I sat alone. Feet stretched into the bench seat opposite of me, eyes drooping. Kilometer after kilometer of rice paddies flashed by outside. The antique train taking me to Laos was a vintage classic and well past its prime.

Rudyard Kipling once said, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” I was, indeed, smelling Thailand.

My large window was open halfway allowing the dusty, humid air to roll in. The Thai countryside has a uniquely musky fragrance during dry season. On this particular morning, I could smell sun-baked piles of buffalo dung alongside oily railroad steel—adventurous scents much less common at home.

Southeast Asian farmer in a field with a cow

Human forms in conical hats stooped in verdant rice paddies. The rest of the scenery was a brown and lifeless Marsscape, beaten into submission by too much sun and too little rain.

The predictable click-clack of the train had serenaded me through the night, but now I sat upright. Sometime around sunrise, a tired attendant in a sweat-stained uniform converted my sleeping bunk back into a pair of bench seats.

There were only two other passengers in my car. They spoke French and shared a hand-rolled cigarette. The other travelers had jumped off somewhere between Bangkok and Nong Khai, the last stop before entering Laos.

Visa Run to Laos

With my travel visa exhausted, I was in need of a new country and a new stamp. Thailand’s landlocked, mountainous neighbor to the north seemed perfect. The immigration officials manning the border with Malaysia knew me by name and face. I had probably worn out my welcome on the southern border.

Plus, the prospect of French food and anonymity were just too tempting.

I agree with Paul Theroux’s sentiment: Traveling slowly overland by train is an exercise in nostalgia. The idea felt romantic, my chugging along slowly toward salad nicoise and a visa renewal, so I had purchased a $20 train ticket.

Empty train seats in Thailand

The Incident

An unexpected lurch almost rolled me out of my seat. A braking thud was felt through the train, followed by the shudder of precious momentum being lost. The distinct screech of metal wheels scratching and scraping for a hold on the rails screamed beneath me.

We had already made plenty of stops along the way in small villages not big enough to merit a station, but this time something was different.

We were in the middle of nowhere.

With CCR’s “Fortunate Son” still trickling out of removed headphones, I waited for the sounds of brakes disengaging. There should have been a lurch of optimistic motion, but we remained frozen.

Minutes passed. With breeze gone, the temperature increased. A grimacing Thai passenger began fanning herself.

Flies circled in a frenzy. Our iron car was heating faster than an oven.

Handkerchiefs began dabbing at worried brows. One of the basic rules of vagabonding travel came to mind: Seeing a local person concerned is usually good reason to also be concerned. All but the most cataclysmic events tend to barely phase locals. There is usually no need to panic unless you see locals beginning to panic.

Woman gathering greens by a train track in Burma

More time ticked by while sweat accumulated silently. A curious crew of Thai passengers hopped off the motionless train. I stood to join them. Cutting through the cigarette smoke and smell of oily train mechanisms, an unmistakable scent hit me without warning.

It was blood.

I leaped off my car and crunched into the railroad gravel. A metallic-smelling cloud of iron-rich vapor hung thickly in the humidity. There was a lot of it. Very few scents jolt adrenaline glands more quickly. A well-dressed Thai man noticed my perplexed surprise and calmly offered an explanation in English.

“We hit a buffalo.”

Now that’s something different. Another basic rule of vagabonding came to mind: Anything can happen when on the move. Weird stuff can—and often does—happen. Particularly in times when you least need it. For instance, when you’ve got only one day left on a visa. Still, those unexpected twists and turns the road throws at you can become quite addicting.

Water buffalo stands in tall grass


Men in uniforms, presumably from the railway company, argued with a farmer near the front of the train. Shouts indicated that things weren’t going so well. Thai people rarely shouted. Someone up ahead was losing face.

Things certainly were not going well for the buffalo. I surveyed the carnage. We didn’t just manage to hit a buffalo, we obliterated the damned thing into a fine mist. Very little was left. Orange tendons and sinew were wrapped around the wheels of my car. They had been yanked out of the beast like rope. We were at least five cars back. The front of the train must have been gruesome, a macabre scene of nightmare fuel best avoided.

Blood droplets were slung and splattered on green paint up to the edge of my open window. Six inches more, and I would have received a face full of bovine blood on this sunny, Thailand morning.

Had we hit more than one animal? Maybe the conductor had plowed through an entire herd. The farmer certainly seemed angry enough. The animal could have been an inheritance, dowry, or retirement plan. The loss would certainly impact the family for decades to come.

An empty vintage train in Thailand

As flies gathered, the din grew louder. Expressionless passengers smoked and made clicking noises through teeth. Purplish internal organs hung dangling from suspension springs above the wheels. Uniformed men surveyed the crime scene with grim expressions.

The buffalo’s problems were over. But I pitied the cleanup crew farther down the line at Nong Khai. They had no idea of the horror show rolling their way.

With jaws agape, they would soon watch us pull in later than expected at their quiet station. Someone from the lower ranks at the State Railway of Thailand, already working late, would be handed a mop. He would understandably fly into a maniacal rage. Eyes white and mouth frothing, someone would have to restrain the man before people got hurt.

Lunch Is Served

The conductor had done the right thing. He stopped to take a lashing from the farmer when he could have kept the tons of steel under his command rolling along. Was this a matter of Theravadic karma? Or did he fear future derailment?

Farmers are resourceful people. They look out for each other. You simply don’t mess with a man’s buffalo in Thailand.

As hours passed and the clock reached noon, all parties were still in passionate debate. Calls had been made. The farmer had recruited relatives, and a mob had formed. I climbed aboard to sweat out the drama in my seat.

A smiling attendant appeared with menu in hand. He cut through the stench and swirling flies to offer me my choice of food. Expensive train food.

I declined.

Train pulls into a train station in Thailand at night