The Border Express

By Mikhael M. Labrador
Essay

The train parked at the Aranyaphratet station looked more like a novelty. I was curious to see how it would run. The exterior was dignified, the paint on it polished, but it was one of those old trains, quite unlike the ones I had been on before. I must say that, aside from practical considerations, this was the reason why I wanted to go on it. With my girlfriend, Rose, I had just visited Vietnam and Cambodia and was bound for Thailand to complete the last leg of our itinerary. To save $10 or about P500 each on fare money, we decided to take the train from the border town of Aranyaprathet to the country’s capital of Bangkok. I had learned about it beforehand as part of my research for our trip. I was glad to know that Rose was up for it as well, perhaps more so than myself. She too romanticized the notion of a long, albeit arduous, travel by train.

A handful of people were already in line when we arrived, but the ticket booth was still closed. Before falling in line ourselves, we decided to have a quick lunch outside the station, at what would be the Thai equivalent of the Filipino karinderya. The food was more than enough to make us hopeful for the rest of our trip. When we returned inside the terminal, the line had grown by just about a few more people, us included. Locals made up most of it. Some of them were monks in their traditional orange garb. There were a few other tourists, and a hardy looking bunch we made. I wondered if we shared the same reasons for being there.

The low number of people made boarding smooth, and we got settled in no time. Not long after, I felt the engine come alive, and without a whistle, a bell, or some sort of signal that I had expected, the train chugged away slow and sturdy. “Larga na ta,” I told Rose. “Unsa na oras?” she asked. I checked the time and answered her. We were reasonably within schedule. “Piktyuri ko bi,” I sheepishly requested. Rose took a picture of me holding up my ticket, and upon reviewing what she had taken, she quipped, “Daw missing person ka.” We both laughed at my picture and took a few more before surrendering our attentions to the view outside our window.

The train had not gotten far yet, and I was just starting my slow drift into reflection and daydream as I looked outside. I watched as the sights unravelled before me. Green fields that stretched out for kilometers in every direction accounted for most of it. It was rice country. Much of my childhood was set in a similar backdrop, so the landscape and the frames of life in it felt familiar but beautiful all the same. Here and there, Buddhist temples, rural Thai architecture, and local presence served as quaint reminders to me of where I was. All of which happily broke my nostalgic state. Taking a break from her own private thoughts, Rose roused me for a conversation. “Ma-remind ko sa katong ‘Town of Cats’ ni Murakami,” she said. No doubt because of the train part in that story. The one that we were on rumbled from the rushing wind, but Rose’s enthusiasm pierced through as we talked about the story and other things for a while. Soon, our topic drifted to our current endeavor. Kiddingly I told her, “Kabayo na lang kuwang, kumpleto na ta para sa biyahe nga ni. Nag-plane na ta, bus, motor, barko, bike, ug train na pud ron.” She told me how excited she’d been about this part of our journey. Our window gazing resumed. We were sitting in front of each other, looking out from opposite directions. On my side, Cambodia gradually became farther, while on hers, Bangkok drew closer.

Every now and then the train would stop at minor stations along the way. For the first few, it seemed like no one hopped off, or at least nobody from our section. The train was well on its way. The engine, I imagined, was hot and its gears were nimble in their movements. We picked up speed as we moved further into the interior of the country, and the distance between the terminals became farther, or so it felt. Up to that point, we had not shared our seats with anyone, and there were plenty of vacant ones left. Eventually, the train filled up with people. I looked out for the food vendors I had read about and seen in videos during my research for our trip. No luck just yet. I wasn’t hungry anyway. During one of the stops—and I can’t, for the life of me, remember which one as there were so many—a man came over to where I was and proceeded to put his belongings in the overhead compartment above us. I scooted inside my seat to make room for him. Just then, he handed me his water bottle and what I could only describe as a towel rolled into a log. I was not familiar with the general etiquette of train riding, so this act caught me by surprise. I received his things, still somewhat bashful towards what was happening, but the man had a cordial way about him that made it easy for me to oblige. He had a fixed smile on his face that I was quick to return.

