It’s 3:58am. I’m lying on a top bunk. Beneath me, Evie and Jem lie top-to-tail in another. Across the aisle, Janet’s sleeping above Scarlett, who’s sharing her bunk with the baggage we couldn’t fit in the rack. I can hear Scarlett snoring gently.
We’re on the night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, en-route to the island of Koh Samui where we plan to spend Christmas. Note I’ve avoided the term “sleeper train”. I’ve not really managed to sleep, the bunks not being made for normal-sized six-foot-sixers like myself. Still, I’m glad I’m here – partly because sleeper trains are inherently exciting and partly because, after all today’s upsets, we nearly didn’t make it at all.
Janet and I travelled on this same train 13 years ago, last time we were backpacking, and it was just as exciting then. Although it’s sad to find the train has fallen into neglect since then. Where there used to be polished steel and crisp, white paintwork, there’s now a line of grime in the joints of the steelwork and the paint is chipped and scratched. The ladder to my bunk has a rivet missing and is tied on with red string. The bedside lamps and fans no longer work. The obvious pride that was once taken in the carriages has gone.
Not that I noticed any of that as we lumbered up the platform with our seven backpacks, laptop bag, camera bag, two crutches, three children, one broken leg and two red-faced, sweating parents.
It had all been so carefully planned. The train left at 7:30pm. Our late checkout at the hotel allowed us to lounge by the pool till 4:00. In the intervening hours we’d graze on delicious Thai street food before returning to our hotel, picking up our bags and catching a taxi to the train station with plenty of time to spare.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way.
As we desperately tried to fit all our belongings back into our bags, already well past our 4pm checkout, we had a horrible realisation.
At some point during the previous day’s journey from Kathmandu to Bangkok, the main strap on Scarlett’s rucksack had broken. Retrieving her pack from the baggage conveyor, I’d noticed that it was now only tied on. Still, the strap was still there and I was sure it could be sewn back in place.
It was only as we hurriedly repacked this afternoon that we discovered something was missing from the bag. And not just any something. One of the most precious of all our somethings: Scarlett’s teddy bear, Stitch. Her favourite bear. The only toy she was allowed to bring travelling. The bear that I’d once raced halfway across Yorkshire to buy on the eve of her birthday because it was the last one available anywhere and she’d fallen in love with him weeks before.
I can only assume that her had bag burst open when the strap broke causing Stitch to fall out and be lost in the hold of the plane or at a cargo terminal in Kathmandu, New Delhi or Bangkok.
Scarlett was devastated. Her sisters were fraught. Janet was in tears. I felt lost in grief. I’d packed him. Why had I put him near the top? Why hadn’t I tied him onto the bag like normal? Why hadn’t we put him in hand luggage?
I called the airport. No teddy bears in Lost and Found.
Was there a department store or mall nearby? Yes. Mah Boon Kong. MBK. “Lots of teddy bears there,” the manager assured me.
“Shall we see if we can find you a teddy bear in Bangkok?” I asked Scarlett, staying calm for everyone’s sake
“But he won’t be the same! He won’t be my Stitchy!”
“I know. No-one will ever replace Stitch. But you could cuddle him and he could make you feel just a little but better. Shall we just have a look?”
Leaving our bags at the hotel, we piled into a taxi. Behind me, Scarlett sat hollow-eyed, her lip trembling, half-buried in Janet’s arms. “I’ll be brave. Don’t be upset, Mummy,” she whispered. I could see her holding back tears.
MBK was not nearby. And it was huge; six floors of little shops, crowded with after-work shoppers. I carried Scarlett, my arms aching by the time we found a toy shop, and they only had a few teddies but two were nice. After much deliberation, Scarlett chose one with a scarf and a label reading, “Huddle Cuddle”. That was his name, apparently. A good sign?
Then back through the teeming mall, a long taxi queue and… Bangkok rush hour.
With an hour and a half to go, our taxi at a standstill, it dawned on me that we might not get back to our hotel and on to the station in time for our train.
With an hour to go, still nowhere near our hotel, we started making desperate plans. Turn the taxi around and head straight for the station while I jumped out and took a motorcycle taxi to the hotel and another taxi onwards? But I didn’t know how I’d carry all the bags myself and didn’t want to leave Janet with a shell-shocked, broken-legged Scarlett and two anxious sisters. All get out and walk? With Tettie on crutches? And where were we, even?
With forty-five minutes to go, we still weren’t at the hotel. We’d never make the train. Why hadn’t we brought our luggage to the mall?
We had to try to make it. Jumping out of the taxi, and with me carrying Scarlett, we ran for the hotel. It wasn’t far.
Thirty-five minutes left and we had our bags. Our many, many, very heavy bags. What was all this stuff? We even had a pair of trekking poles Janet hadn’t dared throw away because they belonged to her mum. I took a big rucksack and Scarlett. Evie and Jem took a smaller rucksack and crutch each, Janet took the other big bag, Scarlett’s small rucksack and the two day bags. We ran for the Metro.
I’d been on the Metro that morning, to buy the tickets. It had been a leisurely 20-minute stroll to the station, another 10 minutes to the ticket office, a few minutes to buy a token, a minute or two more to the platform, five minutes wait for the train, another 10 minutes to Hua Lamphong, the end of the line and Bangkok’s central train station, and finally a further 5 minutes to the platforms.
We ran. Twice we had to stop and let Scarlett hobble along on crutches so my arms could recover and her sisters could have a rest from carrying crutches. Somewhere along the way we dumped the walking poles (sorry, Nana).
Along packed pavements full of commuters we ran, the air thick with heat and petrol fumes. Through the futuristic subway and its icy air-con. Up and down escalators, stairs, lifts. As we reached the platform, a metro train pulled away, leaving us cursing and tapping our feet. Another came. Inside we paced ike caged animals, impatiently counting down the stations. Then out. And up. And into Hua Lamphong!
With moments to spare we collapsed onto the train, wheezing, shaken, sweaty but triumphant. We’d made it.
Of course, Huddle Cuddle won’t ever replace Stitch. But at least Scarlett won’t be bearless over Christmas on Koh Samui. And he now has his own exciting story of how he joined our family, just like his predecessor.