Joyce Donnarumma

A 3°class train to the Mekong

A third-class train takes us northward, where the Mekong forms the border between Laos and Thailand
Published on 3 September 2023
mekong, nong khai
Mekong, Nong Khai - ©Joyce Donnarumma, 2023
Academy Xperience Laos Waters

This post is also available in: Italiano

The rhythm of a third-class train punctuates our journey to the water border separating Thailand from Laos. One thousand kilometres and more than 9 hours to reach the Mekong. A constant background of the wheels, propelled by the naphtha engine, screeching on the tracks. But, as in a large orchestra, the main melody never travels alone. Then there are the voices of hawkers in chorus scouring the wagons, intent on selling fresh food and drinks. The hissing of fans attached to the ceiling can do little against the wind that, almost stealing the show, bursts without knocking inside the carriages. Not a pane of glass to close the windows, and with the strongest gusts, even a few leaves come in, along with unfortunate insects sucked in by the vortex of air. The hustle and bustle of Bangkok, increasingly distant, gives way to tropical greenery, sometimes dense, sometimes replaced by immense rice fields and pastures.

The heat chased us insistently, and as it melts even our skin, all that is left is to look outside. Only a few small towns, villages that you can circumscribe with the blink of an eye: a slow life flows by the rails. At each level crossing, the train’s whistle announces its arrival, and the braking leaves the acrid smell of iron wearing down the railroad. Yes, because smells are the extras in this bizarre concert turned opera. So many smells bombard the sense of smell by brightening it and often make the nose twitch. If I close my eyes, I feel like I have already gotten off the train and watched it disappear.

A place on the border

But bringing me back to reality are the uncomfortable hard plastic seats and the rattling of the rails that quickly banish any desire to dream. I’m not sure when and how we got there. If it weren’t for the fact that Nong Khai is the end of the line, I might still be on that train, trying to free myself from the relentless grip of its third-class pace. And how strange to walk again, this time at one’s own pace. Before boarding the tuk-tuk, a short stretch will take us to a serene place to relax our eyes, ears and, why not, even our noses. Soaring under the weight of our bodies and many bags, our tuk-tuk moves slowly through the streets of the border town. The stretch is short; we arrive in a few minutes, but it is time to rest.

The Mekong is shaking our spirits this time: the mother of waters opens before us, the only frontier for Laos, which we glimpse on the opposite bank and will shortly cross. A few more days and its seemingly calm waters will ferry us elsewhere to new worlds at a pace to be discovered.

Text: Joyce Donnarumma 
Original text in Italian - In house translation
Nong Khai, Thailandia
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Joyce Donnarumma

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