What it 'tuk' to get to Northern Thailand

May 26
She had pulled her hair into a clip behind her head-- thin, dyed auburn strands framing her pleasantly round face.

“Sit, sit,” she urged, taking our juice and food orders as we slid onto the outdoor wooden benches of her restaurant guest house—a walk down from the train station we'd just arrived from. We had left from Bangkok at 9 that morning, seated aboard an hour and a half train ride to Ayutthaya, Thailand's historic capital city. Our luggage was left under watch by the Ayutthaya rail police—they having stamped our bags, handing us a slip and directing us to place our items on racks in an unlocked, central store room. 

Our waitress pulled out a map, circling the sites she suggested we see. We told her we had until 9 that evening, with plans to catch an overnight train up to Chiang Mai.

She smiled gently, revealing a small gap between her front teeth. “You've got time. Eat and then I’ll call you tuk tuk.”

And so we gorged on our afternoon lunch, savoring the freshness of the mango fruit juice.

Our waitress returned. Saifon was her name, she said, holding a small child nestled comfortably in her arms. Her boyfriend the tuk tuk driver had found himself a new girlfriend, leaving behind her now five-month old baby girl, Saifon said.

“What's her name?” I asked.

“Newya,” she seemed to said. Saifon gazed tenderly at her daughter, "She was born on the New Year."

Saifon’s brother was our tuk tuk driver, shuttling us through the temples of the city—only one of which was a working temple. The rest were ruins, remnants from around the 1700s when the Burmese invaded the city.

Temple ruins in Ayutthaya

Tuk tuks have no doors, nor seatbelts. It's about as safe as riding a bicycle blindly along an American highway. Only Thai residents can obtain permits to drive a tuk tuk; Caitlan pointed out that we've yet to see a woman tuk tuk driver. 

Save the traffic lights and road signs (the few scattered in town), there are no rules to Thai driving. Our tuk tuk followed the course of cars and motorcycles—with as many as four people cramped into a seat, often a young child or small dog standing in front—as we merged with the maze of traffic onto the highway. You’re to drive in the middle between two lanes before crossing over—creating a cluttered mess as drivers speed through-- speed limits also, I assume, merely a recommendation. Some drivers look over their shoulders as they cross lanes, but most rely on the driver behind who will honk (a light tap and faint sound) to signal his nearing approach. Our driver from Chiang Mai to Pai a few days later honked at a cow taking up the side of the road. It mooed back. Not all along the highway take the honk seriously. 

We handed the luggage slip to the Ayuttaha rail police that evening. The guard gave us a quick nod, granting Caitlan and I permission to enter the ajar door of the luggage room. 

The train car was narrow; Mint green curtains pulled on the car's either side covered those asleep in the bunkers. We stopped at 13 and 15, two upper beds about half the size of twin beds in width. I layered the pillow with my skirt (G-d forbid my head touched the who-knows-when-last-washed pillow case, regardless of the fact I was still clothed in the day's sweat ridden wear) and perched my feet on top of my purse, so as to ward off any eyeing the camera in my bag.

And then I passed out, exhaustion from the day canceling all hesitation of sleeping on a bunker train, the sound of the wheels along the track calming as I drifted to sleep.

By 7.30 that morning, Caitlan and I were awake, a train official asking us if we wanted breakfast.

We sat on the seats below, eating our six, bite sized cookies with flavor the surfaced once dipped in our miniscule cup of coffee.

The waitress appeared 30 minutes later, a 460 baht check ($15) for our meal—the most expensive bill seeing as we normally budget 80 baht ($2.60) for breakfast, perhaps 150 baht ($5) at most. Absolutely not $15 for six cookies. A chutzpa, if you ask me.

I watched the train official work his way through car, stripping the upper and lower beds of the sheets, before pulling down the mattresses, undoing the planks and turning the lower level into two separate chairs.

By day, the train is an ordinary passenger car—by night, bedtime on tracks.

We survived the overnight experience, albeit the aches from the cramped position we slept in  (nothing that wouldn’t be fixed with a 30-minute Thai massage later that day), smelly from a full day’s outing and evening sans shower and $15 poorer from an overpriced breakfast.

Caitlan and I arrived in Chiang Mai early that morning-- our first stop in our journey north. It's special that Saifon, our waitress from the Ayutthaya guest house, had named her daughter New Year-- a symbol for a new beginning. Our arrival in Chiang Mai is a new beginning in the month of our travels-- inching closer to the days we have yet to plan as we develop a fresh part to our journey each step of the way. 

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