Catching a train in Thailand

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First published 23rd December, 2006

It might be only a slight exaggeration to say that no trip to Thailand is complete without spending time on the rails. Thailand's trains are an economical and comfortable means to get around, and a great way to see the countryside and rub elbows with your charming hosts. They are safer than the bus, cheaper than flying, and the most stylish way to get to where you want to be.


A map of the Railway routes in Thailand -- click here to see a larger versionThe train doesn't go quite everywhere, but it can get you from Bangkok to, or close to, most major destinations in Thailand. This includes Chiang Mai in the north; Nong Khai in the northeast (for Vientiane, Laos); Ubon Ratchathani in the east; and Surat Thani (for Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui), Trang and elsewhere in the south, continuing to Malaysia and Singapore. The train does not go to Phuket, Krabi, Trat (for Ko Chang) nor Chiang Rai.

For longer routes, try the overnight sleeper train. This saves time by traveling as you sleep, and money by skipping a night's hotel fee. There are a few people who prefer the day trips, not wanting to miss a single km of countryside. But, a little scenery goes a long way, and those few hours gazing outside before and after the beds are made up are enough for all but the most hard-core window jockeys.

Shorter, 3rd-class-only routes include the special tourist train to Kanchanaburi along a section of the WWII Death Railway, Aranyaprathet (and onward to Cambodia), and the popular day trip to Ayutthaya, the latter accomplished as a round trip from Bangkok or as a fantastic stopover on the way to Chiang Mai.

For those insisting on taking a longer daytime trip, check out the Special Diesel Railcar options on the State Railway of Thailand webpage. These trains are faster and better designed for extended daytime travel.

If you are considering taking a 3rd class car for an overnight train trip, don't. While it's a great scenic adventure to Kanchanburi or Aranyaprathet, it is not appropriate for longer trips. These cars have thinly padded wooden or plastic seats that will reduce your bottom to tears. Worse, there is no guarantee of a seat in a 3rd class car, and they often become standing room only nightmares, particularly during peak periods. If 3rd class is all that is available for a long train journey, you are better off taking the bus instead.

The backpacker gold standard for train travel is the 2nd class Pullman car. These cars contain 40 seats facing each other in sets of two, which convert into reasonably comfy beds for the overnight trips. Each berth gets its own reading light, pillow, blanket, and a fresh set of sheets.

Your luggage travels with you on the train, stored in convenient racks next to your berth. Security on board is generally good, but it is still smart to place valuables like money, passport, and electronics in the bunk with you. Use a simple cable lock to secure your pack while you sleep.

When making reservations, keep in mind that the lower berths are the even numbers, while the cheaper upper berths are odd numbered. The best seats/beds are in the middle of the car, numbering from the mid-teens to the high 20's, where you'll be far from the constant foot traffic, the toilets and the noisy doors at either end of the car.

Many folks prefer to get an upper and a lower berth, meaning you'll be sitting across from your travel partner before and after the beds are made up. This is tops for talking, playing cards, sharing meals, or just putting up your feet.

The more expensive lower berths are larger and more comfortable. Both upper and lower have curtains for privacy, but the curtains on the lower berths do a much better job of screening out the lights, which stay on all night. An easy fix is earplugs and a sleep mask. Even so, don't plan on your best night's sleep ever.

For most people, unless you are traveling during the heart of the hot season (mid-March to early-May), paying extra for the air-con cars is unnecessary, as the air-con cars quickly turn into chilly meat lockers. The fans in the non-air-con cars are normally enough to keep you cool while you sleep. As an added bonus, the windows in the lower berths on the fan cars open, which makes it easier to interact with vendors and the countryside as it stretches by. The air-con cars, on the other hand, tend to be a bit newer and therefore a bit nicer. If you travel 2nd class air-con, be sure to cover up with your warmest clothes and ask for an extra blanket.

If your budget can absorb it, then 1st class is the way to go. First class compartments accommodate two people in equal-sized upper and lower berths, and boast a sink with running water, in-room luggage racks, and lots of space. Even better, you can adjust the flow of air-con in the room to the level you want, the door fastens shut for added security, and you can turn out the lights when you are ready to sleep.

Adjacent 1st class compartments have a pass-thru door, so you can party with your mates in comfort and style. For those traveling alone, an entire first class compartment is available for an added single supplement charge of about 300 baht -- less than the price of an additional first class ticket. Value for money, the first class berths are a world-class bargain.

There is food for purchase on board, served at your seat in 1st and 2nd class, but it is no great shakes and not cheap either. Plan ahead and bring a few snacks and munchies with you.

Breakfast on board starts at about 90B for an uninspired standard, while dinner runs 150B. Besides meals, stewards carrying buckets filled with ice cold soft drinks and beer will pass by endlessly. You'll also enjoy a never-ending parade of independent food vendors who board the train or approach your window at stations and other stops.

