“How about we book a flight for Phuket. And then from there to Chiang Mai and then Chiang Mai back to Manila?” suggests Dave
“Yeah but the next flight doesn’t leave for Phuket until 3 so we would have to spend almost the whole day in Bangkok.” I respond. “What if we take the train to Chiang Mai and then fly directly to Phuket and then back to Manila.”
“No. Because you can’t fly to Manila from Phuket.” Notes Dave “but we really need to stop wasting time before all the flights leave”
“Alright eff it.” I conclude “Lets just book a flight to Chiang Mai and we’ll figure it out when we get there…. Awww what the hell? You can’t book flights online if they leave less than four hours away.”
After a 30 minute telephone battle with the booking agent we pack our bags and spill onto the streets in search of a taxi, and the elusive reasonable fare. The fresh rain and morning sun make Bangkok’s China Town an entirely different place than it was the night before. Dark alleys with elderly men sleeping on tarped piles of goods are replaced with bright streets where men are busy straightening colorful rows of. Carts holding boiling, noodle-filled grey water are being wheeled away. Steel shutters roll up to reveal wall to wall glass cases of royal red felt plastered with golden jewelry.
Touching down in Thailand’s Northern Chiang Mai province several hours later we pay for not being sure of our plans by having to fend off tour guides, anxious like drooling dogs waiting for a bone.
“Okay, we could go right to the motorcycle rental and then head to the mountains first thing in the morning. Or we could rent a car…” I think aloud to myself
“Is there anything to do in the city?” Asks Dave
“I’m not sure, but we need to figure out tomorrow’s plan tonight or we won’t be able to leave the city until the shops open in the morning” I reason
With time running short and the pressure from the taxi drivers wearing us thin we decide to book a car for the morning and to figure out the details later.
We throw our bags at our guest house and rent two vintage bicycles. Just past the “too far to turn around point” my brake cable breaks. It is probably for the best since the broken headlight was becoming a tiresome distraction. These might have been smaller issues if we weren’t trying to navigate a busy street in the dusk of a foreign city. As quick as we can we get off the road, we do; bargaining in Chiang Mai’s night market provides more than enough entertainment while we wait for the traffic to die down.
The next morning we ask our driver to show us the best he can but to get us back for the 5pm train. He shakes his head when he learns we arrived from Bangkok only 12 hours before. During our 9 hours with him we visit a tiger sanctuary, ride elephants, and visit Thailand’s highest peak. In the sake of catching our train though we pass up the river rafting, night safari and dozens of temples. Dave sums up the day nicely: “Our driver thinks we’re crazy but I’m not sure what we’d do here for another night.”
“Car 5 sir” says the attendant as she passes over our tickets.
Always planning I ask “What time does the train leave?”
“6pm sir.” Her voice rises at the end of each sentence as if it is a question.
And what time does it get in to Bangkok?”
Taking up the driver’s cynicism I ask “Do you think it will actually get in at 8?”
“Mmmm. Maybe 9 sir. “
“Thanks” I laugh, both at her response and the comedy of a schedule that is always late. Why not just change the schedule and always be on time?
None the less, the train is a beautiful way to see the country. Everything stays in view just long enough for you to give it a passing thought before it disappears into the window frame. Every now and then you make eye contact with a stranger for only a moment and then never again. Teenagers lean on concrete walls with one shoulder and raise cigarettes to their mouths with another. A baby, a man, a small child, and a woman all on one scooter slowly disappear behind the train. A sun sets over a low mountain. A perfectly round bush sprouts through the gravel below the train rails. In an otherwise dark night, a small store lights up the rain pouring off a roof and over Coca-Cola and Marlboro signs. The train’s interior is no less an experience. Locals come and go. A woman sells Singh Beer. Only after pushing 3 large size bottles on us do we learn she works on commission. Though tired with morning approaching near we accept her offer to join us for one more beer… and are so impressed with her efficiency that we take her up on another.
By 5am we are confident enough that we will only be an hour late that we book our flight to Phuket. At the train station in Bangkok it takes 5 neon taxis before one agrees to charge us by the meter, and so he does as he takes us off to the airport. We spend a little over 24 hours in the beach bum town of Phuket and whirl back to Bangkok, followed by one more hop to Manila.
“Bangkok was nice” I tell a colleague over a much needed coffee having arrived at 5am the night before.
“Yeah” I say smirking in anticipation of his reaction “and then we checked out Chiang Mai.”
“Oh god” he says, knowing what’s coming.
“Yeah and then Phuket”
“Haha!” He covers his mouth and winces to try and keep the coffee in. “you did what? Who does Thailand, tip to tail, in a long weekend?.”
“You never know when you’re going to get back.” I argue
“Well. I guess you don’t have to bother now” he laughs again.
Such a trip is ridiculous to some people. Okay most. But the pace staves off boredom (and relaxation I guess). And if I have my choice of spending five days seeing one city or the same seeing three, I will take the latter every time, even if it does mean a lot of travel.
This isn’t just a philosophy for travel though. It is part of a bigger and familiar adage - life isn’t about the destination - it’s about the journey. And it applies almost anywhere.
As life becomes digitized and things move faster we forget this philosophy, especially when we deal with people. Do you recall what the girl look like that served you your coffee? Or do you only recall that she got it wrong. Too often we, as the great philosopher Kant said, treat people like means to an end, .when we ought treat them as an end in themselves, as an important part of the interaction.
How about politics? I won’t delve too deep, but how often is a decision made with the end of winning votes in mind without regard for the consequences. (Perhaps we should do a census on this.)
Most of us work our lives away thinking about the destination of retirement, but don’t think about the days spent in a job we hate. We stress so much thinking about the wedding that we don’t appreciate why to marry in the first place. We worry about post graduation instead of concentrating on our studies, or the parties intermingled with them.
But in the end, you really never know when the train will arrive so you might as well enjoy the scenery while you can.