Jan 05 2012
Headed off to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north or the beaches down south (or to Penang, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore)? Want to explore Isaan by motorbike or strike out east into Cambodia? Who’s your best friend for all these long sojourns? The train.
Taking the train is how lots of Thais travel; you’ll notice that there are no Thais on the buses that leave from Khao San Road and there is a reason for that: those services are terrible. Taking the train from Bangkok to Singapore might be for train-travel romantics (it takes two days), but rail service in Thailand is great — inexpensive, fairly efficient, and organised. Here’s how to get yourself sorted from Bangkok.
Your first port of call for planning your trip should be the website of the State Railway of Thailand. All of their timetables can be found, as well as fares and a function that allows you to check the number of seats available. If you are certain of your plans, you can buy your tickets online and print them out before hand — however, a SRT employee confirmed that the e-reservation system doesn’t have access to all available seats so if it shows a train is all full, a visit to a ticket office might still be in order. Information is available 24 hours a day (in both Thai and English) by dialing 1690 from within Thailand (unfortunately this service is not available from outside Thailand).
If you are trying to travel during the New Year’s holidays (Dec 30-Jan 3) or Songkran (April 13-15) or the week preceding or following the holidays, a booking is essential. Tickets can be booked 60 days ahead at any railway station in Thailand. In Bangkok, Hualamphong is the main station (and closest for Khao San Road), but depending on where you are staying other stations might be better: Sam Sen Station (more convenient if staying north of Khao San Road), Bang Sue Station (northern terminus of the subway line) and Makkasan Station (closest rail station to Sukhumvit area hotels) are all full service stations.
First class cabins and second class sleeping berths (think that old movie “Some Like it Hot”) are available, as well as standard chair cars, although not always on the same train. Enforcement of ticket purchases on third-class-only trains can be rather spotty, especially in rural areas. Try to pay, but if no one seems interested in taking your money (fairly common), don’t worry about it. Trains are sometimes a bit slower than the bus, but you’ll laugh your way out of the city as you sip a beer in the open-air dining car, gliding through the gridlock.
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