I sipped my Chang beer and listened to the ba-doomp … ba-doomp … ba-doomp of our train running south towards Bangkok. The rhythm rocked me into a hypnotic calm. I peered out into the empty forest just south of Chiang Mai to watch the dusk-lit greenery flick by.
Unexpectedly, our train jerked to a halt and a slosh of beer leaped from my glass. I looked out the window to see what the hold-up was and—
“OHMYGOD! We just crashed!” I cried.
“It’s okay, baby, calm down,” my partner replied. He’s accustomed to my talent for turning benign situations into worst-case scenarios, which means that I have little credibility left for actual worst-case scenarios—like this one.
I poked my finger at the window. “Look!”
He turned his head towards the surreal scene ahead of us.
Dust and debris rained down from the front end of the train, which was now sitting at a sickly angle to the tracks. It didn’t seem possible that such a violent collision had caused only a spill of my beer.
“This is so weird,” was all I could manage to say. “This is so weird!”
We got off the train to inspect the damage. Chewed up dirt and grass was scattered around bent metal, torn chassis, and other important pieces of our broken train. The first few carriages had derailed and swung perpendicular to the tracks. The four carriages ahead of us had tipped slantwise, and the windows on the right hand side now offered views of the trackside gutter.
“This is so weird,” I said again.
My mind turned to the contents of my backpack: two headlamps, a Swiss Army knife, a first aid kit, and a collection of medications that I’ve felt neurotic for packing on every trip. But now, amidst this mayhem, I’d soon be getting my Bear Grylls on.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was ever so slightly thrilled about this.
I imagined fashioning lean-tos from palm trunks and plaited fronds. We could make sturdy hiking shoes from banana leaves and, with our bamboo walking sticks, we’d set off into the jungle for help. Yes, sure, following the train tracks would be smarter, but in the jungle we could find juicy tree worms to feast on.
Their nutty taste would go nicely with my beer.
I was pulled out of my fantasy and back into the trauma scene by the throngs of people running towards the carriages at the front of the train. The first-class cars had broken free from the tracks in the derailing and tumbled into tall grass.
I felt nauseous. Those carriages were full of people. I knew this for sure because we were unable to buy first-class tickets earlier that day. They’d booked out.
We instead ended up in the second-class carriage—the first in line to be perfectly upright and unharmed. By the time the impact reached our carriage, it was nothing but a bump.
“This is so weird,” I chanted.
We joined the throngs heading towards the impact zone and I braced myself for the possibility of blood. Despite feeling shaken, I slipped into a fantasy of rubbing down injuries with coconut milk and stitching up lacerations with staples fashioned from thorns.
I’d build a fire and brew tea from aromatic sticks to lift morale. In the forest, I’d gather natural antiseptic leaves, healing herbs, and ibuprofen flowers. (Never mind that I have no botanical knowledge whatsoever. I wouldn’t dare let that small detail interrupt my fantasy.)
But ibuprofen flowers would not be required. All of the passengers had managed to escape unharmed. They stood in the grass reacting to the adrenalin in a myriad of ways. Some scratched their heads, some cried onto friends’ shoulders, several laughed from the rush of relief, and dreadlocked backpackers cradled Chang beers, refusing to allow a train crash get in the way of a good time.
One idiot in the bunch was smiling into thin air, floating away on a fantasy about a TV show called Woman Vs. Wild, while saying “This is so weird!” like a broken record.
We went back to our carriage to collect our possessions. A train employee came after us down the aisle, breathless and frantic.
“You pay for beer!” she said.
I turned to my partner. “This is so weird!”
“You pay!” she demanded.
“But …” I paused, stunned. “I spilt half of it when the train crashed. When the train crashed,” I reiterated, just in case she’d failed to notice.
She stared back at me. “Pay please!”
I pulled money from my bag and handed it to her with my shaking fingers. “This is so weird!” I told her, but she was too focused on collecting beer money to take notice.
A few hours later, another train arrived to evacuate us to the nearest stop—only fifteen minutes back from where we came. The train smelled of livestock, or maybe just drunk dreadlocked backpackers. The metallic ba-doomp … ba-doomp beat of the train on the tracks had lost its soothing charm … possibly forever.
We loaded into buses and drove through the night towards Bangkok. The driver was oblivious to the fact that his passengers had just survived a train crash. He sped through the night, handling the bus with the famous kamikaze driving that is common throughout Asia, while the air conditioning froze the marrow of our quivering bones.
At 7.30 a.m. when the bus arrived in Bangkok—the same time that our train was due—we were shaken and cold, but unharmed.
We’d survived a train crash. We didn’t have to fashion lean-tos from palm fronds, hunt for antiseptic plants in the jungle, or eat insects for nourishment. And while I was grateful to be alive, I was ever so slightly disappointed.
I really wanted to try those nutty worms.
Update: Apparently the train crash was an act of sabotage. It was first assumed that the train conductor was drunk because of the number of beer bottles found on the scene. *Whistles*