Catching a train in Thailand
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.
The 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.
Third Class 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.
Second Class Travel
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.
To air-con or not to air-con
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.
First Class Travel -- A Special Treat
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.
Bangkok's Hualamphong 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arriving at Your Destination and Other Tips
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
Story by Mark Foley
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