If you have ever seen a movie about India or another faraway land in Southeast Asia, where passenger trains are a standing-room-only scrum of people and various animals jockeying about, then you have a pretty good picture of where I was one hot August afternoon.
Years ago while in the Army, I was assigned to a unit in Thailand that inspected American construction equipment on loan to the Thai Army. Several times a year we had to travel from Nakhon Sawan to headquarters in Bangkok, 150 miles south.
Traveling at a top speed of 35 mph, stopping every 20 minutes or so, the train trip was as excruciating as it was boring.
This day the train had just left Bangkok for the return. Getting a seat was out of the question. Luckily I had only one small suitcase, but even that was hard to handle in the crush.
After a teeth-jolting hour I decided to move on to another car, hoping to find one less packed with livestock on a rope, namely chickens, goats and/or pigs. It was slow going but in the fifth or sixth car I found, to my utter surprise, a quiet haven. I couldn't believe my luck.
As I began to take in my surroundings I felt people's eyes on me, staring and smiling. There, sitting on the bench next to where I was standing, was a Buddhist monk. Not just your everyday orange-robed monk; this gentleman was dressed in elegant trappings. His robe was embellished with golden threads. His neck was ringed with a dozen gold chains, and his fingers were adorned with rings with precious gems.
More than once I stole a glance. I guessed he was probably heading north to visit a shrine or a monastery, perhaps a temple. When he turned to look at me, I averted my eyes not to be rude, as was the custom. Then suddenly his hand reached out to take my suitcase. He patted the wooden bench beside him, beckoning me to sit. I was mightily glad to rest my tired body.
We talked, this regal monk and I, with me using all the skill I could muster from a previous year in language school. He could have been my father, and I his son. He quizzed me thoroughly on my personal life in America, asking questions about my wife, two sons and daughter back in New York. I showed him a small photo of us standing knee-deep in a snowdrift, and he laughed and passed it across to a man, who seemed to enjoy it. He passed it on and it was soon out of sight, somewhere in the car.
He looked at me a lot, especially at my blue-green eyes, a rare sight in Thailand. He even pinched my pale arm and placed his bronze one next to it, chuckling at the contrast. As he tried carefully to pronounce the names of my wife and children, having a good time with each L and R, we laughed, he at his attempts and me knowing that my Thai wasn't any better.
Finally the train pulled into the Nakhon Sawan station. A little boy returned my photo to me. I stood up, did my wai khru, the placing of the palms together, and bowing of the head, a sign of respect and friendship, and left the train. In a few moments it pulled away and I stood there feeling as if I were watching a dear friend leaving my life for good. I watched until the train became a tiny dot on the horizon.
Evening was falling, and I went back to the compound, awed by this chance encounter.
Ralph Annan of Hudson, a retired career soldier, has a bachelor's degree in art and art history and has taught art and exhibited in the bay area. He's now part of a group called the Old Time Radio Players, writing and performing old-time radio stories.