Train Travel in Thailand — Run on the Rails!
There are three ways to travel the length and breadth of Thailand—plane, road, and train. The following few lines will show you how to take the scenic and traditional choice of train travel, and how to do it safely and with ease.
So, why take a train? The answer is simple, a train trip is enjoyable and economical. Your journey will be more interesting than in a tourist bus. You will experience an authentic and pleasant experience. On a train, you can even standup, walk around, and stretch your legs!
First, Bangkok is the centre of travel in Thailand, and all train travel in the Kingdom is centred on the Hualamphong station near the city centre (also known as the Bangkok Railway Station). From this busy and Italian Neo-Renaissance-styled building (a sight worth seeing in itself) trains depart frequently to all corners of the country and beyond. A Thai train will not take you to every destination, but it will take you close to most.
Your first decision is your destination, but let’s assume that you know where you want to go. The next choice is the class of carriage you will buy. Thai trains have three classes—first, second, and third. Third is perhaps just a little too basic, nothing wrong with it, but hard, wooden seats, a broken fan for cooling, and often lots and lots of fellow passengers crowded into a carriage that has seen many better days, and let’s add that the restroom facilities are not 5-star. Ok—for short distances—but unless you are skint avoid for longer journeys.
Next, second class. This means a comfy seat, aircon, and a stewardess, but, meals, snacks, and water are extra. It is a good compromise. First class is usually only overnight and can be positively luxurious on some trains and some journeys. There are private rooms and so forth, all depending on your willingness to pay.
One thing to keep in mind, the aircon in the train may well be cold, very cold. Blankets are supplied, but if you have a jacket or warm gear (in Thailand!), make sure it is to hand.
Bear in mind that some Thai trains are rather old, so even a first class train, shiny and new on the brochure, can transform into its somewhat worn older cousin. The luck of the draw, however, it can sometimes work out the other way around.
The next step is to buy your ticket. Here things become a little trickier. There is no online train booking service, which leaves you with only two choices. You can pay through a travel agent or through your hotel (most hotels), or, you can go to the nearest train station and book your ticket for any departure from any train station in the country. This is the cheapest option but factor in the cost of travel to and from the station.
A safety net when booking travel (or anything else) in Thailand is to have a local write your destination, in Thai, on paper and show this to the booking agent. This person may speak English adequately and be familiar with English names, or may not.
Always check your ticket. It is your ticket. Once you walk away from the booking office any errors are your errors! Check the date, time, and destination. Also recommended is to take a photo of the ticket with your phone and keep the photo for future reference.
When to book depends, for local trains between rural provinces you can usually expect to just roll up to the station, buy your ticket, and walk on. For major trips, however, and always near a holiday, book well in advance. During holiday periods expect big delays and even larger crowds.
A word of advice, always buy your ticket from the train station booking office, never from a friendly individual wandering around the station looking for foreigners to ‘help’.
What to bring? You can buy most any consumable your desire on the train. There will be vendors slowly moving back and forth between and along the carriages. At each stop locals will jump on board and offer you any manner of food and beverage—fresh fruit is always a good and safe choice. There is also a dining car. You can eat there, or book and have the food delivered to your seat, which will have a fold down table.
Bring with you what you would normally bring for any long journey. A neck pillow is advisable, as is a bottle of water, eye mask, and ear plugs. Thai trains can be noisy!
A second class overnight train is the most economical choice for travel. There are lines of two bunks running down the carriage, upper and lower. Lower is usually larger. During the day the bunks are transformed into seats, but at night your carriage attendant converts them into your own, private, curtained room. There are power plugs and lights. Not luxury, but great for one night of travel.
Before you drift off into the arms of Morpheus check your arrival time. If you train terminates at your destination, no problem, but if your train passes through set your alarm accordingly, and even let your attendant know where you get off.
A few sample trips to give you an idea of what to expect
A popular trip is from Bangkok to the vibrant and popular tourist city of Chiang Mai, 800 kilometres distant. The daytime express departs at 08.30 and takes 11 hours at the cost of 800 baht ($20). A fast, and low-cost choice. The same journey overnight is 13-14 hours and with a higher cost. An upper bed is 1,000 baht, a lower 1,300 baht, a room is 2,400 baht.
Read about our Train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai!
This trip will first take your first through the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya, then onwards to the historic old towns of Lopburi (monkey city!) and Lamphun. The land you will pass through are the endless rice plains of central Thailand. If you have the time stop in one of the small provincial capitals dotting the landscape and see rural Thai life
Another trip is down the Malay Peninsular to Hat Yai—the leading city of southern Thailand—near a thousand kilometres. This trip is overnight and takes 15 or so hours. An upper bed is 1,500 baht, a lower 1,700, and a room 2,500. A long trip, but popular with travellers, and comfortable. Along the way are all of the famous southern Thai islands and tropical beaches.
This journey can be extended to the Malay border, an hour further south, where you can be quickly stamped out of Thailand and into Malaysia. There is usually a Malay train waiting to take passengers further south into west Malaysia as far as KL.
A restful and somewhat rare journey for foreigners is east into the Esarn region of north-east Thailand as far as the city of Ubon Ratchathani on the Laos/Thai border. On this trip you will pass many ruins of the ancient Kingdom of Cambodia that once ruled this area of what is now Thailand. Also your train will stop in Surin—the elephant town of Thailand—where most Thai elephants are born and raised. These towns are also the centres of the famous Thai rice and silk industries that produce much of the wealth of the Kingdom.
You can leave your train anywhere along this journey, find a room for $10 a night, and experience the quiet side of life in rural Thailand, far from the hustle of Bangkok and the bustle of Khao San Road.
Another journey is east to Kanchanaburi province and the famous World War Two “Bridge over the River Kwai”. Along the way are green hills, tiny villages, and many other tourists and tourist sites.
One thing to look for on your train travels are the retired trains and historical relics on display at the stations. Some of the larger provincial stations have several trains on display.
The Thai train system is owned and managed by the State Railway of Thailand. Each year 45 million people take a train. For the latest information on routes, problems, and special services check the website: http://www.railway.co.th/main/index_en.html
Timetables and departures, trains are sometimes delayed in Thailand, and they are sometimes late on arrival, but not that often. It pays to arrive at least an hour early for a busy departure, and most of the time you will leave on time.
Thai trains are non-smoking, but most allow passengers to sneak a smoke on the gap between carriages, noisy, windy, and sometimes wet.
There is any number of phone apps for Thai rail, offering times, dates, information, and even booking. While useful ensure that they are up to date and reliable. If it is a time-critical journey, it pays to confirm at the nearest station.
For cost and time budget 100-200 baht ($3-$6) a hundred kilometres and an average speed of 70-80 kilometres per hour.
The future for rail travel is bright. There is a grand plan to create a high-speed train service from Kunming in southern China, all the way south to Singapore—3,500 kilometres of new tracks and trains. Also, travel within Thailand is tipped for new high-speed local trains. All this to take place within a decade.
Rather than fly or take a bus choose the train option. Sit back, relax, sleep the night away, chow down a train meal, and watch the scenic countryside slide by against the rattle of the track