It is important to note that the food servers on the train work on commission, so if they seem to take it personally that you don't buy something, that's why. A small tip for the food servers and the people who make up your bed is well deserved and much appreciated.

There are bathrooms on board, located on either end of the train car. Toilets are usually arranged in pairs, with one western and one Asian-style toilet. That's an important safety tip, since for the novice, a squat toilet is a challenge to master even when you aren't on a moving train. In first class, there are also cold-water shower sprayers if you wish to clean up. With all toilets, your waste pretty much falls directly on the tracks. Because of that, it is bad form to use the bathroom while the train is in a station.

Most all trains depart or arrive at Bangkok's Hualamphong Station, with the exception of the train to Kanchanaburi, which departs from the Bangkok Noi station in Thonburi.

Navigating Hualamphong is easy, with arrival and departure boards inside the terminal in both English and Thai. There are also English-speaking staff at information booths at both entrances and inside the terminal if you need guidance.

Trains board via announcement, just like at any airport. Train personnel check to make sure you have a ticket before you enter the boarding area, but there is otherwise no security check or x-ray scan. The conductor will come to your seat on board to punch your tickets after the train has left the station.

Hualamphong has many amenities too, including newstands, mini-marts, an internet cafe, food court, and even western favorites like Dunkin' Donuts and KFC. There is also luggage storage, so you can explore the area if you have a few hours to spend before your train departs. Chinatown and Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha, are nearby.

With Bangkok's infamous traffic, be sure to leave yourself extra time to get to the station. If possible, take the new subway to Hualamphong station.

As train travel becomes more popular with tourists and Thais alike, the era of buying your ticket the day you travel is over. This is particularly true on the more popular Chiang Mai and Surat Thani routes, and any time during Thai holiday periods, where the trains will be sold out well in advance.

A good rule of thumb is to make your reservations once your travel plans are certain, although some of the lesser-traveled routes, such at Nong Khai or Ubon often have seats available at the last minute. It is possible to make reservations before you arrive in country. The following websites come recommended by Travelfish members:

The Man in Seat 61 at http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm
Charlie Connection Travel and Tour at http://www.travelconnecxion.com/
Traveller2000 at http://www.traveller2000.com/
State Railway of Thailand website at http://www.railway.co.th/english/index.asp has information on routes, timetables, fares, and availability. Request reservations by email at info@railway.co.th.

The trains depart on time, but the overworked single track in most areas means that you'll more than likely arrive an hour or two later than scheduled. This is important to know if you have follow-on flights or other arrangements planned at your destination.

A final word. When boarding the train in Nong Khai, do not repeat not order the cheese sandwich from the cafe' across from the station. It makes for a long trip, even with toilets on board. You've been warned!

story by Mark Foley, aka exacto



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Read 16 comment(s)

  • Hi Mark, information on the trains was very informative, I have one question though, my hausband and I are both smokers, by any chance do you know if we are allowed to smoke in first class, if we hav our own cabin.

    Regards
    Jackie

    Posted by Jackie McDonald on 12th October, 2009

  • We had a few updates after taking several train trips on our most recent visit to Thailand in Dec '09 and Jan '10.

    First, it looks like the second class fan sleeper cars, at least on the BKK-Chiang Mai run are limited and possibly being phased out, as they are now only available on one of the three trains making that run each day. The timing isn't too bad on the #51 train, leaving BKK at 2200 and scheduled to arrive CM at 1245, but it is awful on the return #52 train departing CM at 1430 and scheduled to arrive BKK at 0530. We definitely froze on the upper berths of our aircon sleeper from CM to BKK.

    Second, food quality and service was much improved this time compared to past trips, but still pricey. Standard dinners were 150 to 180 baht for a main dish with soup, fruit, and rice. Sodas were 30 baht and a large Singa beer an incredibly expensive 120 baht. The best food deal was the standard ABF breakfast including coffee or tea for 100 baht. Also, there were still plenty of walk-on food vendors on the 3rd class trains, but food sales were limited to train staff only on the long-haul 2nd class trip. Bring snacks!

    Finally, sorry I didn't see Jackie's question about smoking before, but I'd be surprised if they allowed any, even in a first-class cabin. There are signs all over the trains now that smoking is no longer allowed onboard and carries a 2,000 baht fine. But this being Thailand...

    Posted by Mark Foley on 1st February, 2010

  • hello! i plan to travel to thailand this may by train. is there any good trip suggestion along the way. but i didn't decide which railway to go yet. need you advice. thanks

    Posted by ester on 17th February, 2010

  • A question. I am traveling from Namgkok to Chiangmai by train.

    However, my plane reaches bangkok international airport only at 2030hrs.

    How long does it take to travel from Bangkok's airport to the train station? Will I be able to catch the 2200hrs train?


