A few years ago, I had the choice between taking an 8-day food tour of Korea, or a 10-day journey exploring Northern Thailand.
I love Korean food, but the pull of roaming Thai ruins and ringing in the New Year in a Hmong Village was too great, so I plumped for the latter. Also, If I’m honest, I didn’t see the point of a “food tour” as, in my mind, food and travel are inextricably intertwined anyway. In fact, many of my travel memories feature food:
- I’ve eaten monastically in Buddhist temples,
- anxiously in Japanese Fugu restaurants
- and like a straight up baller on a Thai beach where I ate lobster which I had hand-picked for execution like some kind of deranged Roman emperor.
On the flipside, I’ve also sat alone in a joyless, windowless Japanese business hotel eating cup noodles salted with my own tears.
It’s been a rich tapestry.
But it isn’t necessarily the food, the tears or the barbaric rituals that precede a meal that make it memorable. Case in point, my dinner on the night train to Chiang Mai.
A utilitarian service, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a popular route with locals and is often taken at night so passengers can sleep though the majority of its almost 15 hour duration.
There are two night trains, an older locomotive and a newer, snazzier version but it seems to be potluck as to which one you get when you book your ticket. My tour group ended up on the older locomotive in a 2nd class sleeper carriage that could generously be described as “rough around the edges”.
Comfort, I think, is subjective. After all, there are people who actually enjoy camping so, to be fair, I’ll keep my opinions on the older sleeper train short and useful;
- bring hand sanitiser
- bring your own toilet paper/tissues
- bring a sense of adventure so that, when you discover the toilet is little more than a hole in the floor through which you can see the ground whipping by underneath, you can laugh and say “It’s all part of the experience!”
- if you’re someone who would enjoy sleeping in a large taco shell then you’ll have no problems with the top bunk
- if you prefer a little more breathing room, pay a few more baht and go below.
Whichever bed you end up in though, make sure you take earplugs, an eye mask and something for dinner, as dining options onboard are limited.
Then, when you wake up in Chiang Mai, prepare to discover the majority of the passengers you boarded with have been ‘raptured’ in the middle of the night.
Either that, or they decamped at stops you didn’t even realise the train had made. I can’t say which. I spent a large part of the night with a hoodie wrapped around my head in an effort to get a few hours of sleep.
Anyway, when we boarded the train in Bangkok my tour group only had a morning tour of The Grand Palace and Wat Pho under our belts and we were still getting to know each other. Conversation was polite but short, we were testing the waters, feeling each other out, trying to figure out who would get our hilarious pop culture references.
There were 10 of us in all: our tour leader, 3 solo travellers (myself included) a lovely Swiss couple in their early twenties, a pair of American BFFs and a retired couple from Australia. They seemed like decent folk but that early into the trip we weren’t really a “group” yet, that was going to require more time together and more food.
Fortunately, both of these things were in abundance on the train.
Due to a ticket booking snafu the other members of the group were scattered through the carriage while I, personal assistant and avid solo traveller, Natalie, and Australian retirees, Murray and Teena were seated together.
I hadn’t planned on having dinner that night. The relentless humidity of the day had supressed my appetite and I was looking forward to putting on my headphones and staring silently out the window like a moody teen on a family road trip. This proved difficult when I actually got talking with my seat mates and found them to be friendly, warm and, when they noticed I didn’t have any nosh, willing to share their food.
“Nothing fancy,” said Murray, “just cheese sandwiches.”
I said that sounded perfect and we broke bread. Well, Teena opened a bag of it then offered me two slices and my own little butter pat.
Not having any cutlery or plates we laid the slices on our knees and buttered them with Murray’s pen knife before slapping on a couple of Dutch gouda slices from a packet Teena had found at a supermarket by the station.
Between bites and handfuls of chips we talked, about ourselves, what we did, why we were on the trip, what we wanted to see, life, love, The Universe, and how good a simple cheese sandwich can be.
As we chatted the lush Thai countryside, silhouetted in the setting sun, glided past the windows and I started to feel a little more comfortable with the people I would be spending the next ten days with. And while we would definitely go on to eat better food on the trip, I’m not sure we had a better meal.