The last time I took a long-haul sleeper train, I was 6 years old. I traveled from Cleveland, Ohio to Pueblo, Colorado with my aunt and cousin to visit grandma. It was also winter, and if I recall correctly, the pipes froze around Chicago and there was no cold water. Being so young, I don’t remember much except vague memories of hanging out in the dining car and generally watching the world go by out the window.
Yesterday, we left Butterworth, the mainland town in Malaysia across from Palau Penang, on a two car train heading north. When we crossed the border into Thailand, we stopped at an immigration point and all got off in order to get our Malaysian exit and ThaI arrival passport stamps. We stopped again a few miles later at Hat Yai to join up with the rest of the northbound train to Bangkok.
Much of the Malaysian scenery seemed to be of construction along the track. Once we entered Thailand, rice fields and small villages were much more picturesque. Somewhere along the peninsula, we saw our first karsts – dramatic limestone mountains which appear to be vertically thrust up from the earth like Superman’s crystal Fortress of Solitude. In truth, they are eroded formations from long ago when the entire area was under the sea. Unlike any hills I have ever seen, they seem like they were created using giant versions of those metal dropped pin toys that are used to recreate hands and faces as silvered silhouettes.
A couple hours after sunset, dinner was served with real plates and silverware; cashew chicken with a delicious chicken curry. Afterwards, the train staff came through to convert the seats into beds, lowering the much smaller upper bunks down into position, and drawing the light blue privacy curtains across each one.
During the night, the train stopped next to a densely packed and brightly lit festival. The local equivalent of a traveling carnival, there were food vendors and people milling about. Revelers waved and beckoned us to get off the train and join them. We wished that we could have. After a decent night’s sleep, we awoke to more rice paddies, small villages, and temples. The closer we got to Bangkok, the villages turned into towns and cities, the temples grew in size, and everywhere there is always more rice.
30 years later, the joy at watching the world go by out the window is no less. What would have been the snow-covered midwest of America is now the rich tropical green of Thailand. Both can be beautiful. A few hours after arriving in Bangkok, we board yet another sleeper train to Laos, gaining just over 13 degrees of latitude in 2 days. We will be taking several more long train rides during the trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Southeast Asia out of their large windows.