Thai locals give me dirty looks as I clomp down the Bangkok railway platform. I’m wearing my camera draped around my neck and haven’t put it away yet – I feel as though everyone is watching me, planning the perfect moment to steal it. My shirt clings to my back in the sticky heat.
I’m travelling with my Taiwanese friend Tessa, and as she can pass for Thai, the locals smile at her and try to talk to her in Thai. We sit on the dirty ground at Platform 8 and start chatting with two English backpackers waiting for the train. Though we share the same language, we live worlds apart from these girls, who are reading glossy, gossipy magazines and just coming from a resort in the south.
The train arrives with a screech, and what was previously a calm collection of commuters is now a frenzied mob – everyone rushes to the creaky doors, pushing through the crowd. We backpackers hang back hesitatingly, and then realizing what is happening begin to join the rush, fighting our way for a place to sit down. Luckily Tessa and I are able to claim a couple of the hard plastic seats which will be our home for the next 6 hours.The train ride from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet only costs 45 baht each, a little more than a dollar, and I am beginning to see why. After lifting our packs into the overhead rack, we settle in for what we know will not be a comfortable journey – the noise from the train rattling against the rails is almost too loud to talk, and much too obnoxious for me to sleep. Some overhead fans spin haphazardly, but the one next to us is broken.
A few stops in, it begins to get crowded – many people are standing and I am grateful for our seats. A group of young Thai school girls come on the train but they all are forced to stand. When an old man sitting across from me limps off the train with his basket of dried fish, one of the girls from the schoolgirl group takes his place and gives me a friendly smile. I want to talk to her and learn her story, but the noise from the train is so loud and she has just opened a book. I get out my phrasebook (from a free shelf in Chiang Mai) and start practicing the basics: “What is your name? Kuhn cheu a rei?” “How old are you?” “Cun a you ta rei?” “Nice to meet you.” “Sa bai de kai!”
When she puts her book down I try my luck, and ask her what her name is. Miraculously she understands my pathetic accent, and tells me her name is Nut. I ask her if she speaks English, and she smiles apologetically and says, “A little!”
Using a combination of my phrasebook, gesturing, and english, I start to interview her. She corrects my Thai and I can practice the phrases over and over, and luckily she doesn’t seem too annoyed. I learn that Nut is 16 and lives in Prachin Buri where she goes to high school. On the weekend she rides the train for 2 hours to Bangkok to go to another school. She likes art, photography, and movies but not reading. (The phrasebook is very limiting!) I show her my drawings of Tessa (now engrossed reading her kindle) and Nut seems to like them. She smiles a lot and is very encouraging, even when I need to repeat a phrase 5 times before I say it right.
When we reach her stop, she gives me a genuine smile and wishes me luck.
Two hours into our trip, we still see the outskirts of the city. Children kneel in allyways, playing in the shadows of tin roofed shantytowns. Dogs sleep in the corners, laundry hangs in every doorway. I whisper my new Thai phrases over and over.
Merchants wander up and down the aisles of the train, selling cool soft drinks, bags of sticky rice with curry, steamed bamboo, a green jello-ey candy, and tiny purple eggplants. Tessa and I had come prepared with a miniature bunch of bananas and bags of pad thai wrapped in paper. I eat with chopsticks, and miraculously don’t spill all over my shirt.
We stop somewhere and a Thai couple takes the seats across from us. The woman is tall and thin and has a face like a model, and greets my curious eye with a beaming smile. She’s wearing a striped yellow and pink shirt and jeans – how anyone can wear jeans in this heat is beyond me.Her boyfriend is also very handsome, skinny with ragged shaggy hair and a short beard.The woman emanates friendliness, she smiles at me every time we make eye contact, so I decide I’ll try practicing my Thai again. “Sa bai de reu? (How are you?)” I ask. She’s fine. It turns out she knows a little English, is a student in Bangkok, of what I’ll never know. She lives in the city but is headed to Aranyaprathet to visit her boyfriend’s parents. She asks me where I’m from, which is one of the first times a Thai person has ever asked me that. Usually they will ask Tessa, who is Taiwanese and easily passes for a Thai person.
After a few minutes of stunted conversation, she tells me apologetically she is going to go to sleep. She cuddles into her boyfriends bony shoulder and closes her eyes.
I eat a few of the tiny bananas and look out the window – it’s been about 5 hours now, and now the scenery is farmland, a green expanse of fields and rainforest on all sides. For a split second I see 4 boys standing in a field, waving and grinning at the passing train.
The couple moves to another empty seat – it’s less crowded now. By now Tessa has finished her book and is sleeping sitting up, neck supported by a blown-up pillow that is slowly losing air. She sways as she sleeps, and she leans to one side, her neck stretching until it is almost at a 90-degree-angle. I’m getting really concerned for her – it looks like her neck is going to snap! Suddenly she almost falls out of her seat – YAAH! – but she wakes up and catches herself before landing on the floor. I trade seats with her so she can lean on the window.
Only 1 hour left. A woman in jeans and an orange shirt takes the seat across from us. Like the other two ladies I’ve talked to, she meets my gaze with a big friendly smile and I have no reservations about trying to start a conversation with her.
“Suay jung (that’s pretty),” I say, pointing at her yellow gemstone ring.
Then something miraculous happens. She assumes I know Thai and starts talking to me! I assume she’s telling me all about her ring: – where she bought it, maybe, or what kind of a stone it is or what is represents. I’m honored to have someone talk to me in Thai, which has never happened to me before – it happens to Tessa all of the time. I admit to her that I don’t understand, and it turns out she barely knows any English. One more time I resort to my phrasebook and ask her a few questions – she is a farmer who works with cows, and she has two kids age 3 and 10. When she leaves she shakes my hand and says “Goodbye.”
Even though we’ve been sitting on an uncomfortable train for 6 hours, when we finally arrive in Aranyaprathet I feel great. These ladies were so nice to me despite my ignorance of their language.
Before this experience, the only Thai people I had talked to extensively were Tessa’s friends who had gone to college in the USA. Shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers usually ignored me, mocked me, or treated me like a walking wallet. (Some rickshaw drivers seem genuine but then try to overcharge you or tell you the hostels are really far away when they’re actually right across the street.) I formed judgments about Thai people based on my limited experience with the street vendors in touristy places, who see so many tourists that they have no time to think of us as individuals.
The disparity between how Tessa and I treated is based less on our skin color but more on the language barrier. Her appearance makes people assume she can speak Thai, so people want to talk to her. But I am white, and often am the only white person around, so people see me and assume they won’t be able to communicate with me and thus try to rip me off.
While I’m backpacking around Southeast Asia for the next few months, I will never truly understand any of the places I visit. I’ll only have a glimpse of them from an outsider’s point of view. Sure, there will be moments when I feel like I’m fitting in, like when I played volleyball with a hunky group of shirtless Thai men in Kanchanaburi. When I asked to play, they included me in an instant. But even then, I was clueless as to what was going on – the rules were slightly different, they made jokes that I didn’t understand. Unless I can learn the local language, I will always be looking at the country from behind glass.
If I learned Thai, I think that I would be very happy to live in Thailand. I could make friends with the locals, barter at markets, and maybe teach English somewhere. Before I talked to the women on the train I had essentially ruled it out as a place to live because of the unfriendliness of the people. I’m realizing now that the barrier is not based on skin color but on language. You can’t really get to the heart of a place unless you can know and communicate with its people.