Unlike flying, much of the romance of train travel remains and the sensation of slowly rocking your way through a country can be a very memorable experience—do try to use the trains at least once during your trip.
Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia have a well developed train network, Burma’s is creaking and uncomfortable and Indonesia’s is quite good, but primarily only in Java (though there is a smallish section in Sumatra as well). Cambodia has recently reopened the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville line. Overall, train travel is generally considered safe, but slow.
While there are some regional variations, trains tend to come in a few classifications which indicate how fast the train goes and a selection of classes, which offer different standards of comfort and privacy. In general trains will probably be slower and less comfortable than those in your home country, but they still get the job done.
Actual train classifications (super express, express, special, regular and so on) vary from country to country but they govern how fast the train is and also how often it stops. So a special express train in Thailand (for example) will be faster and stop at fewer stops than an ordinary train.
Train classes (first, second, third, with some sub-classes) are used to differentiate whether you have your own cabin, are sharing a cabin, are in the general car, if it is air-con or just fan-cooled, if sleeper services are offered and so on.
While trains will leave the first station on time, services often lose time along the way, slowly getting later and later. It is prudent to allow a few hours of connection time to allow for late-running services. Because train lines often have long single stretches of track in places, one late-running train can affect other services. Don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually. Particular train services may not run every day.
It depends on the service you want to use and when you want to use it. Which is to say, if you’re just planning on catching a train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya an hour or so up the line, no. If you’re after a first-class sleeper from Hanoi to Sapa in peak season, then yes.
In general, we would say that if your dates are locked in, book your trains. If you’ve got a flexible, make it up as you go itinerary, then grabbing your train tickets a day or so before your planned departure is a good idea. Leaving it till the last minute to buy long distance, and particularly, overnight train services, will most likely end up in misery, and see you on the bus instead.
As most train services that can be booked at all can be booked online, through a travel agent or directly at the railway station, there is little reason to leave it till the last minute.
That said, if you’re flexible, especially if you’re fine with travelling third class (or just taking short trips) then there is little need to book a ticket in advance.
Assuming there are competing services, much of this boils down to personal preference, your travel time time and your budget. Obviously flying is usually faster; even when factoring in commute time to and from the airport and check-in time and waiting for your luggage, you’ll still be relaxing on the beach long before your train pulls in. On the other hand, trains give you a cultural insight (though flying in Southeast Asia does have its own cultural quirks) and the scenery is often more interesting at ten rather than at 35,000 feet (though sometimes it is nice up there too!)
Our rule of thumb is when we have the time, we always take the train.
Across Southeast Asia, travelling by train is on the whole safer than by bus. In our opinion, it is also more comfortable. Services by bus will (mostly) be faster, more frequent and often cheaper than the train. Despite this, as with the flight comparison, when a comparable route exists, we’d go with the train. Especially when the only other option is a night bus—always night train before night bus.
Making use of overnight trains can be a sensible way to squeeze more time out of your trip and the following trunk routes are very popular with travellers:
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Bangkok to Surat Thani
Bangkok to Trang
Hanoi to Sapa
Hanoi to Hue
Saigon to Nha Trang
Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu
Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth
Jakarta to Yogyakarta
The above routes (with the exception of the Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu service) also have day trains on the same routes, but the night services are often more popular, especially with budget travellers, as it saves the cost of a night’s accommodation.
Where the train service is servicing a popular tourist trunk route, you may be able to purchase combination tickets that cover a few legs of the trip. For example, a ticket that gets you to Ko Samui from Bangkok would include the train ticket, a transfer to the ferry terminal and the ferry to the island. A train ticket from Hanoi to Sapa would include the train to Lao Cai, then the minibus to Sapa. The price of these tickets varies wildly and commissions can be substantial, so it can pay to shop around online and from travel agent to agent, if you’re trying to keep your spend to a minimum.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.