Sunday, 21 August 2011

Train to Nong Khai

It’s hard to believe the effect that one pretty young Thai girl can have on a whole gaggle of older men, but it’s nearly midnight and I’m sitting up on the sleeper train from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai-Laos border, listening to the wagon attendant chat up this particular passenger. A few hours earlier the ticket inspectors came round. They hunt in threes, and they spent longer inspecting her ticket than they did on the rest of the wagon combined. She appears to be selling “grape seed oil”, from what I could read upside down on the laminated sheets that she produced every time she had someone’s, some man’s, attention – perhaps she is some sort of grape seed Mata Hari, luring unsuspecting Thai men to a good, if costly, oiling.

Oisin on Nong Khai train

The thing about the officials in this country is that they wear the most improbably tight-fitting uniforms. It’s as if the costume designer from Chips sketched up the patterns for the Thai police force. What I can’t understand is that there is never so much as a pin prick of perspiration to be seen seeping through these figure-hugging black and grey garments. Is the major entry requirement for the Thai police an ability not to sweat no matter what the climatic conditions? When the monsoon rains come during the night, the next days are blessed with a clear blue sky and soaring temperatures. A heat of the sort that has me dripping as I leave the shower, to the point where it becomes senseless to towel off, for where does the bath water stop and my dehydration begin? Yet I slop out into the street, leaving a trail of untalcumed sweat drops spattering the pavement behind me, to find policemen directing traffic, or riding motorcycles, or patrolling the streets with not a damp patch to be seen between them. What catches me off-guard about this is that behind the high camp stretch pants, lycra shirts and mirror glasses, there doesn’t seem to be a macho authority swagger. Policemen fall over themselves to help us, to find someone to translate our questions (Pati’s questions, I still have a punk rocker’s aversion to talking to policemen), to indulge the child. I was struggling in the queue for the enquiry desk in Agra train station last month when an Indian police officer decided I needed some help with the decidedly unruly way that Indians “queue”. He produced his lathi, a bamboo pole about twice the size of my son, and proceeded to prod the locals brusquely into line. The moustache, the Frank Spencer beret and the paunch did nothing for the cut of his jib in my book, but his big stick and unquestioning swagger had the would-be enquirers in parade ground order in no time. I didn’t really feel the need to be grateful. I could have dealt with the jumbled queue (eventually). “Treat people like scum and they’ll start behaving like scum” said Robert Carlyle’s murderous character in a 16-year old episode of Cracker that we recently watched. I wonder if that logic would make much impact on the requisitioners of the Indian police lathi.

Now there is a full-on conversation taking place on the other side of my Thai Railways curtain. The unsteady American who appeared in Pati’s face about two hours ago, asking if she knew where the bar was, has returned, half bottle of Singha beer in hand, to join the conversation in Thai between the lovestruck wagon attendant and the fragrant grape seed oil Mata Hari. Pati explodes out of her top berth in mute frustration at not being able to sleep, and throws herself down in a sulk at the other end of my bunk. I put the laptop away and stick my head out into the aisle. “Any chance of taking the conversation somewhere else guys? It’s nearly midnight. Maybe the bar?” The American looks round at me over his shoulder and readies his reply. “The bar’s closed.” “There’s probably a good reason for that,” I smile back. The Thai Railways chap is looking embarrassed, grape seed girl is tantalisingly only half visible behind her own curtain, and the American is translating my points for them. I keep my head out in the aisle in as cheerful an impression of block-headed stubbornness as I can manage at midnight. The American struggles down the wagon, and the Thai suitor snuggles his bum back onto its perch – on top of our backpacks. I keep staring. He bows his head in another excruciating apology. I keep staring. He mutters something to the Mata HHari and finally moves off. I pull the curtain closed in relief and we prepare for another attempt at sleep. By the time I come back from the bathroom Pati is giggling to herself. The wagon attendant had returned and climbed into the berth with the grape seed girl. Looks like she had so much attention because she was his girlfriend all along.