J. Kenji López-Alt blah

Overnight Train From Surat Thani to Bangkok: Where are my Shoes?

I woke up this morning with just a slight crick in my back, thanks to the just-shy-of-comfortable bottom bunk on a sleeper train headed for Bangkok from Surat Thani. This is the third leg of our five-leg trip from the island paradise of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The first leg was a 45 minute boat ride to the mainland, followed by a two hour bus ride to the train station.

The way these Thai sleepers work is that each berth consists of two seats facing each other. Between 7 and 8pm, a conductor walks through each car, asking you to stand in the aisle as he pulls out each seat until it lies flat, forming a semi-solid frame on top of which he places a thin mattress and bedding. The top bunk folds out of the wall like a murphy bed.

You pay a premium to get the bottom bunks in these sleeper trains, and they do offer the advantage that you can still use them as regular seats if you aren't quite ready to go to bed, but if a good night's sleep is your goal, the top bunk is the one to get—it doesn't have the bumps, cracks, and crick-inducing gaps that the bottom fold-out bunks have. Whichever bunk you take, there's a small rack for your luggage, a curtain separating you from the aisle, and a few hooks to hang bags and clothes above your bed.

Knowing that petty crime is pretty rampant around these parts, Adri and I have been very careful with our belongings, particularly on these overnight trains. The first thing I did when I woke up was to feel around my waist for my money belt, where I carry extra cash, emergency credit cards, and my passport. Still there. Phew. Next, I looked up to double check that my small backpack, which holds my camera, laptop, and iPad was still hanging above my head. I even unlocked the small padlock and checked its contents. Losing my camera or laptop would be a disaster. Everything's in order.

Finally, I push open the curtain, take a quick breath of the fresh, air-conditioned air—it can get a little stuffy behind those curtains overnight—and check on my larger backpack, which holds all of my clothes, rain gear, and toiletries. Still securely fastened to the luggage rack with the cable lock. Looks like I made it through the night, all posessions intact.

On the whole, the trains in Thailand are far more pleasant than those in China (particularly if you end up in the hard-back seats). It's not because the beds are bigger or comfier—they aren't. The Thai trains are, on average, older, clunkier, and a little bumpier than the Chinese ones. While Chinese trains are generally on time, we haven't hit a station on-schedule yet in Thailand.

No, the relative pleasantness of Thai trains largely comes down to two things: There is far less spitting and yelling on Thai trains, and the bathrooms, while not sparkling clean, are at the very least sanitary and odor-free. Still, they aren't the kind of place that you want to step into barefoot. I swing my feet over the edge of the bed and put them down into my shoes, which I've left sitting on the floor, as everyone does. Instead of slipping into the comfortably contoured faux-suede surface of my well broken-in Tevas, I hit cold upholstry instead. I swing my feet around, feeling around for the sandals.


Perhaps they were accidentally kicked under the bed or down the aisle? I kneel on the floor, peering under my own bed and the next three beds around me. They're definitely, definitely gone. At some point between 2am—the last time I visited the restroom—and 7am, someone had stolen my shoes. Picked them up off the floor, and walked off with them.

WTF? Are you kidding me? I mean, who steals a shoe, really? There's something about it that just seems disrespectful even for a thief, like they didn't think about my feelings at all. I mean, I get it. Thievery is an inherently ignoble activity, unfair in favor of the thief. But surely there's some kind of unwritten code of thievery ethics. A Klepto's Code of Honor. Never steal a man's last penny. Never thieve from someone poorer than you. Take only when you need something, or at least, really really want something. Things like that.

Take my wallet? If I'm dumb enough to let you nab it, fair play to you. Huge benefit to you, huge inconvenience to me. My laptop or camera? Same deal. But my shoes? Major inconvenience for your victim with very little return for you.

It's like breaking into a home to steal all the toilet seat covers.

Ok, ok. I understand shoe-stealing during the early 90's during the height of the Air Jordans and Reebok Pumps market bubble when a teen could turn a slightly-used pair of sneakers for a couple hundred bucks, but that's not what we're talking here. We're talking a pair of Tevas that had taken me around back alleys of Beijing, up and around the Great Wall, and through the dusty, spit-covered streets of Xi'an. I'd worn them through mud and rain on a two day trek on Emai Shan and through rivers of chili oil in Chengdu and Chongqing. They protected my feet from all manner of human waste during the longest three day cruise ever. In them, I tromped through Chiang Mai and Isan and Bangkok.

When I first bought them they could have been worth something on the hot refurbished sandal black market. But these well-worn, crusted-over, ripped-fabric, and above all—smelly*—Tevas? They couldn't possibly be re-sold.

*Seriously, anyone who's been within a few foot proximity of my bare feet can attest to their power. Do you know anyone else who can make sandals stink?

Ok, I thought to myself. They weren't stolen to be resold. Maybe we have a Bicycle Thief situation here. Maybe somebody took the shoes because they really needed shoes. A traveling rice salesman or a water buffalo herder or a tuk-tuk driver on his way to a new town, his shoes worn down to the sole, without two baht in his name to rub together.

That's fair—in fact, if my shoes were to be stolen, I'd want them to be stolen by someone who would put them to good use. An honest person forced to do something wrong in a moment of desperation. I could buy that.

But then it occurred to me: Thai people are small. I'm no giant myself, but even on the largest Thai feet I've seen, my sandals would be comically large. We're talking Ronald McDonald novelty-shoes territory. If these were regular shoes, you could solve that problem with crumpled up newspaper, or perhaps those discarded plastic bags that they seem to be so fond of here. But strappy, velcro-y Tevas? If they don't fit, they don't fit, and there's no way you're gonna fix that.

That means that somewhere in Thailand, between Surat Thani and Bangkok, there is a shoe thief walking around with stolen sandals that are too beat-up for him to sell and too large for him to wear. Perhaps he'll dismantle them and sell them for parts.

Luckily, I had a pair of hiking shoes in my pack so I can walk out of the train with something on my feet. But what if I hadn't had those shoes? Did the thief even think about that?

If you're going to steal someone's shoes, you should at least have the common decency to leave a different pair behind.

You know what the worst part is?

I lent Adri my last pair of clean socks this morning, knowing that I'd just be wearing my sandals for the next couple days before we can do laundry again. Now it looks like I'm going to have to ride my sneakers bare-back, which, knowing the power of my feet, means that I've actually lost two pairs of shoes this morning.

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