Just after crossing the Cambodian-Thai border and immediately treating ourselves to a delicious Pad Thai lunch, we hopped onboard of a train westward. We had a couple of hours ahead of us, and in stark contrast to trains southbound from Bangkok, this train was almost brand new. It reminded me of certain western European line buses. Light grey interiors, with a dark blue textile seating. Chairs were far from comfortable, but nothing you wouldn’t survive for a couple of hours.
About two hours in, the train came to a halt. Nothing too abrupt, but it was clear that it wasn’t an ordinary train station.
Nothing happened for quite some time, as we stood still amidst the Thai rice fields. A shade of green that you cannot describe, only experience. Some announcements were made, but my Thai has always been rusty. I could probably recognize the language, some greetings, or a thank you, but that’s about it. Not much seemed to happen, the locals didn’t respond, so why should we? We simply waited.
I’m not sure how long it took. Probably another hour? I was getting curious to know why we were stopping here. Despite the surroundings being fine for us, we had a destination to go to. We were going to visit a national park that had a healthy population of wild Asian elephants. This place ranked high on our itinerary. The Thai train being a Thai train, it was pretty easy to get off or hop back on, something that is unimaginable in my home country.
I hopped off, to see a gathering of men near the front end of the train. The gathering also included some official-looking men, in the typical brownish green and overly tight suits and aviator glasses that many of the Thai police wear. The other men were running around from one side of the train to another, seemingly in despair. Several were bent over in the bushes on the side, emptying their stomachs. It looked like a panicking ants nest, to be honest. It was still unclear to me what had happened.
I got a little closer to see what was going on.
There was a lot of blood.
I assessed the situation from a distance. We had clearly hit something. I only hoped it wasn’t human. When some men stepped aside, I got an open view for a split second. I immediately recognized what happened. A full frontal collision with a water buffalo. These large cows are literally everywhere in Thailand – and as must be clear from this story, they often roam free.
As it was now clear to me that we had not hit a human, my respectful distance was less important to me. At this point I just wondered if they could use a pair of extra brains and hands, so I came closer and with some sign language, offered my assistance.
The situation closer by was grim. The poor animal was still alive – I think. It was in advanced state of dying. The animal, all of its 800kg body, was below the locomotive, except its head. The head, with its impressive horns, stuck out at the front. It vaguely resembled a hunting trophy, albeit its location was a bit odd. Blood was bubbling from its nostrils, as it was exhaling its last breaths. As I arrived, the train driver was about to try and move the train back and forth to try and get the animal out of there. It didn’t work out as planned, but I’m pretty sure it sped up the dying process, which at this point probably was a good thing.
The dead cow was stuck under the train’s front. I now understand why these are sometimes called cow catchers. The driver was desperate to keep on trying, but the horns wouldn’t budge. I suggested with a sawing movement that we’d have to saw them off, unlock the locomotive from the rest of the train, and push the head down as the driver would drive over the deceased animal’s fresh carcass.
I instantly became a local hero.
The driver quickly found a rusty old saw, and in the blink of an eye, he had removed the horns. We needed volunteers to push the head down. A few men retched and ran for the bushes. I volunteered together with one of the police officers. The locomotive was uncoupled, we pushed the head down as the engine slowly started moving. It succeeded in one go, and without much effort, the locomotive was parked at the other end of the beast.
It wasn’t pretty. I gave animal anatomy classes at the time, so I was used to some butchering work, but believe me, there is a difference between cutting up a piglet, and opening up a fully-grown water buffalo. Let’s say that a pretty large abdominal incision had been made, and we were now staring at what we used to call the situs viscerum – the arrangement of the organs in the body. Well, not all was inside the body, but close enough. Part of the stomachs had ripped open, revealing a bright green paste, of yet another shade of green that has to be experienced to really be understood. The other contents were brown. Just ordinary brown… The smell though…
This time, it was clear that we needed more volunteers. We would need to pull this animal off the train tracks. I’m a big guy, but I couldn’t do it alone even if I wanted to. The police guy that helped earlier had also disappeared when he saw the cow’s intestines hanging out. Luckily his colleague was more helpful, but we couldn’t find more volunteers. We grabbed the animal’s hind legs and pulled it to one side of the tracks. We did the same with the front legs. The animal was huge and heavy, but we managed to get it just far enough to the side for the locomotive to be able to pass through.
They reconnected the loc to the train wagons, and there was a small moment of euphoria. We hadn’t spoken a word in the fifteen minutes or so that it had taken to get this far, but there was team spirit. We didn’t understand each other’s words, but we felt united. I greeted the men, and started making my way back to the train. I washed my hands in the train’s restroom, as they were covered in a mixture of blood, gut contents and mud.
We returned to our seats, and before long, the train was moving again.
Ten minutes later, the first police officer came into our wagon, and he approached me. With a friendly smile and a bow that only the Thai can do well, he uttered the only English he knew.
“Thanks you, thanks you,” he said before he disappeared again.
Two hours later, we reached out destination, as if nothing happened.