After nearly two weeks of mostly doing things the “tourist” way in Laos, I was determined to get myself to Thailand the “real” way. There were plenty of opportunities in Pakse for VIP buses that went all the way to Bangkok, but I wanted nothing of that. My plan? Catch local transport to the Thai-Lao border, walk across and get myself to Ubon Rachatani where I’d investigate possibilities on getting to Bangkok.
My plan had been to spend a leisurely, relaxing morning in Pakse, but like nearly every day in Laos, I was awoken at the crack of dawn, this time by construction work (as opposed to chickens, conversations and motorbike repairs that impeded my sleep the past few days)!
After breakfast I made my way to songthaew station where I was directed to a vehicle bound of Chong Mek (the Thai border town).
Two hours later, we pulled into a parking lot where motorbike taxis awaited to take those venturing 1km or so further to the Lao checkpoint, which, incidentally, was much fancier than its counterpart on the Chinese border! Stamped out, I followed the divided dirt path over a low blockade marking the invisible line between the two countries to be stamped into Thailand.
Suddenly, the world seemed so familiar again. Though I had never set foot in Isan (Eastern Thailand) before, at the very least I could communicate with people which made a world of difference. I managed to negotiate a private ride for the 90km to Ubon for 400 Baht (versus the original 1,000 he was offering) and was on my way.
Dropped at the train station, I realized that, though I’m sure Ubon was interesting, I really wanted to get back to Bangkok, the teeming metropolis I know so well. Again, utilizing my Thai language, I got myself a train ticket for the Thai capital on the only available ride out that night, which, to my luck, left in only one hour. The downside? It was an 11 hour journey to Krungthep (Bangkok, pronounced kroong-TEP) and the train only had third class seats. Oh, and it arrived at Hualamphong Station at 4:00am! For 205 Baht (US$7) I wasn’t about to complain and settled in for what would be an awfully long journey!
It was a cramped trip, with two rows of two-person benches that faced one another. It was get to know your neighbor time as you’d be awfully close for the duration of the trip. Though I was clearly the only farang (Westerner, pronounced faw-rawng) on board, my seat mate turned out to be one of the only Thai people on board who could speak English and he was eager to practice it!
Though currently unemployed, this Isan native had previously worked in the (seedy) resort town of Pattaya and was on his way to Bangkok in an attempt to find work. He was quite chatty and our conversation ranged from the history of the Thai royal family to the dicey political situation that is still drawing protests in Bangkok.
At one point, he told me a story about how U.S. soldiers stationed in the Philippines used to come to Pattaya to vacation and would give him U.S. dollars as tips. As he explained how he wouldn’t convert them to Baht but instead save them as souvenirs, I reached into my daypack and pulled out a penny to give to him. He was enthralled and passed it around to the surrounding folks on the train who admired it in wonderment.
It was a mostly sleepless night. The cramped space paired with all the station stops as well as the vendors constantly hawking their goods at all hours of the night didn’t help. And in true Thai fashion, we pulled into Bangkok’s main train station 25 minutes late. Just as well….less time to wait for the sun to rise!