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25 December, Ao Phang Nga

We arrived back at the bus station at around 16:30 and got our bags ready for the trip back to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Mai. At 17:00 we boarded the bus, which, being a private first class bus rather than a government first class bus, was nicer than the bus we took down to Krabi—and a bit more expensive, of course. They still served the same snack, though: a slice of bread smothered with butter and sugar. The menu for dinner was also nicer than the rice porridge and soup we had on the way down, but the quality and cleanliness of the food left much to be desired (there were bugs in the rice—well, only one bug, actually, but that was enough).

The trip was supposed to take twelve hours, putting us in Bangkok at 5:00, which is when the city buses start running. We found ourselves pulling into Bangkok’s southern bus terminal at around 3:30, though. We sat around in the terminal for an hour and half, during which time I caught up a bit in this journal, and then we caught a bus to Hua Lam Phong. This is the central train station in Bangkok—and all of Thailand, for that matter, since all routes either start or end there.

We headed straight to the information booth next to the ticket windows and asked about getting a sleeper car to Chiang Mai. The woman there told us that there were no more tickets to Chiang Mai that evening, and when I asked her when the next train to Chain Mai was she said that there wouldn’t be any seats for the next five days, until the new year. I found this very hard to believe—even if there weren’t any sleepers, there had to be some other seats sometime in the next five days. Another guy there confirmed what the woman said, though, and suggested we take a bus instead. We asked him if he could check on buses for us, and he made a phone call. I thought that he was calling the northern bus terminal, but a minute later a lady appeared and brought us to a travel agency on the second floor of the train station. There she wanted to sign us up for a V.I.P. bus to Chiang Mai that evening for 800 baht per person—over twice what a bus to Chiang Mai should cost. We told her we’d try our luck at the northern bus terminal and left the office.

We were dead tired and extremely disillusioned. We had thought that the information booth was an impartial government service, but even they have connections with a travel agency charging exorbitant rates. Faced with the unpleasant prospect of traveling to the northern bus terminal, we decided to go directly to the ticket window and give it one more try. To our surprise, we found out that there were indeed seats on a train to Chiang Mai that left at 6:20—in ten minutes. Granted, they were third class seats, but they were seats. We bought our tickets and then rushed over to the platform and boarded the train. The moral of the story, of course, is that you should never bother with the middlemen (or women)—they’ll waste your time at best and your money at worst.

The first part of the trip was torture, as it was next to impossible to sleep on the hard and cramped seats. The bus had been infinitely more comfortable, but I’m the type of person who takes at least a half an hour (if not an hour) to fall asleep in his own bed. Forget sleeping while sitting. The only place I seem to be able to do that is the Seoul subway. Anyway, I was dead tired, but there was no chance of getting any sleep on those seats, so I just stared out the window and watched the hues of daylight slowly seep into the gray of dawn. As the afternoon waned and we got further north, though, the weather began to cool off and we got our second winds. Despite the uncomfortable seats, there is a certain romance to trains that is just lost on a bus. For the first time we got to see the countryside roll by, and we watched the flatlands of central Thailand turn into the hills and mountains of the northern regions. We got up from our seats several times during the day to go stand in the space between the cars. The doors were open, and you could hang onto the handles next to the doors and watch the world whip by. At dusk we watched the sunset cool in the sky like a sheet of hot iron taken out of the forge.

On the downside, the train ended up taking a lot longer than the bus. The trip was originally supposed to last 13.5 hours, but we ended up being over an hour late. We pulled into Chiang Mai after 21:00 and hired a sawngthaew (a pickup truck with two benches along either side of the bed and a cover over the whole thing) to take us to the Chiang Mai White House. When we got there, though, they told us they were full, and the nearby guesthouses were all full as well. Attempting to get a room late on Christmas was probably not the wisest move.

We walked to the nearest corner to get our bearings, and the sawngthaew we had taken from the station passed by and pulled over. The driver got out and asked us if we wanted him to take us to some guesthouses that he knew. I knew he was a tout—he would take us to a place that would charge exorbitant rates and give him a commission. I was about to say no and have Hyunjin wait with our bags at a nearby cafe while I looked around for a room, but at that very moment it began to rain. The cards were just not going my way, and I knew when it was time to fold. We tossed our bags back into the sawngthaew and climbed in after them.

The first place he took us to was full, and I began to worry a little. The second place, though, the Srisupan Guest House, had a room with two twin beds. The rate was 350 baht—far more than it should have been considering its out-of-the-way location—but at least the room was clean and the shower had an electric water heater. We took our first hot showers since arriving in Thailand, and after over 24 hours of traveling, it was like heaven. The beds were a bit uncomfortable, but they were horizontal, and we were finally able to get off to a long-anticipated sleep.

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