Next stop, Bangkok. I hop a taxi to a nearby city that hosts a train station and while away the remaining hours learning the intricate lives of the "ladyboys" - as the name implies, boys that look surprisingly like ladies. One bought me a cup of tea, and for that price I'll listen to anything.
The train's appointed hour late in the night arrives and I walk to the front of the train peeling an incredibly large citrus fruit with my two free hands. As always, I'm running on the verge of late, but this time I'm not alone. Indeed, walking briskly alongside me is a beautiful fellow traveler with a very respectably light load (I've become rather snooty at this point). It just so happens that we're heading to the same car, and we get to talking.
We board the train and that magic moment comes up where you've gotta make your move or it'll be lost for ever. I make my move and ask her if she'd like to join me up front in the dining car. She accepts. Imagine that.
The train starts, the noise picks up, and she drops her stuff off. Having not said more than the briefest hello's, we begin clawing our way to the dining car. It's loud and single-file as we walk through one car, through another car, over sleeping passengers, through a gaggle of astonished kids giving high fives, past disapproving adults, and eventually up to the dining car where we learn that, despite it being apparently full of passengers, it's closed to us. Hmph. We turn around and avoid the adults, return the high fives, take the shots of whiskey being handed to us, and eventually return to our car - or rather, the interval between cars before our car. I hang out one door, and she hangs out another. I say my name is David. Her name is Karen, and we shake hands in the fast wind while the midnight terrain whips by.
Now that's the way to meet someone.
We return to our car and sit down on my sleeper compartment - a clever seat-like contraption that folds down into a reasonably-flat bed at night - where we talk into the wee hours of the morning. However, all good things must come to an end, and eventually she tiptoes her way through the rattling chamber back to her own compartment and finishes the night asleep.
Now, contrary to popular belief, I'm not very smooth with the ladies. Indeed, my abysmal failures far exceed my witty success stories. However, I'm on my game this particular night. Maybe it's the fruit, maybe the weather, but somehow things are just really flowing. After days, if not weeks of solo flying, it feels damn good to have a comrade in arms. It's a total high to have such a serendipitous night.
So the next morning I wake up late, as usual, and find that everyone else in my train car has already undergone the transformation from lying to sitting. Moments after waking a train attendant comes by and forces the transformation upon me. Stop by stop we roll our way to Bangkok, and eventually we arrive.
As I dismount the train, I see Karen again. We chat a bit, and I make another move. I ask where she's staying, and she says she doesn't know - do I have any suggestions? I say I do, and offer to lead us there. She accepts. Imagine that.
However, I quickly realize my "suggestion" is actually a very vague lead I got from another traveler, and I have virtually no idea how to actually capitalize upon the thing. We quickly bypass the tuk-tuk drivers - the most notorious of all taxi-like outfits - and head to the bus. We board, get a seat by the door, and start trying to figure out where we are on the map I bought.
In the meantime, a man in flowing orange robes stands over us staring at us with an especially displeased glare. Rather confused, we look around and see that everyone else in the bus shares his look. After a short discussion we decide that our seat must be reserved for monks, and act upon this observation. Bangkok lesson one: monks sit next to the door. You do not.
Eventually we glean some kind of meaning from the numerology plastered over the map, correlating some major landmark with something on the map, and we decide to get out. I'm starting to get worried here because we're on my wild goose chase, and I really don't have a clue what's going on. I try to play it cool; I'm not sure how successful I am.
We eventually figure out we're only a few blocks away. It's hot, we're lazy, so we decide to hire a tuk tuk after all (though it's much better to hire one away from the train station, as there your odds of being ripped off increase astronomically). We wave where we want to go and zip off in the three-wheeled deathtrap. All is well. We say we want to get out. We hand him our money. He angrily looks at it and states that we're off by an order of magnitude or more. We hesitate, as we're not sure if he's just scamming us or not, and hold our ground. He throws our change at our feet in disgust and zips off. Bangkok lesson number two: ... I'm not sure, but it has something to do with money and tuk tuk drivers.
