Our journey to Chiang Mai, Thailand started at our Airbnb in Kanchanaburi at 3 PM. Our Airbnb host tuk-tuk-ed us to the closest bus stop. The bus arrived 20 minutes later and although the bus was completely full, the driver happily accepted our money and pushed us onto the crowded bus. I sat on the floor of the bus aisle no wider than my shoulder width, eyes at ass level of all the people sitting in the seats around me. Dan took the VIP seat on the bus entrance/exit stairs where the bus door was kindly left open so Dan could stretch-out his, over-sized by comparison to the locals, limbs. Tailbones throbbing, we arrived to the Kanchanaburi bus station 1.5 hours later. We purchased our bus tickets to Chiang Mai and went on a hunt to find a bathroom where we could change out of our sweat-soaked clothes, brush our teeth, and wash our faces in preparation for the 12.5 hour bus journey ahead.
We boarded the sleeper bus at 5:30 PM and it was surprisingly nicer than we had expected. We were on the 2nd floor, 1st row where we could stretch our legs out to the max and blankets and a bottle of water were thrown in as a bonus. The advertised “FREE WIFI!!!” was, of course, not working (does it ever?) but we weren’t going to let that ruin the next 12.5 hours. For the first time in a while, we didn’t need to worry about where to eat, where to go, what to do, or what to see. We were going to use this time to relax, read books, listen to podcasts, look out the window, and sleep. The journey started with us watching the sky change colors as the sun set over the outskirts of Kanchanaburi. Naturally, Dan and I enjoyed last light looking out the windows and making comments about the infrastructure. “Wow – these roads are nice!” “Where do you think they get their asphalt cement from?” “Look! They’re paving!”
After listening to a couple of episodes of Season 3 of Serial – I looked around the bus and noticed everyone was starting to turn down. It was about 10 PM. I knew the part I was dreading the most was coming. I had to use the bus toilet before I’d be able to get any sleep. I begrudgingly made my way past all the sleeping passengers, careful not to hit their elbows as I walked by, went down the bus stairs and into the bathroom. Floor is a little wet, but there’s actually toilet paper!? Yes! AND a sink!? Yes! AND soap!? Now this is first class. While I was emptying my bladder, I was quite proud of the performance of my quad muscles, strengthened overtime by the hovering motions needed to use bathrooms on the backpacking trail of SE Asia. The bus must have started on a slight down-grade because the liquid on the floor started pooling into one corner of the bathroom by my right foot. It’s water. It’s gotta be water. I finished up and returned to my seat. Dan had fallen asleep already. So I kissed him goodnight and closed my eyes.
That’s when I smelled it. That wasn’t water! The smell of urine emanated from my sandals. Gross, gross, gross. I tossed my sandals as far away from our seats as I could – but it wasn’t far away enough. I couldn’t ditch the smell of urine. It was all over. I took out a small vile of sample perfume I had received in my Birchbox and waved it in front of my nose as if it had the power to cancel out the odor.
I decided to try to put the grossness out of my mind by listening to another podcast. I’m looking out the window listening to the many stories of the flaws of the American criminal justice system when I noticed flashing orange lights out the window. Our bus started to slow down. Construction maybe? Then I see the motorbike on the ground. An accident. A few weeks abroad and we had already seen 3 or 4 motorbikes down, usually accompanied by a circle of people arguing about who’s fault it was. This time, as the bus moved forward, I didn’t see arguing people. I saw the body of a man, face down, on the ground, no helmet, with blood pooled around him. Emergency personnel were there, but none of them were tending to this man on the ground. I could only think of one reason why.
Shaken, I woke Dan up and told him I had just seen a dead body. Half asleep, he tried to comfort me and told me to get some sleep.
I will – in a minute.
At this point it was midnight. My restless mind decided to Google “Thailand road fatalities” and I learned more than I wanted to know about Thailand’s lethal roads. I read articles about the “seven dangerous days” where 463 people died in traffic accidents over the holidays, about Thailand’s (former) ranking of the 2nd deadliest roads in the world after Libya, about police taking bribes instead of enforcing traffic laws, about affluent families getting away with a slap on the wrist after causing multiple fatality accidents, and about injuries and deaths of foreigners who try their chances at driving in Thailand.
Ugh. How am I supposed to sleep now?
But I still tried. I took my glasses off, put on a face mask, and started to drift into sleep. I didn’t even reach my first REM cycle before I was awoken to the sound of faint mutter of protest by a woman at the back of the bus. Faint muttering turned into the loudest screaming I’ve ever heard anyone make in real life. This woman was SCREAMING for her life. Everyone woke up. I quickly found my glasses, put them on, and my natural instinct was to grab a hold of my safety whistle, given to me by my former employer meant to be to alert folks in the field of an emergency. This is an emergency. The bus stopped, the lights turned on. Everyone awoke from their slumber and looked around the bus confused. The bus owner turned her attention to the one man in the back of the bus that appeared the poorest, perhaps even homeless. He looked just as confused as everyone else. Words were exchanged in Thai. The old woman lying in the two seats directly behind us, listened to the conversations being exchanged at the back of the bus and her similar look of panic slowly turned into a look of relief. No one spoke English, but from what we could gather – the woman at the back of the bus was having a nightmare. Phew.
I thought she was being raped. Dan thought she was being murdered.
I was relieved too to learn she was okay but I couldn’t help but imagine the suffering this woman has endured in her lifetime to have a nightmare so real it stopped a bus. I tried to sleep after that, but my mind continued to wander for the next 4 hours. What is a woman’s status in Thailand? Are there female engineers? Is human trafficking as bad as everyone says it is in Thailand? Did we see any victims of human trafficking while we were in Bangkok? Was our waitress a victim? She had cuts on her wrist. Why is the air quality so bad in Bangkok? What is the government doing to fix it? What are the long term effects the poor air quality will have on the population? If I was in charge, what would I do to fix it? Would that even work?
The bus made periodic stops at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning letting passengers off in the small towns along the way to Chiang Mai. We arrived in Chiang Mai at 6 AM – the sun had not yet risen. We took a Grab Taxi to our hostel only to find it didn’t open until 7 AM. We waited outside with our luggage. It was in those peaceful moments, as the sun rose and a mixture of monks, late-late nighters, and early risers walked by our hostel, when I realized I could STILL smell that distinct scent of urine. Damn you overly sensitive nose! The smallest amount must have soaked into my sock. Gross, gross, gross!
We were finally let into the hostel at 7 AM sharp only to find that our room would not be ready for another 5 hours, a contradiction to what we were told a week earlier when we booked the place. We had 5 hours to kill and I pee that wasn’t mine on my foot! One of the late-late nighters who we met while we were waiting for the hostel to open, offered to let us use the shower in his room. YES PLEASE!
Showered and ready, Dan and I set off into the streets of Chiang Mai in hopes of finding breakfast and a large cup of coffee. We walked by a couple places, surprised at how lively things were in this Chiang Mai at 8 AM. People were smoking and we could hear the noise of glasses clashing. Are all these people really drinking at 8 AM? That’s when we heard it. The NFL Theme song was playing and it was music to my ears. The Super Bowl is on! After the night we had, I had never been so happy to hear the NFL theme song. We ran into the bar, found a seat with some fellow Americans, ordered pancakes with REAL maple syrup, and substituted a large cup of coffee with, fuck-it, “I’ll have a large beer please.”