    Thanks,
    Ler

    Posted by Yuan Ler on 6th October, 2010

  • Sorry I mean "Bangkok"

    Posted by Yuan Ler on 7th October, 2010

  • Fantastic information, a great help! Thanks!

    Posted by Sara Callow on 8th October, 2010

  • Hi Guys,

    Great info Mark, Thanks. Have you any experience of train #9? We hope to board a first class sleeper cabin in Ayutthaya travelling to Chiang Mai.

    Thanks,

    Gar

    Posted by Garry G on 13th October, 2010

  • hi garry,

    i just stumbled across your question but don't know if you'll even see the response or not. there is a forum for asking questions where people are much more likely to see your query and respond.

    in any case, according to the state railway of thailand website, the #9 train you mentioned is a special express diesel rail car. it is all second class aircon cars, seats only, no sleeping berths. you'll need to select another train if you wish first class and/or a sleeper berth.

    try any of the websites/travel agents listed in the article to see if they can help you purchase your ticket ahead of time so you can get the berths, class of travel, and dates you want.

    spending a day and early evening in ayutthaya and then catching the overnight sleeper to chiang mai is a wonderful way to get the most out of your time. have fun. cheers.

    Posted by exacto on 18th October, 2010

  • we will be arriving in hua lamphong station around 2Am could we go inside the station and wait for the ticket counter to be open?

    Posted by Michell on 16th February, 2011

  • Just would like to reiterate the food situation. When we got on the train in 1st class the chap came along and immediately popped open fruit juices for us, we didn't even have a chance to decline them. Aswell as a platter of fruit. We ordered dinner which was very bland. We shared a breakfast which was nice. In all it cost us £20 , probably the most we spent on a meal the whole we were there. We were unprepared for it, so be careful

    Posted by Mishy on 7th June, 2011

  • great article. My girlfriend and I stupidly opted for 3rd class from Surat Thani to BKK when 2nd was sold out. It was a nightmare! But once you get to your destination it's easy to forget about!

    Just thought it would be worth mentioning the plague of touts you have to ignore and avoid from well outside the train station until you ever are in the queue for tickets. Basically - NEVER LISTEN TO ANYONE UNLESS THEY ARE BEHIND THE GLASS! Every 2 seconds someone will tell you the train is off, or full, or holiday...blah blah blah and try and get you on a 'VIP' bus.

    Getting tickets and the train is really easy so don't be put off!

    Posted by Jimbobber on 16th June, 2011

  • We had a very bad experience of train. First of all if some one says that you can get tickets 2 days in advance for the train of your choice, then that is plain incorrect. We wanted to go to Koh Samui from Bangkok and arrived 3 days in advance to Bangkok. But, all sleeper tickets were already booked. If only Thai train had online ticket booking we would not have run into this situation (of course there are other options but none of them is convenient enough).

    So, we ended up having seating tickets to Chumpon on 10:50 pm train and then 6 hour ferry by Lomprayah catamaran to Koh Samui because as per the ticket counter person there was no connecting ferry that he could book from Surat thani.

    Thai train is one of the most primitive train network in the world still having narrow guage tracks. The AC in the train does not have any control and it becomes very cold in the nights. All they provide are towel like sheet to keep yourself warm.

    On reaching Chumpon we changed to bus and then to ferry via Lomprayah. This part of the trip is strictly for backpackers. If you are traveling with family and have suit cases as luggage, then be ready to pull and lift your luggage for a long distance without much help from Lomprayah.

    Posted by Gnawmad on 8th August, 2011

  • Hi there,

    Just wanted to check, what would be a recommended amount to tip for the food servers and people who make up the beds? I come from NZ where tipping isn't the norm so would rather have a general idea than inadvertently piss people off! I know people often recommend 10% of a bill but not sure how that works if you're not always buying drinks or what should be left for the people that make up your bed - in that case would it be 10% of the train ticket?

    Any tips would be appreciated thanks.

    ;)

    Posted by Dee on 28th October, 2011

  • tip what you feel based on the service. for making up the beds, i typically tip about 20 baht per berth, adjusting up if the service is really good or down if the porters are being pushy and trying to make the beds on their schedule and not the passengers. i tip more in first class because the porters have fewer berths to cover and devote more of their time to each cabin. for food, i'd typically go about 20 to 30 baht depending on the service and how much i ordered. as many have mentioned here and elsewhere, the people working on the trains don't make much money and work hard. that's why we use this opportunity to say thanks with a bit extra. regards.

    Posted by exacto on 30th October, 2011

  • Hi, from what i have researched getting from bangkok to chiangmai on the train seems to take about 10 hours. Does anybody know if this is a direct train or if you have to changes somewhere?

    Posted by jordan on 11th March, 2013

  • train from bangkok-chiangmai no transfer but has stops to every station..

    Posted by michell on 11th March, 2013

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