Jan 12, 2021 • 9M

Couchfish: Navigating Nakhon Nowhere

Get off and get lost.

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Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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A spoiler up front. Don’t panic, Nakhon Nowhere, in name anyway, doesn’t exist. Rather it is a play on a common prefix in Thailand for towns and provinces. In this case I mean an off–beat, less–visited spot. It doesn’t matter where you are in Southeast Asia, Nakhon Nowheres lie everywhere in plain sight.

They’re the train stations that you pull up at on the way to somewhere that isn’t nowhere. Their platforms are small. So small if you’re in the wrong car, you’ll need to jump onto the ballast and make your way to the platform—watch your ankles! The platform has manicured gardens, flower pots, orchids dangle from the awnings. All are well loved and watered. Hell, when only two trains a day slow down, how else does a station master fill their day?

Start here. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We’ve all been at the bus station equivalent. More often than not in the dead of night. The bus pulls up at a near–empty platform, you dash off your bus for a toilet break, then wish you hadn’t. What is it with the aroma of bus station urinals? A few insomniac tuk tuks or songthaew drivers are lolling about, but the vibe is very 3 am. Where am I? Where is this place? Why do people live here? Are we there yet? No.

Get off your bus or train and find out.

I’ve written a few times in the past about why you should always get off the boat, but the same holds for trains and buses. Get off and see what you find. There is no such thing as the wrong station.

Slow down, smell the flowers along the way. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Assuming you’ve pulled in to your Nakhon Nowhere for the day, here are some pointers on how to navigate it.

First off, you want to find somewhere cheap to stay. In my experience you want a Thai–Chinese style hotel. Pay attention to the foyer. If the hour is late, scooters will be parked in it. The front desk is at the rear, they’ll have a huge ledger, where everything gets written in by hand. Nobody is in a rush. Be patient. More often than not there’ll be a fish tank with a single lonely fish. Long and silver. Swim left, swim right. “Please eat me,” its forlorn eyes cry.

Do wait for a station before getting off. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There will be one of those white cat with the moving paws things. If there isn’t, go elsewhere. Nobody will speak your language. Don’t worry about that. This is a major hang up for many, but in the scheme of things, it is a minor issue—as long as you have hands to signal with.

On the upside, the room will be big and have a slow moving (and most likely creaking) ceiling fan. Skip the air–con option—it will either not work at all, or be so noisy you won’t sleep. The paint will be peeling. The bathroom will be ordinary. There may be a bucket full of water in lieu of functioning plumbing. Don’t look too closely at the grouting. They’ll be a few bottles of water, perhaps a glass ashtray with a few condoms in it. A bar fridge and TV—both will be older than you.

Think character. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Room sorted, go eat. Every single town in Southeast Asia has a market. Go there. Eat something you’ve not eaten before. Drink. Beer, sure, but throw yourself at the fruit shakes stall without restraint. Point and pick a colour. It won’t kill you. Eat more. Drink more.

Hit a market dessert stall. Wave your hands randomly over the choices. If you don’t speak any of the language, just keep nodding and smile a lot. Laugh if it feels right. People are laughing with you, not at you. Hand over some money. Back at your aluminium table, discuss with your companions what you are eating. What is the caterpillar green worms? Are they worms? (They’re not). Try more. Pace yourself—the sugar hit can sneak up on you.

Are you having fun yet?

Hit me with one of each. Photo: David Luekens.

In the morning, head down to reception. Wake up the staff. Use sign language to state you want to go sightseeing in Nakhon Nowhere.

Here we come to the great truisms of every town in the region. There will be some temples. There will be some outlying sight of “natural beauty”. More often than not, a temple at the pinnacle of a cliff reached by eleventy million steps. Elsewhere, expect a pond or lake. Swan boats are a bonus. If you’re near the coast, they’ll be more water stuff—beaches, sea, boat rides and so on. In the countryside? A national park, forest and/or waterfalls may beckon. Note: Not all waterfalls fall equal.

If the front desk staff can’t help you, they’ll know someone who can. That person will have transport. Sometimes two wheels, sometimes three or four. I’m yet to encounter a unicycle fixer, but I’m sure they’re out there. They may even have a map.

Plenty of pretty everywhere. Photo: David Luekens.

Use your judgement, negotiate what you feel is a fair price. You want good value, but never expect someone to work for nothing. Price sorted, hire them for a day and see where you get to.

Be sure to fit in food. Ask them to take you where they eat. Meet their friends—sometimes their family. Hit it off? Don’t be surprised if you end up in their home for a bite. Try everything that is slung onto the table. Be polite. Ask lots of questions (starting with “what am I eating”). Offer to pay for their food.

Are you having fun yet? Have you looked in your guidebook yet? I hope not.

A world away, but not really all that far, from Sukhumvit Road. Photo: David Luekens.

When the light is fading, ask to go somewhere fun. It may involve more dishes you’ve never heard of. You may drink a little too much. You might meet more of your new friend’s friends or family. Make a night of it. It could be anything from karaoke to evening rituals at a family temple. Prepare yourself to be surprised. Let the evening take you where it wants. Go with the flow. If things become uncomfortable, or not your scene, be polite in bailing out—but don’t be shy to do so.

By the time you get back to your hotel (whose name most likely starts with Nakhon), the bodgy plumbing won’t matter. Lay on the rock hard bed. On the well worn, threadbare sheets, put your hands behind your head and look up.

The fan groans, while geckos gobble up insects around your sole fluorescent tube. Their tails curl and bodies quiver while they burp their distinctive call. Outside, through the rusted bars and near–permanently closed wooden shutters, a motorbike roars past. Or perhaps it is wet season and you can hear the kilo–sized rain–drops thudding onto the hard base outside.

You want cats not rabbits on the hotel foyer desk. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I hope it has been a memorable day—even if for all the wrong reasons. Best of all it has been your journey, your experience, and will be your memories.

Always get off the train.

Do you have a Nakhon Nowhere close to your heart? Where was it? Tell me your tale!