Now we're on the final stretch. I'm starting to sweat because where we are standing - where I've led us to - is very far away from "the action" and no guest houses are in sight. We just pissed off a tuk tuk driver and we stick out badly. We wander a bit as I inwardly stress and start planning damage-control strategies, when we actually find the place - Tavee Guest House. Not only did I successfully find the place, it's really a fantastic place. Good price, clean, friendly staff, great location. Damn, I'm good. We each drop into our bunk beds (we're staying in the six-bed dorm room) and take a quick nap and shower.
At this point, I'm feeling pretty good. Not only did I meet this amazing girl under the most incredible circumstances, I successfully led us to an exceptional, out-of-the-way-but-not-by-too-much guest house in one of the most heavily touristed and chaotic cities the world has to offer. But wait, there's more!
I ask her if she'd like to join me for lunch, and she continues her bizarre habit of saying yes. I look at my map and suggest that we head to the river where there appears to be some kind of water taxi stop. I'm thinking we might find a restaurant on the riverside. My thinking would turn out to be almost *too* accurate.
We navigate the labyrinth of back streets, through some kind of seafood and fowl market that has an incredible selection of live turtles, frogs, eels, and other creepy-crawly entities. Free from the smelly confines of the enclosed market we find the road to the river. The road dead-ends at the entrance to a shamble of buildings, the entrance of which is a makeshift (though looking years old) elevated walkway of boards propped up by sandbags. This walkway extends into the building which, to our surprise, is actually flooded a few inches deep with water. So we're going down the main hall, which is covered with sloshing water, but held aloft by a raised wooden walkway. It's a strange confusion of indoors and outdoors.
The walkway ends at the foot of a cement and steel pier leading out into the river, at the base of which are several tables set up with what appear to be very large bags of bread crusts - like a thousand picky kids insisted they be cut off their PB&J sandwiches. Setting them aside in our minds (as is necessary with so much we see), we instead enter a small restaurant whose balcony extends into the river. Literally in-to-the-river.
The restaurant has loose a wooden floor and open wall with a fantastic view of the water-taxi insanity happening just ten feet away. But this floor isn't actually above the water; it's in the water. Every time the taxi comes, the water sloshes up through the floorboards and the entire restaurant rocks with the waves. It's eerie but cool. And the food is exquisite. (I ordered a squid salad that tasted just slightly better than the pain warranted - I returned to order it several times, each time asking for less hot peppers, but each time getting the exact same pain/pleasure combination.) So we wash down our chemically-hot food with bottled coke, raise our feet and hold on tight every time the taxi comes by, and watch the fish frenzy.
Oh yes, did I mention the fish?
You might recall the bread crusts. Well apparently there is some Buddhist tradition that involves buying huge quantities of said crusts and pouring them into the river. By the handful, by the bagful, the fish don't seem to care as the sight of a single tasty morsel floating on the water's surface sends a quiet submerged school of fish into utter madness. The water bulges as if some deep-sea mine is exploding in slow motion beneath, the upper layers of fish literally pushing out of the water from the combined fish muscle arranged below. Once free from their watery domain the fish flip and flop about in a chaotic dance, some of which seem to actually be eating. As the feast is slowly consumed the bulge sinks back beneath the surface, allowing the fish to rest quietly before the next mysterious benefactor comes along.
Now after the train, the guest house, and the restaurant, you might think I'd have given up and called it a day. But no, I forge on!
Next I suggest we head downtown for a Mui-Thai match - the original kick boxing. But as I'm prone to do, I will not settle for less than perfection and get us near ring-side seats in the VIP area of the stadium where the beer comes to you as fast as a kick to the head knocks a contestant out cold. Next we head to Koh San Road where we laugh in shared elitism as the other tourists eating Pad Thai and thinking they are in touch with the local culture, and then finally climb into our respective bunks and finish up with a long night's sleep. She's up early for another train, and that's that.