Staying on track from Malaysia to Thailand
Between Butterworth, in Malaysia, and the Thai capital of Bangkok, an international rail service has run since 1922. The train costs $38 and the journey takes 23 hours. The same journey by plane takes two hours and costs just 12 bucks more.
For Paul Theroux, the über rail-lover, the choice is no choice at all; he called this exact train “a world on wheels” in his lush overland travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar. Elsewhere, he explained that train travel “seemed the happiest choice. You could do anything on a train; you could live your life and go long distances. There was little stress, there was sometimes comfort”. And there was, of course, the romance. To love trains is to love the possible. You never know who you might meet.
Which, depending on your temperament, is a good reason to take the plane. The patron saint of the rail-loather is probably Flaubert, who, at age 15, put trains first on a list of the misdeeds of modern humans: “Railways, poisons, enema pumps, cream tarts, royalty and the guillotine.” At 17, he revised all items on the list –
except the first. Flaubert came of age at the birth of widespread rail travel, and all trains seemed to do was move people to more places where they could be loud, flawed and boring.
His lists would not make sense to Theroux, but they do make sense to me: at least guillotines are speedy and efficient. I like travel but dislike moving from A to B. Any situation that places you in a sealed environment with other people had best be quick – invisible, ideally. And whereas planes are designed to trick you into thinking you aren’t there, trains are upfront, pushy. In The New York Review of Books, Tony Judt has argued that train tracks, requiring clear paths through space, demand rights of way, property and possession “wholly unprecedented in peacetime”. They are not for people like Judt or Flaubert, and they are not for me.
They are for people like Earl, the man seated across from me on the train to Bangkok.
The first thing I used to do when boarding any form of transport was put in earphones, an early sign I wasn’t keen to speak (in reality TV argot, I wasn’t there to make friends). Over the years, I’d relaxed this policy, realising that nobody wants to speak. Most people want a quick hello, to remind themselves, and you, they’re human – to make the trip feel a bit warmer, less something to be endured – and then, mostly, they want to listen to their podcasts, too.
But Earl is a talker. Objectively, this is okay, because he is friendly and interesting. And for the first 15 minutes I’m happy to talk with him. I have boarded this train in the hope it might prove me more Traveller A than Traveller B. It seems this type of traveller has a better moral texture, is less likely to get unduly upset at the brief loss of 3G, would be less likely to scramble over sundry injured persons to expedite their own exit from a terrible crash scene. Also, there’s the maths: a 15-minute chat for a 23-hour train journey corresponds to 90 seconds on a two-hour flight. Earl is a part of my personal journey. I decide to like him.
Since retiring in 2010, Earl has been living at sea (he’s returning to Thailand from Malaysia on a visa run). He has just given his boat a fresh coat of marine paint, and the main thing he wants to talk about is how long it will take to dry. This sounds like a parody of a boring conversation, but I promise, the mechanics of paint drying are actually involving, at least when specifically applied to seagoing surfaces.
The problem is, this topic still has obvious limits, beyond which Earl absolutely wishes to speak. And what Earl wants to discuss for the remainder of the trip is train tracks, of which there are about a thousand kilometres between us and Bangkok. For the record, the tracks are good on the Malaysian side, and less good in Thailand, and that is probably all you need to know about this long stretch of steel.
But Earl is pretty certain that you need to know much more. He checks in on the tracks at roughly 15-minute intervals. After a number of updates, I take advantage of a lull, installing my earphones and opening a snack. But Earl is also one of those people who doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. I take out my earphones.
“The tracks change,” he says. After several identical updates, this is slimmed down to just: “Tracks!” I always smile and agree and put my earphones back in, knowing that 15 minutes later, he’ll address me again. This becomes our cycle: “Sorry?” “Tracks!” Repeat as necessary. Repeat beyond necessary. And this is how I decide that Earl is my enemy.
We're at the border
He reaches peak annoyingness at the Thai/Malaysian border, which Theroux called “the ideal border post”, and he was correct: it’s all the one long platform that slips you between the countries, with no bizarre minibuses to charge you cash from point to point. It is, as near as possible, an invisible, airport-like process. Except that as the train slows, Earl makes the process firmly appear, with a series of observations that always seems finished, but never is. “I think we’re at the border.” Pause. “Based on those containers.” Stop. “I think that’s stuff being moved in and out.” Long pause. “Moved in and out of the country.”
The border process itself is quick. There is a little shop upstairs and I spend a long time picking the right brand of potato chip.
When I come down, the train is moving. Terrified, I sling myself aboard. “Thank god,” says Earl. “I was trying to figure out what to do if you didn’t make it. Where would we be without each other?”
Good old Earl. He was looking out for me. Maybe I should cultivate a closer relationship with him, in case there’s a crash, a disaster that requires someone to believe I’m worth saving, sacrificing his own exit speed to pull me from the wreck. Then Earl spends 20 minutes reliving the border process (his passport stamp is too faint, and they need to buy more ink). I put my earphones in and direct a steely gaze out the window. In event of crash, rely on general human decency.
Weirdly enough, when night falls, there is magic to the rails. The dining car is pumping Thai-language house music and nobody is there except the cooks and waiters, who are having a wonderful time. Two of them even have their shirts off. Outside, neat palm plantations give out to rough banana fronds, then gridded paddies that look silvery and lean (for Theroux, this is “an unruffled sea”). The sky, through a long sunset, has the exact hue of a dark grape, and the south of Thailand is studded with railway-hugging playgrounds. This has safety implications, but is visually superb: the children always act like they have never seen a train, or as though this specific train is, indeed, visibly magical.
Possibly there’s no magic. Perhaps it’s only that the conductors have transformed the seats into sleeping berths, and Earl is now concealed behind a privacy curtain. But as the night deepens, I find my brain echoing him – “the tracks change” – like a koan, or the effect of local beer, at least. Where would we be without each other? It’s hard to say; we’re on the move. Rocked to sleep by tracks that do change – but who cares? They feel so smooth.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "One track mind". Subscribe here.