Travelling In Thailand….By Train!

It’s been quite a bit of fun writing up this ‘Travelling in Thailand series and for the forth and final part I just had to write up a whole blog on the unmistakable Thai Train.

During this series I didn’t even mention ‘motorbike-taxis’ – probably cause I am in the habit of writing about them quite a lot anyway! And how about the ‘car’, sorry – but such a boring form of getting from A to B shall have to wait for a new series! Then what about the horse, elephant or even buffalo? Guess I shall have to find some space to fit them into another blog sometime.

I hate to say it, but in the eyes of the Thais, the train is a ‘last resort’ when it comes down to ‘transportation preference’! Just ask any old Thai what they think about the state of Thailand’s trains and you’ll hear a flurry of remarks along the lines of “Darned slow”, “Crummy service” and “Never on time”. Guess they aren’t far off the truth! Since the Thailand’s train system is ‘a government service’ the state officials employed to run the things aren’t in the habit of working their guts off for a pittance wage. Every branch of Thailand’s government is renowned for its civil servants who hate being called ‘servants’ and instead feel that they are doing the public a favour and ought to be respected forthwith.

Thailand’s poor old train service has certainly gone down-hill over the years but it is still the best mode of transport to really see and feel the country! A bus up to Chiang Mai may take 9 hours but the blessed train plods along in no rush whatsoever and does the distance in 12 (if you’re lucky that is!). But what a great way to go! Sat on the upcountry bus you’ll be bored stiff with a TV blaring away in front showing some corny quack-wack Chinese soap opera, then for a view from the window you’ll be seeing nothing but huge billboards erected along the road, just waiting to fall over… (on a motorcyclists head). The train however, offers you some excellent views of the Thai countryside and its paddy fields, farming families and water buffaloes. Then in the morning you’ll be waking up to some gorgeous sunrise. Not having to just plonk yourself in the seat all evening, the upcountry train provides passengers with a groovy restaurant. Though the prices are rather over the top, you’ll have the opportunity to meet a whole variety of characters and especially other Thai state officials (they get a discount on train travel) hoping to practice their English with some foreigner. Thailand’s civil servants are famed for a few things and besides just laziness, they are; playing cards for a few baht (under the table of course!) and drinking whisky like there was no tomorrow.

If you fancy ordering some beers on the Thai night train it is advised to flash a bitta Thai lingo and pretend you know the score as employees on the train are synonymous for ‘over-charging’ beer-swigging Farangs. I remember the last time I took a train up to Chiang Mai and got into conversation with some banana-shake-backpackers and a few Thai army boys returning home. The backpackers had supped up all their beer and when they asked the waitress for the bill, I was surprised at the cost of a large beer – 100 baht! Not expecting to pay that much for a darned beer, I asked for my bill only for the waitress to reply, “that will be 160 baht for two bottles please”. Glad to be paying the Thai price, I sat back down and had one more!

Just ask any of the train officials and they all have a stock of nauseatingly bad stories about ‘Farangs!’ and for some strange reason, ‘drunk ones’ especially. There was the true story of a pack of Farangs from Europe a couple of years back who had been partying it up on Koh Samui over the new year. Getting on the train, the officials in charge ordered them to ‘control their alcohol consumption on the train’ as they were already smelling to the heavens and being loud-mouthed. Failing to heed the advice of the train officials they continued drinking their supply of alcohol which they had brought along with them, stuffed in their bags. They were warned too of standing in the gangways and opening up the door to have a smoke. Anyway, the story goes that around midnight one of the guy’s girlfriends starts running up and down the isles screaming at the top of her voice for the train to stop. Her boyfriend had simply disappeared after the last time he had popped out for a cigarette and…….. fallen off the train. Quite a lot of negative publicity was given to this story and especially about the quality of the Farangs heading to Koh Samui these days! You have been warned!

My favourite train route just has to be the Isarn (north-eastern) one that runs from Korat (Nakhorn Ratchasima) to Ubol Ratchathani on the Thai/Khmer/Laos border. I’ve done the route twice now stopping off every day at a new town like Surin, Buriram and Sisaket. The train is nearly always late but it’s darned cheap, incredibly slow and full of north-eastern locals speaking their local Khmer or Isarn dialects while pigging away on grilled chicken, papaya-bok-bok and sticky rice. For friendless it’s hard to beat the Isarn folk and you’ll soon be asked to help consume their lunch with a few glasses of whiskey. Even for me, the folks are as nice as can be but actually understanding what they are saying is a different kettle of fish! Try the route you won’t be disappointed!

The train is also the place to eat! The upcountry chug-along day-train is a haven for vendors coming on to the train trying to sell you a whole variety of food from the likes of dried squid to grilled meat balls. The for some weird reason, whenever a ‘drinks lady’ spots a male Farang she automatically sticks a can of Beer Chang in his face as if he lived on the stuff! Countryside train stations are quiet places run by some station-master who does virtually nothing the whole day long but watch TV, eat, drink, gossip with some friends and occasionally water the flowers. Fine job – his only responsibility in life is to wave the train past – twice a day!

When I first came to Suphanburi I had to go buy a ticket for the Bangkok-Penang train at the station here. Now, half the locals here don’t even realize the town has a train station! Arriving at the station, it took me 10 minutes of looking around to actually find someone who was working! I finally found the station-master sat under a tree outside, again drinking whiskey with some buddies of is! He seemed pretty perplexed when I explained that I needed to book a ticket to go to Penang, I think his first words were “Are you sure, we have a train that goes to Malaysia!?’ It next takes the guy another 10 minutes to turn on his computer, another 10 to call up a colleague in Nakhorn Pathom province to find out the code for the Penang/Butterworth train and finally another 10 to print out a ticket, I mean the mechanism looked older than him!

