And then there was Irham
Train ride from Bangkok to Pratchuap Kiri Khan
The young voice drifted up to us, over the roar of a crowded waiting area at Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station. We ourselves were waiting with our bicycles to buy tickets for the train south. The question was spoken in such perfect English, with no hint of any accent, that we turned around expecting to see a European face staring back. To our surprise, our gaze was returned by Irham, an 11-year-old Thai boy.
We explained our trip and now Ihram was bursting with questions. How far had we gone? Which countries? After a few minutes, Irham confessed the reason for his interest. “That’s my bicycle over there!” he said proudly, pointing across the jammed hall. We couldn’t see a thing. Where was that bicycle again? Every bench had people hanging off the edges. Every spare bit of floor was covered with families waiting for their train.
Finally we spotted his bicycle, along with the bikes of his father and cousin. They’d already cycled 800km in Thailand and now were going to Malaysia during Ihram’s school holidays. By now we’d reached the ticket window, only to be sent to a second one, then to the cargo desk and finally to load our bikes on the train. Working through the chaos took over an hour and unlike our last train journey in Thailand, this time we had no help at all from the various employees standing around. Only one mustered up the energy to talk to us and he was looking for a few baht as a tip. For what service exactly he thought a tip was merited, we’re not sure.
In the middle of all this we lost Ihram but once the train was underway we set out on a mission to find him again. Our second class carriages were barely full. Four wagons down, the third class carriages were stuffed with all the people who’d been sitting in the station an hour earlier. “Sawadee. Salam alaykum,” we said as we stepped over and around people, many of them Muslim. It was a sign of the transition in cultures we would experience in the days ahead, from Buddhism to Islam. We elicited a riot of giggles as people couldn’t help but laugh at the strange Westerners pushing through third class, where only locals filled the seats. The food sellers also seemed different: dried fish on a stick for 5 baht each in third class against well packed trays of rice, curry and egg for 30-baht in second class.
Three more carriages along, we found Irham and his family and a long exchange began about our trips, his dream to cycle Thailand’s highest peak Doi Inthanon and the reason he liked biking so much. “Because when I ride my bike my body is very strong,” was his reply. It seems his father had lit his son’s spark for cycling. “My dad was riding a bike even before he was married,” Irham told us. These were not only the first Thai cycle tourists we’d met but also the first Thais we really felt a connection with. It was perhaps the only time we felt we’d broken through the Falang-Thai barrier that usually ends with polite but short and shallow conversations. Our stop approached too soon and it was with some sadness we wished Irham a good trip and said goodbye, inspired by his unbridled enthusiasm for cycling.
We left the train in darkness and stepped onto the humid platform of Pratchuap Kiri Khan, a mouthful of a seaside town and the starting point for the next leg of our journey, south through Thailand and onto Malaysia and Singapore.