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
Read 16 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (18)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (19)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (82)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (38)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Budget Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- DIY Ha Long Bay
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Mid-range Ha Long Bay
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which Ha Long Bay tour is right for you?
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (22)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.