Talking about the Bangkok-Penang (Butterworth) train, now that’s the funkiest train Thailand has to offer! Funny to listen to the ‘tanoy’ when the train is approaching the station (I always take the train at the Samsen station instead of Hualumpong) “Passengers pls get ready for boarding, the International Butterworth train is approaching” makes it sound like you were at the airport! That is one heck of a train though and a bargain and a half, at something like…. eleven hundred baht! Very recommended!

If you are a newbie to Thai trains and fancy the idea of taking one, it is advised to book well in advance (if it’s a long distance one). Absolutely no need to go to the main train station you can book a ticket at any old station in Thailand – they are all computerized these days. If you are wanting to take a really long distance one, like to say Hat Yai or Penang I suggest you take along some sandwiches drinks etc….. as the food on the train is pish-poor and darned expensive! It isn’t a crummy slow chug-along day-train neither, so vendors aren’t allowed to pop on the train at every station it stops at!

And finally, if you get a sleeper get a ‘lower’ one! The ‘upper’ ones are right hassle to climb up to, the cabin light glares in your eyes, they are quite tiny and in the morning you will have no where to sit until the person in the ‘lower’ sleeper decides to pack up his/her bedding and give you your seat back. Plus, a ‘lower’ sleeper offers you lovely views of the sunrise, not a bad thing to wake up to!

BTW: It’s been fun writing about the witty side of life in Thailand but I would like to offer the readers another side to my writing. You may have noticed that I have started a new series on ‘Thailand News Stories’ but I will also be starting up a couple of new series on “Thailand’s most influential persons” and “Insights”. See how it goes, will be interesting for me too, to write about topics just that little bit more serious……

11 responses to “Travelling In Thailand….By Train!

  1. Last 2 times I took the long distance train I was disapointed because state railway has decided to put some advertisement on their train (so that the kwai in the field can be wooed into buying a sim card from AIS). The windows are partially blocked and we can no longer appreciate the view. 12 hours to Chiang Mai are deadly boring.

  2. khunlungphudhu

    Awoken a few memories with this one Steve!
    Once travelled Singapore to Chiengmai by train, boy was I glad to get off! and very glad of a long wait at Butterworth.
    I beleive it is possible to do the same journey today, but in greater comfort and a much higher price.

  3. scoobyofsuphanburi

    I will never forget my first (and only) Great Thai Rail Journey. I took the Bangkok to Surat Tani overnight sleeper, way back in 1982, when Koh Samui was a paradise not-yet-lost ( or found, depending on your viewpoint). I complained about the cockroaches in my noodles, which were promptly returned to me freshly heated. The scenery was fantastic, no concrete and billboards. I woke up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise, my face completley black from soot from the engine which was fuming into my open window all night….ahh, memories.

  4. I have always wanted to go somewhere in Thailand by train, but have, as of yet, not done so. Your article prompts me even more to try one of the many things I have yet to do in Thailand. Thanks for a very descriptive piece that I really enjoyed…as always, Steve, you deliver something everyone can appreciate.

  5. Thanks for the comments, glad yous enjoyed the read.

    I think you can still do the Bkk-Singapore link. Look around the Net. Same transfers as before Butterworth and KL.

    Thre used to be like an ‘Oriental Express’, dont know if that still running!

    But…..with the advent of cheapy airlines there isnt much point in taking the train, that is unless you are a loyal fan.

    As for the local chug-along day-trains then havent exactly developed that much! For a short trip from the capital try out the Bangkok-Kanchanaburi/Nakhorn Pathom/Hua Hin or Suphanburi train

  6. Around 4 years ago when I toured Kanchanaburi with my friends, I saw Oriental Express there… we went on board to have a look and wow…. its nice…. we were then chased off the train…. haha… I heard its not cheap to travel in Oriental Express….
    we then took the “cheap” train back to bangkkok.. must’ve took us at least 3 or 4 hours! It’s quite an experience though to see the many parts of Rural Thailand via train.

    cheers

  7. I am going to be in thailand this November and wanting to know if I can still take the train up the coast? How much is the current cost? And do I buy one ticket or lots of tickets along the way…how fluent in Thai must I be? ANy help would be GREATLY appreciated!!!

    jarduckcreations@yahoo.com

  8. Hi dear!
    Please help me to find out the timetablefare from BKK to Aranyaprathet , Is any one trevelld from Bkk to Combodia though the boarder “Aranyaprathet”?
    Time table, price and jouney time.
    Thanks for the time and help.
    Sven

  9. For info on train timetables in Thailand then pls post your query over on the forums at http://www.thailandqa.com

  10. I have travelled twice by overnight sleeper from Udon Thani to Bangkok and I thoroughly enjoyed both occasions. Waking in the early hours of the morning,looking through the window and watching Thailand wake up to another day, I loved it.

  11. I first went to Thailand in 2000 and traveled by train from Hat Yai to bankgok. I was in a sleeper but it didn’t have air conditioning. The trip took approximately 14 hours, most of which was during the night. For the cabins that don’t have air conditioning, you can open the windows a little.. I was on the bottom bunk, and the window ledge was about 40cm from the top of the bed. It was the best sleep I would say that I’ve ever had. The rocking of the train and the breeze that was coming in the window put me to sleep like a baby. I highly recommend traveling by train in Thailand. It’s cheap and fun.