Small Acts of Defiance on the Journey to Southern Thailand

After 11 days in Bangkok I decided it was time to move on to see other parts of Thailand. The hustle-bustle of the city wasn’t helping my anxiety, so I booked a train south in search of a quiet beach.

The train ride itself was enough of an adventure. I opted against a spot in the sleeper train and instead booked the cheapest option available: third class. I was advised after booking that the 12 hour journey was really hard to make without A/C and the ability to stretch your legs. Honestly, on these aspects I guess it could have been worse. I was lucky because I had a large cushioned seat all to myself (some cars have hard seats) and with all the windows rolled down it stayed nice and cool, even chilly at times.

train inside
Inside the train

Now, I can’t help but use this platform and my new found voice to vent about an event that happened early on in the journey. It was one of the most classist, racist public outbursts that I’ve ever witnessed – from someone non-local, no less.

Several hours in, an older English woman came on board. She noticed me as the only other white person, and assumed English speaker, and came over to talk. She seemed nice enough. I found out she was an English teacher in a small province nearby. We talked about our respective homes and our experiences in Thailand. It was pleasant and I looked forward to talking to her more.

Once the train started rolling, she went back to her spot. And this is where it all begins. Almost immediately after sitting down she began heckling a Thai woman about seat assignments (apparently the Thai woman was in her seat). When the English woman didn’t get her way after 5 minutes of pointless arguing, she begrudgingly opted for the next seat over, which was pretty much exactly as the one she was assigned.

Not long after, the train made another stop and two Thai men boarded and sat across from me. We tried speaking in very broken English but it didn’t work too well, so we used hand gestures instead. They were nice.

Eventually I decided to try and get some reading in, but not after long I became distracted by a familiar voice. Alas… the English lady was at it again, only this time she was very angry, yelling and pointing fingers at everyone on board. In between her accusations she would shoot me a knowing smile plus eye roll, like “look what we have to deal with as foreigners. Aren’t Thai people so awful?”

Great. Now this woman thinks we are friends and even worse, she thinks I’m on her side in whatever bone she has to pick with Thai society.

I had no idea why she was so angry – if her seat was taken, she could easily move to a different one. There were plenty available and all the same. Her annoying, screeching babble carried on for at least 30 minutes. The whole train was watching eagerly and I began to feel uncomfortable due to the fact that she kept trying to bring me into it. I was just waiting for her to get punched, yelled at or kicked off the train, but it never happened.

When she stormed off to the bathroom, everyone started laughing and talking about the spectacle she put on. That was when I first realized how calm Thai people are in dealing with confrontation. It’s not common for them to show anger or aggression, I think mostly due to Buddhist influences – and this apparently holds even in the face of extreme aggression. As this woman hurled insults at them, they responded with laughter and smiles.

When the lady got back from her brief respite one cab over, it seemed as if she had forgotten the whole ordeal. But then one of the men sitting across from me started chattering and laughing. She thought he was talking about her (who knows, he probably was), so she stormed back over and yelled, “This is what’s wrong with you people! You’re so busy minding other people’s business that you never think to mind your own!” She then invited herself to sit next to me and began talking to me about the man, directly in front of his face. It was beginning to get hostile, I really thought she was going to slap him. “This guy *point* just has one of those faces, you know? Look at him. He’s got that Chinese nose and dark skin. He is obviously a criminal. I doubt he ever went to school. All he does is gossip. He’s a cheat and uneducated. That’s why he came to sit next to you, I bet that’s not his assigned seat.”

Seriously. What?

First off, what was her obsession with assigned seating? Second, how blatantly racist and ignorant can someone be? And third, I definitely don’t promote talking shit about strangers directly in front of them, especially knowing that they can’t understand you (he did know the word ‘criminal’). Even more rude, she wasn’t afraid to hide it because she pointed at the poor man 5 times throughout the whole ordeal.

At one point, she spoke to him directly, “Did you ever go to school? No. You didn’t. All you want to do is talk about other people.” I chuckled inside at the irony of the accusation, then again told the woman I did not care to be a part of this and went on to ignore her as everyone else was. Eventually she went back to her seat for the last time and after a few more outbursts, she shut up and put earphones in until she reached her stop. Everyone laughed, including myself. Talk about having a chip on your shoulder and a grudge against society. It was remarkable how calm and kind my fellow passengers where throughout all this. I only wish I’d been more vocal against her racism, but I didn’t want it to escalate even more. I guess this post serves as my afterthought and attempt to speak out.

Sunrise from the train
Riding through the jungle

The rest of the train ride was uneventful, up until the beautiful sunrise. It was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Together with the other passengers I watched as the sky lit up in beautiful purples and pinks. With the daylight peaking through, I could finally glimpse out at my new surroundings… this was no longer the concrete jungle of Bangkok. Limestone cliffs jutted out of the ground and green jungle grew in every direction. I felt like I was in the land of Jurassic Park.

Once the train finally reached Surat Thani, my new “criminal” friend insisted on getting my heavy bag down from storage for me. We smiled and said our goodbyes before parting ways – back to our separate lives but carrying with us new shared experiences, and small acts of defiance.

I think I would ride third class again.


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