolled over in my bed, and dared to close my eyes. The train did indeed rock gently, as I had been promised, but I didn’t personally consider it to be a somniferous experience.
I tried, but sleep did not come, and as is always the case, the harder you try, the less likely it is to come. I thought I’d take myself for a little walk up and down the galleys, see what everyone else was up to, and get in on the action. Out of my bed I hopped to be greeted by dim lights and snoring. EVERYone else was asleep, I swear! Not a soul awake, apart from the wizened supper-seller lady who was now sitting atop her basket picking her nose and inspecting its contents curiously.
I walked down the galley towards the bar carriage. I could hear the bar long before I saw it, specifically the loud distorted thud of tired old speakers, and the raucous cacophony of merrily drunken tourists and locals singing and laughing. I slid the door to the carriage open, and was met with a strong smell of warm spicy food and the light fragrance of cigar smoke. I’d pretty much figured that I wasn’t going to sleep on this journey, and this carriage looked to be a great alternative to tossing and turning on the top bunk, so I took a seat at the only empty table and began to peruse the menu. Before long I was chatting to other tourists and locals. There was a lovely community spirit in the carriage.
There was an understanding between us that we were all in it together…insomniacs of the night train unite. It turns out there was a girl on the train that was in my year at university at Oxford Brookes. It’s a small world! I realised quite how true this saying is when I was travelling – I also bumped into someone I knew from Frankfurt when I went to Ko Samui weeks later. We all seem to tread the same beaten track in search of paradise it seems!
To be honest, I’m really glad that I have trouble sleeping, because my experience on the night train that night is one of the highlights of my time in Thailand. It wasn’t long before everyone in the carriage was on their feet dancing to the thud from the old speakers and I even got a chance to plug in my iPod. We were dancing on the seats and tables as the dark Thai jungle hurtled by beyond the train windows.
You see staying sane on a sleeper train for most people is as simple as putting your head down for a good sleep and waking refreshed at your destination. For me, staying sane on the sleeper train entailed quite the opposite during my Thailand holiday. My sanity was temporarily sated by the friendly locals and tourists in the bar carriage and their generosity. It was on arrival at Surat Thani the next morning that the insanity crept in. Note to self: Sang Som and no sleep = grumpy, tired, hung-over backpacker….worth it though!