Last week I took the sleeper train from Ubon Ratchathani to Bangkok for a visit to the U.S. Embassy. I would normally just fly, but the night train in question was brand new and came highly recommended by several friends. My initial impression of the facilities was very positive; clean, spacious bunks and private cabins were well appointed with reading lights, functional electrical outlets, hot showers, and even wifi in some areas. To my dismay, however, this impression was misleading.
Knowing in advance that alcohol is no longer sold on Thai trains, I was sure to plan ahead and stick a few cans of LEO in my bag before boarding. As the attendant seated my wife and I, he politely informed us that if we wanted to visit the dining car we should do so immediately, as one of the carriages in between was female-only and was to be off-limits for male passengers. He also suggested that we allow him to convert our seats into bunks, despite that it was only 7:00 p.m. We declined and took a walk to the dining carriage for ice and snacks. I was happy to relax with a glass of icy LEO, at least until the attendant returned unexpectedly soon to convert our seats. He caught a glimpse of my beer before I was able to hide it and told me (in Thai) that I wasn’t allowed to drink beer. I put on my best clueless farang face, and he demurred, telling my wife that I could only drink if I kept it quiet and disposed of all my rubbish. Then we asked if we could keep our seats a bit longer. No, not allowed.
I sat alone in my bottom bunk for the next hour, sipping my beer in silence. When the train stopped in Surin, I thought it would be a nice time for a smoke, so I walked to the end of the cabin as the attendant opened the door, my cigarette in hand. He read my intentions before I could reach the top step. “Cannot smoke,” he said in English. “Stop one minute only.” I asked if we would stop for more than five minutes at any time. Only in Korat, apparently. I returned to my seat wondering how many other people on the train shared my boredom and frustration.
There is a proximate reason for all of these rules and precautions. In 2014, a 13 year-old Thai girl was raped and murdered on the night train from Surat Thani to Bangkok. Her body was thrown from the carriage and later discovered beside the tracks in Prachuap Khirikhan. The crime garnered international attention, causing the Thai government to launch into a reactionary face-saving frenzy, which manifested as a long list of rules regarding what passengers can and cannot do on trains. Since a girl was raped, they introduced female-only carriages. Makes sense. Since her body was thrown from the train, the new night trains have no windows or doors that can be opened by passengers. Annoying, but okay. And since the murderer had consumed alcohol before committing his heinous act, alcohol sales and consumption were banned. I see the rationale here, but isn’t it overkill?
There are a few facts about the murder in question that were hardly mentioned by the Thai media. The killer was not a passenger, but was in fact a railway worker. And though he had consumed alcohol, he had also admitted to being under the much more potent effects of methamphetamine (aka “ice”). Whether or not the government updated the screening process for railway employees I cannot say, but publicizing the fact would have placed at least a small measure of culpability on the leadership, incurring an unacceptable loss of face.
Fast forward a day. I had already finished my business at the embassy, and we had an afternoon to kill. My wife wanted to do some shopping at Union Mall (Phahon Yothin). I figured I could find some place to sit and relax with a beer. I had a cursory look around the restaurant level and was disappointed to find only overpriced international chain restaurants, so I took a walk outside in the waning 4:30 p.m. heat. The parking lot was oddly filled with old VW buses and Thai hipsters smoking cigarettes and setting up market stalls. Seemed promising, but it was a bit early. Not wishing to head toward the traffic and crowds of Chatuchak, I wandered down Lat Phrao Road.
I had hoped to find an open street-side restaurant or at least an adequate Mom-and-Pop shop, but I was evidently in the wrong area. There were a few shops with cans of beer, but no tables or benches. It wasn’t so much the alcohol I craved, but rather the ability to sit down with a cold drink, relax, and watch the people walk by. After about a kilometer, I turned around and went back toward Union Mall, looking forward to seeing what the parking lot hipster market had to offer. As if to spite my expectations, it all seemed to be mass-produced Chinese junk. No hand-made crafts. No street food or beverages. Not even a fucking coconut. How glad I was to return to the same old stale farang dives of Sukhumvit later that night.
“These trends are the latest in a long list of pseudo-puritanical initiatives by the government to take superficial action against “social ills” in the Land of Smiles: Other examples include the bans on selling alcoholic beverages during the afternoon or “near” educational institutions, the ban on “provocative dancing” during Songkran, the ill-fated proposal to ban street food, the threat of a massive hike in taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, the curfews, farcical crackdowns, and sad “happy zones” in Pattaya, as well as the general trend of phasing out or gentrifying traditional markets to conform to Thailand’s growing shopping mall culture. These initiatives seem to be driven by a power structure which favors the interests of the Bangkok elite, and they disproportionately affect poor, rural Thai people. Who can no longer afford night trains? Who could never afford shopping mall prices? Who won’t be able to pay ฿100 for a bottle of Chang? Who won’t be allowed to make money selling Muu Ping to morning commuters? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not “hi-so” people. Moreover, why should the government have greater agency to define “Thainess” than common Thai people? Surely it has nothing to do with money.”
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