In December and January of 1963 there were many holidays in Malaysia. Malaysians celebrate them all. In addition to New Years, there are the Muslim holidays, the Hindu holidays and the Chinese holidays which are related to their unique Muslim and Lunar calendars, and are moveable from year to year on our Julian calendar. While there are very few Christians in Malaysia, Christmas is also an official holiday.
Starting with Christmas of 1963, the stars and moon of the firmament happened to be in their proper juxtaposition, making it possible to celebrate several holidays over a period of about three weeks when we in the Peace Corps didn’t go to work.
Three weeks is a long time to do nothing so three friends, Jeanine Thoene, Marcia and John Hooper and I, decided to take a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Providentially I had just received money from members of my family as Christmas gifts, making the trip possible for me. Even on a small budget it was possible to take the train north from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok up the Kra peninsula (approximately 8 hours) and from there, change to the train for another 18 hours to Chiang Mai in Northwest Thailand.
The train station in Kuala Lumpur was built by the British during their occupation. It is stark white with lots of minarets and towers. It looks very much like a Sultan’s palace. Upon first seeing it, it almost took my breath away. While wonderfully striking, its architecture is very much like many of the buildings that one finds in British India.
Wikipedia states, in part, that the architect “Arthur Benison Hubback, a British Architectural Assistant to the Director of Public Works, undertook the design of the station. Having served in India, he utilized his knowledge of Anglo-Asian architecture in the region on the station’s design. The Neo-Moorish/Mughal/Indo-Saracenic/Neo-Saracenic style was not uncommon at the time.”
From this folktale-like building, the four of us boarded the train early on December 23rd. I remember very little of this portion of the trip except seeing many, many padi (rice) fields covered with water and being worked by the farmers plowing with their water buffalo and with wives planting the rice seedlings. Bucolic, but boring after eight or so hours.
Upon arrival at the Bangkok station on December 24th, we found the weather to be a bit cooler than we were used to. We would be traveling from about 3 degrees north of the equator to about 18 degrees north – still very much in the tropics. However, I decided to buy a cheap jacket. I paid about US$5 for it and, in looks, I got my moneys worth, but not a cent more.
The cheapest tickets that we could get were third class tickets on an overnight local train that was to stop at every village between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. We were pleased that the tickets were within our budget.
Upon boarding our train car with what little baggage that we had, we found that the seats were wooden benches, each holding two, like uncomfortable church pews, very much as uncomfortable as those in St. Anne’s Church here in Annapolis Maryland. The major difference was that they didn’t all face forward. Every other one faced the rear. The four of us managed to get 2 pews facing each other.
The other passengers, all Thais, had a great time watching us trying to get all of our 8 legs into one tiny space. It seemed that the whole car of people were able to tell/show us, in sign language, that we should alternate knees with the person across the narrow divide. I suppose that we were smart enough to figure this out on our own, but letting them show us began a bond of friendship. They thought it hilarious since we were giants compared to other Thais. We had to sit up very straight to keep our alternating knees from hitting the facing seat. I fancy that I still have indentions in my kneecaps from that ride.
As the train stopped at every village, and there were many along the way, the passengers would open all of the windows, from the top, so that they could buy things from the ubiquitous vendors – all sorts of fruits, fried bananas, sate, steamed coconut, etc. One of my favorites was what I call “chicken on the cross” which was parts of a chicken splayed on two sticks that were formed in the form of a cross and then barbequed – delicious. Our fellow passengers soon caught on to our wanting to try everything and soon they were buying things for us to try. Lots of good fun and great camaraderie – we spoke English and they spoke Thai and everyone understood each other – in a rudimentary way, of course. But it didn’t make any difference.
As the sun went down and being accustomed to hot tropical weather, we got very cold. Even with my new jacket, we were soon covered up with newspapers, trying to sleep a little. Uncomfortable, cold and tired from a night on the Malaysian train, we were sleeping fitfully and pretty miserably. What little rest we were getting was constantly being interrupted by the frequent stops and the ubiquitous vendors.
It certainly did not feel like Christmas. Indeed, we had not even thought about the date and the child in the manger was the farthest thing from our minds, when one of our Thai passengers tapped me on the shoulder and in faltering English said “Melly Clistmas.”
Every one in the car woke up and they provided a Christmas feast for the four “farangs” (foreigners).
Pineapples, bananas, mangosteens, rambutans, blimbings, watermelons, rice, chicken curry, goat curry, shrimp crackers, etc. It brought tears to us who were far from home and far from our families. Who would have thought that it would be the most magical Christmas of my life – in a Buddhist country with our Buddhist friends.