One of the highlights from my trip to Thailand in 2015 was the train travel around the country.
So I knew that when I returned in November last year, that it wouldn’t be long until I’d find myself back on the rails. When it comes to Train Travel in Asia, there are few countries in Asia where it’s easier or more comfortable to travel by train. Yet unfortunately, many travellers seem to be unaware of the options, or have been tarred by experiences of being ripped off by unscrupulous travel agents.
Here, I lay out my experiences and share tips for booking travel by train in Thailand.
The Journey: Chiang Mai to Bangkok by Train.
Personally, I love falling asleep on sleeper trains. I find that there’s something very soothing about the motion of the train on the rails. This journey, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, is perfect for just that.
The journey takes around 12 hours. There’s a choice of two express trains: one leaving at 5pm and one leaving at 6pm from Chiang Mai. There are also a couple of slower trains available that leave earlier in the day, but these tend to arrive in Bangkok in the middle of the night, and are older trains. The express trains arrive in Bangkok at 05.25 and 06.25am respectively, although both times that I’ve taken the train from Chaing Mai to Bangkok, it was a little late.
Either way, the length of the journey is perfect for getting a good amount of shut-eye!
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A few hours into the journey, train staff come around and pull down the upper bunks, convert the lower bunks, and make-up the beds with clean linen. Both times I’ve taken this trip I’ve opted for second class sleeper: so I can’t attest to first class luxury, but 2nd has always been a wonderful experience for me.
Arriving into Bangkok in the early morning, this time I was greeted with a ruby-red sunrise, creeping through the gaps in-between skyscrapers and flyovers as we crawled into Bangkok. Walking out into the early morning sunshine from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station provides are rare chance to see the city in early morning light: after street life has already begun, but before other travellers are up!
I’d also enjoy doing the reverse journey, where the early morning view is of the mountains and countryside houses surrounding Chiang Mai, as opposed to the concrete jungle of Bangkok.
Planning & Booking Trains in Thailand
I recently read a post by another blogger who’d been scammed into buying two class tickets (at a huge markup) so that she could have the first class sleeper compartment to herself and “avoid sharing with an unknown male”. A few points that will help avoid this sort of scam:
- Travel Agents take commission so train tickets bought via them will always be more expensive then buying them directly at the station yourself (see more below)
- First class compartments – if you’re a solo traveller you may be paired up to share the compartment but only with someone of the same sex—solo travellers of different genders will not be paired up by Thai Railways.
- Most foreigners opt for second class (air conditioned) where there are no compartments but sleepers are open plan, have privacy curtains, and are very comfortable.
Train tickets open for booking a maximum of 60 days ahead. Some companies may offer to book further out for you, but they can only actually make the reservation when ticket sales are opened by Thai Railways 60 days in advance of travel.
Where to book Thai Train Tickets
If you’re already in Thailand…by far the easiest option is to go and buy them yourself from the train station. You need to take your passport with you to book.
From outside Thailand and want to book ahead, one agency that has been recommended is 12GoAsia.com who will offer you the option to collect your train tickets later in Thailand at a hotel nearby major stations. The same booking restrictions apply: i.e. maximum of 60 days out, but they have a minimum of 3 days before travel for tickets to be booked.
Personally I’ve always booked my tickets in Thailand, at the Station, a week or two in advance. I’ve never had a problem this way, even on the busy Chiang Mai to Bangkok route. Thai holidays and Chinese new year can get busy though, so it’s best not to leave buying tickets last minute, or leave it until the day of travel.
As of December 2016 the price for a 2nd class, AC sleeper on the new express trains from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was 881 Baht for a lower birth or 792 Baht for an upper birth (upper births are slightly narrower).
Why Travel from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by Train?
In short, a few reasons. Not only is train travel more environmentally friendly than flying, personally I find it a lot more comfortable and efficient in terms of time as well. Although the flight between Bangkok and Chiang Mai may be a short one, add on the time to get to the airport at either end, check in, go through security etc, and it’s not so short after all.
With the train I save myself the cost of a hotel for the night and the hassle of security and getting to and from airports. Being transported from city centre to city centre whilst I sleep is a pretty sweet deal.
But there’s another reason. For me, train travel is also an opportunity to see more of the local culture. Each time I’ve taken the Chiang Mai – Bangkok train, despite there being other foreigners around, I’ve chatted with locals and got to be able to enjoy what is going on around me. The same just doesn’t happen on a plane. The first time I ended up trying to have a conversation with a lady opposite me who spoke no English (and I don’t speak Thai!) based on the language glossary in the Lonely Planet! The next time on the train to Trang, a lady attending a business meeting in Bangkok invited me to stay with her.
This time, from Chiang Mai, it felt like the whole train was full of social media fans (or bloggers perhaps!) who were focussed on making videos of the brand new train, which runs on the Chiang Mai-Bangkok 6pm route.
Lastly, travelling by train in Thailand is incredibly safe. I’ve taken most of the sleeper trains in Thailand by myself and have never felt unsafe on any of them.
You can read about another of my Thailand train travel experiences—to the bridge on the River Kwai here.
For more pictures of the different classes and information on other train routes in Thailand you can also consult the Man in Seat 61.