I looked over at Rose, and she too was smiling, amused by what was happening. The man asked for his things back from me. He placed the towel last along with his luggage and kept his water bottle in hand. As expected, he sat beside me. He held his thumb up at my direction and said, “OK!” He made the same gesture to Rose, and we both nodded back at him. Like any agreeable tourist, I welcomed any chance for interaction with the locals, so I decided to start a conversation with my new seatmate. Bangkok was still hours away after all, and it would help to pass the time. But it did not take long before I learned that his English vocabulary was limited to “OK” and “Where you from?” I could not hold it against him, being aware of my own shortcoming for not knowing his language. I told him that we were from the Philippines, to which he replied, “Ohhh, Philippines!” The conversation that would follow seemed hopeless. In my head I wished for him to utter “Manny Pacquiao,” like they did in Cambodia when I told them where we were from. That would have bought us a good few more seconds. Unfortunately, this never happened, and if he had dropped the whole thing right then, I would not have objected. But he was friendly to a fault. He had an earnest look on his face as he somewhat expected for the conversation to continue. The discussion became a rough version of sign language. Lucky for me, my landlord of eight years is legally deaf, and I had practice with this sort of exchange. It was all small talk and formalities, but each sentence was hard-fought. Rose also held her own, and I was convinced that she was enjoying herself. Clearly she too had had some practice. She certainly made good use of our makeshift interactions with the other locals over our past few weeks abroad.

There was a brief intermission that followed our initial chitchat. Sometime within the pause, my seatmate stood up, reached for his belongings, and took out what I had perceived earlier to be a rolled-up towel. He hung it up on his sleeves and looked like someone who was about to take a bath. Looking at my direction, he pointed his finger to his chest and uttered, “Islam.” The inside of the train being noisy, and my attention not yet complete, I responded by stating my name. I thought he had introduced himself at last, so I proceeded by doing the same thing. He swayed his head in disagreement and reiterated himself: “Islam.” I did not bother to respond any further realizing the blunder of my first one. Instead, I put on an awkward smile to affirm my understanding. He went to the back of our car and stopped at one of the few empty seats left. He covered its surface with his sheets and knelt down on it. It was a time of the day for him to pray. I caught Rose chuckling away at my mistake. “Religion na diay imong pangalan,” she teased me. I stated my excuse, laughing at my own slip. “Grabe, may religion siya nga iyaha ba!” Rose egged on. I waited for the man to come back and to try and correct myself. But by the time he did, I saw no point to it anymore and just made room for him just as I had done previously. When he was getting ready to sit back down, he told me for the last time and for safe measure: “Islam.” I nodded back at him as Rose kept a cheeky grin.

I called my seatmate’s attention to ask him about his tattoos, which he had a few of spread throughout his arms and some on his face and neck. They looked rustic and were not immediately noticeable. We dove right back into the same way that we had been carrying out our previous conversations. In his efforts to explain, he fixed his hands together like someone holding a hammer and chisel. I knew that in the context of our conversation, he was referring to the manner in which his tattoos were made—the old way—a painful process that was proven by his facial expression as he described it to me. He also tried to explain the meaning of each one, but I was not sure if I had translated it correctly in my head. I understood enough that they were all imposed on him by ritual. He looked proud of his markings, and he showed them off like they were trophies or medals. At one point, he directed my focus to a specific location below his pelvic regions. Next, he put two fingers together to mimic the needles that were used, went back to a hammer-and-chisel motion, and put on what was the grimmest face I’d seen him make. Apparently, and perhaps the information could have been spared from me, he also had a tattoo somewhere in the genital area. Needless to say, that was one mark he didn’t bother to show, but it made for an entertaining topic nonetheless.

A couple of times or more, I snuck out to the back and had a cigarette or two. I peeked, with half of my body hanging from the side of the train, to catch a windy glimpse of the places we passed by. In one case, I just stood there looking at the draw bars that linked our section to the next one, and I watched as the clamps pushed and pulled on each other, locked in their hypnotic dance.

