I am nearly finished my time in the North, and as usual, time flies so quickly. I am on the bus from Chieng Mai to Lampang heading through the mountains. I recall taking this trip in 1974. At the time, you could only compare it to a roller coaster ride, a very dangerous roller coaster ride! The bus, a contraption glued together with ill-fitting parts from other similar vehicles, would chug its way up the mountain on the bumpy, pot-holed two lane “highway.” At about the 40 km marker, you come to the crest of the mountain, and there we saw it—- an area covered by about 100 or so spirit houses to represent some of the people who were killed in accidents on that road. It was not a comfort to see everyone on the bus “wai” (pay homage with clasped hands) in the direction of these small, porcelain Thai-style residences for the dearly departed. I remember sitting in the back of the bus (wrong move, you feel everything worse) and the bus driver would begin our decent careening down the twisting road through the sharp turns all the way to Lampang. I don’t think I breathed until we reached flat ground again! Fortunately, I am here to say that there is no little spirit house for my poor restless soul to reside in on that mountain. Reaching that point today, I had an automatic sense of dread rise up in me. The number of spirit houses has tripled since then, but times have changed. The road is now a fairly straight route, and has four lanes with a divide between the two directions of traffic. I settled a little deeper into my comfortable seat with its secure seat belt as the driver safely and expertly negotiated the road. I gave a little chuckle for the memory, and begin to doze off. But not before I, like everyone else on the bus, faced the direction of the spirit houses, gave a “wai” to the dead and prayed to their spirits to allow us a safe passage to our destination.
I got the train to Chieng Mai from the Hualongpong Railway Station in the center of Bangkok. Had a light dinner and prayed that the bout of ptomaine poisoning that plagued me two years ago on my last trip would not return in any form. Unlike that previous trip, however, I remembered to pack my Cipro just in case!
The construction of the second class sleeper car is such that you lose and keep something in the transition from sitting area to bunk beds. Being in the upper berth, you keep the light and the electrical socket to recharge all your high-tech bring-alongs. Ah! But with the lower berth, you have the big, wide window all to yourself. I love just sitting there in the bed late at night looking out at each little town we pass. Everything is bathed in the same yellow glow from the street lamps– hard here, soft there– depending on the object’s distance from the powerful light. Thailand is mostly flat here through the pitch black rice fields as night descends in the central plains. Lights twinkle in the distance in single, pairs, and clusters. and your mind begins to revel in the possibilities of what human activity could be happening there in their light. My car is in the front of the train, so I get to hear the hum of the engine, sometimes louder, as it strains to pull its heavy load northward.
I am awoken at about 6 am not by the sound of my small, portable alarm clock, but the shout of, “Naam Sohm! Naam Sohm, mai khraaaap!” (Orange juice! Orange juice!) The sun is already rising, but the day is rainy. No matter. It is so wonderful to look out the window and see the mountains, small villages and rice farms that dot the landscape. Here and there you see the ornamental designs on the houses that tell you that you have entered the Lanna North.
Soon after I pulled back the curtains of my sleeper, two frail little old Thai ladies were slowly making their way down the aisle back to their seats. They are a chatty pair. They got on the train in Bangkok and immediately fell in with a family in the seats next to them. The family “adopted” the duo and took care of them all the way to Chieng Mai. This is the wonderful way that Thais still watch out for their elderly, even people they do not know. They talked all the way to bedtime with the family about everything and nothing from food (a big topic) to all the places they have been. This morning as they pass, they smile in my direction and we exchanged greetings. So they took it upon themselves to stop a bit to chat. Well, actually “grill” would be a better term as only little old Thai ladies would or could. Within no time they had found out where I was from; marital status; how I learned Thai; where I was going and whom I was visiting. All within the space of a minute, so expert were these questioners’ long-practiced skills. They probably would have extracted more, but the lurching train was too much for their legs. So they shuffled back to their seats after appropriate parting gestures and acknowledgments, and I have no doubt filled the family in on all they had learned.