To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there's the rub
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come
If bad dreams are Shakespeare’s biggest concern when he settles down for the night, then he clearly never took a second class sleeper carriage on the night train from Bangkok.
I don’t know what I was expecting really. Walnut clad compartments with pull down beds and crisp, white linen, perhaps? A leather-bound dining car with a flurry of waiters decked out in Victorian attire? Somehow, I got it into my head that this would be the Thai equivalent of the Orient Express. A carnival of opulence and luxury.
How swiftly that notion was disabused.
It was a bog-standard, Thai train. Slow moving, with a rolling gait, and uncomfortable wooden seats which converted into beds that faced each other like trenches across either side of the carriage walkway.
As I dramatically adjusted expectations of comfort, I became aware of a commotion. Further down the carriage was one of the most striking figures I have ever seen. A huge, bear-like man with dark, Maori tattoos down one side of his face and a vicious network of scars down the other. Forced to shuffle sideways due to his imposing bulk, he slowly walked the length of the carriage, threw his duffle bag onto the seats opposite mine and took a deep slug from a half-empty bottle of Samsong whisky.
“G’day. The name’s Tang.”
He reached out and offered me the bottle of whisky.
It was going to be at least a fifteen hour journey, and I didn’t relish the thought of making small talk with the drunken man-mountain. But when a man’s hand is bigger than your head, you can’t really refuse.
We spent the next couple of hours talking. Well, he talked anyway. He talked at length about his former life as a helicopter pilot for hire, roaming South East Asia, moving from job to job, some mundane, some decidedly murky. As the journey wore on, his speech became more slurred, stories more fantastical.
Then he dropped the bombshell.
“I’m celebrating my pardon.” He announced abruptly. “Long live the king eh?”
“Yeah. Just got outta prison in Bangkok. Got in a fight with a lady-boy over some money she thought I owed her. I ended up breaking her jaw and putting her in a coma. They gave me five fucking years!”
Tang’s eyes grew wild; froth at the corners of his mouth.
“I mean, she tried to stab me, and I get five years. Tell me. Is that fair?”
He shot forward, gripped my shoulder and stared fiercely into my eyes, searching for signs of dissent. I shook my head vigorously, feeling like a rag-doll about to be torn asunder.
Suddenly he slumped inwards, deflated, and fell back into his seat.
“I tell you bro. I done time all over the world, but Thai prisons are hell on earth.”
Tang paused for a second, head low, and then he looked up with a crooked grin.
“I wouldn’t have minded. But I’d only just got out of a Singapore slammer. I haven’t had a decent root in years”
He threw back his head and dissolved into raucous laughter. Over his shoulder I could see the train stewards making up beds throughout the carriage. I was about to spend a long night sleeping opposite a sex-starved, drunken jailbird, with a propensity for extreme violence.
I settled down to the most restless evening of my life. Despite the heat, I kept my clothes firmly on. Thin curtains surrounded the bed and my ears strained to make sense of every noise beyond them. My imagination played havoc. Every creak was a footstep; every snore was a fake, lulling me into a false sense of security. I fought a constant battle to keep my eyes open and wits about me.
Despite my best efforts, eventually I slept.
The next day I awoke, covered in sweat, with sunlight streaming through gaps in the curtain. I peered through an opening, heart pumping. The curtains opposite were wide open, the bed-sheets pristine and unused.
Tang reappeared hours later, with his arm wrapped around a Thai woman.
“I couldn’t sleep.” He said. “Luckily, I found this little lady at the back of the train, and decided she was worth a few Baht. What a night eh?”
The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep.