From MIC to LIC

There were more moments I came to regret not taking the plane from Penang to Bangkok – we left Georgetown at the end of the morning to get to the station in time for a 1h15 PM departure. This turned out to be 2PM. Our train to Bangkok was number 36 and looked more like a commuter train. It was a local (no facilities) to the border which was 3 hours away. We stopped at small stations and at places in between. The airco system chugged along with some effort and not very effectively.

There were more regrets when we got to the border. The border crossing was easy; no stern immigration and custom officers here. We were greated by a friendly overweight man in a uniform that didn’t close. There was some sort of a trajectory through immigration and customs but when you were done you where exactly where you started and everyone passed freely between the two countries. The numbere of passengers was small; everyone recognized everyone else quickly. If you didn’t need a stamp in your passport you could have slipped easily from Malaysia into Thailand or the other way around.

I had had some naïve idea that a spiffy night train with the sleepers we had ordered would be waiting for us at the border crossing. It was not to be and I realized that this is the difference between a middle income country (our train from KL to Butterworth was very spiffy with an electronic display of the speed at all times and Harry Potter playing on a screen next to it).

Here in borderland it was very hot and very humid, and when we realized our train was still making its way from Bangkok the heat and humidity increased significantly.  We killed the time eating in the upstairs eating establishment until we realized that heat rises.

We had obtained the tickets through a byzantine process that involved multiple emails, a middleman and a courier carrying our ticket from Bangkok to Butterworth (our starting point). It was a trust fall if ever there was one. The courier, carrying a green apron, delivered our tickets and presented us with dinner options: chicken, beef or vegetarian, tea or coffee and a sandwich for breakfast. We ordered four beers; all this for 20 dollars. (Later we learned alcohol was forbidden on the train and the breakfast sandwich never materialized).

When the train was delayed he brought us the 4 cold beers on the customs inspection tables which we briefly had to evacuate for the passengers coming from Bangkok. It was a good sign because it meant our train was there, it just needed to change track and move its locomotive to the front.

We found our places in car number 9 and discovered that there was not much room for luggage. With our two small pieces we managed but the family that came after us had a challenge with its 6 boxes, two giant suitcases, and countless assorted bags. There were other people with luggage like that.. The suitcases and boxes, not fitting anywhere else, were piled up in the narrow corridor between the seats. I thought of the flight attendants at the end of a flight warning us to keep blankets from blocking egress. Blankets now seemed harmless compared to these boxes upon boxes. A quick escape in case of an accident would be very challenging.

As we realized quickly the train was of a different type than the one in Malaysia. It reminded me of the sleeper trains I took in my youth on vacations to Switzerland and Austria, an old workhorse, well-worn, with little inkling about the coming electronic era, internet, and electronic gadgets that need constant charging.

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