My girlfriend stayed in her seat and had succumbed to napping. It was late afternoon when she woke up, just in time for us to buy snacks from the food vendors that had already been making their rounds by then. We bought a light starchy snack that helped to elevate our moods. The lady that was sitting across from us offered us some of her food, which we timidly declined. However, to return the courtesy, we gave her and my seatmate some dried lotus seeds that we had brought with us from Cambodia. It was eventually passed around to the other commuters within close proximity. It was great how food spoke for us in our attempts at being friendly. It added to the peacefulness in the late afternoon ambience.

Everybody inside the train had assumed a more relaxed state. The images outside looked more delicate. Large water birds glided in the cooler breeze, and the colour of everything softened under the semi-shade. I shifted my focus to the opposite side of where we were, and I noticed a beautiful sunset had taken shape. I called for Rose to take a look, but she had already been doing so. She pulled out her camera and hurriedly took some pictures hoping not to miss the opportunity. I also took a few myself. However, upon examining the pictures we had taken, it was made clear to us how much they failed to capture what was before our eyes. We stowed back the camera and instead just enjoyed the scenery. “Nindot no? Murag best sunset ko ni so far,” Rose gushed. There was no need for me to add to her already apt description, so I remained silent. People’s attentions gravitated toward the spectacle, locals and us foreigners alike. Little children pointed to it with glee, which only made the draw even more irresistible. It was a welcomed while before the lovely ball of orange in the sky disappeared into the horizon. After which, the train lights came on, and it was finally evening. The hour indicated that we were way past our halfway mark, and our journey continued with no delays.

The stops that followed took on a different vibe, and the distance between each one became shorter once again. The stations looked more up to date and busier. The closer we got to the city, the more the English translations became present at every sign. The exchange of passengers also became more hectic. People left, and even more boarded to take their place. We hit our first highway after hours of nothing but farmlands. Not very far in the distance lay the illuminated facade of a metropolis. I checked the time again as Rose showed me our Google map location on her phone. My seatmate, figuring out what we were doing, held his hand up, pinching together his thumb and pinkie finger. I knew he meant to say that we were close. I imitated his actions to let him know that I understood. It did not take long before the view from outside our window had drastically changed as we passed by sections of the city, one neighborhood after another.

Some houses were so close to the railway that I caught faint smells of incense and overheard muffled conversations in Thai. We often had to stop to make way for traffic on the road and for other trains that were either going in our direction or against. “Mura pud og Pilipinas,” Rose mutters. I agreed, but as we observed further, the differences were far too many and far too distinct that our first impressions were quickly overridden. We were both in agreement when it came to this and with our wide-eyed demeanor for simply being there. Rose’s face lit up as we reviewed our plans for the coming week. In that moment, we became oblivious to our tiredness. All we knew was that we had practically arrived in Bangkok, and our legs, numb as they were from hours of sitting, were ready to wander.

The sign said hua lamphong station, and a dark, abysmal tunnel was our entrance to it. We passed by a glass elevator that gave us a good idea of just how far down it went. The last few nudges toward our final stop were slow. My excitement verged on impatience, enough for me to stick my head out of the window to try and investigate the delay. Rose urged me to settle down and to get our bags. I stood up to take our luggage down from the overhead compartment. My seatmate already carried his own on his lap, as was the case with everyone else around us. The train went inside and down the tunnel only to emerge back up and out of the other end. We had stopped for good, and everybody hopped off. There was a long walk between us and the exit. Rose and I followed the crowd of people that headed for it. The inside of the terminal was grand. There were old and modern models of trains that juxtaposed each other as they parked in their individual lanes. I figured that my seatmate went ahead until we saw him waiting for us by the gates. He kindly gave us directions to the taxi pickup area, but we had plans to take the metro bus instead. We made our way out together and said our goodbyes before we parted ways.

Outside Hua Lamphong, the evening made for a quieter scene. But in the morning, and I was sure of this, people would come once more as they always had, and the train would run again; whether heading back or moving forward is all up to perspective. The old train, the one I made out to be a heap, would always be loyal to its tracks for however long it could be made to endure. As we moved on into the city and toward the bright lights where other unknown things awaited us, I thought how good a metaphor that was for all of our boneheaded adventures.

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