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Thai Train Travel

Updated on May 3, 2015

Hua Hin Train Station

A Chance to Explore

Thailand has got a good train network that is often overlooked by visitors to the Kingdom. For several years Thailand Tourist Authority (TAT) and the government of the day have done their best to discourage long stay backpackers, illegal foreign workers and those who represent the low end of tourism. ‘5 Star’ tourists stay in hotels, go on tours and travel by the quickest means possible, which is normally air travel.

It is therefore no surprise there has been a steady recent expansion in domestic air travel in Thailand. Thai Air, Solar Air, Nok Air and Air Asia have been joined by Kan Air and others to provide short air hops between Thailand’s main cities and tourist destinations. Other than Thai Air they are mostly low-cost carriers who have promotional prices that are only a few dollars more than train tickets or even bus tickets for the same routes.

There is a common perception for visitors to Thailand that time is of the essence. People want to get to their destination as quickly as possible. That the country between Bangkok and say Koh Phangan is devoid of interest and just so many miles of nothing between people and their paradise beach destination. This is simply unfair to Thailand and its people. There are still many hidden and not-so-hidden gems to discover in Thailand such as Chantiburi, Koh Prathong and Koh Phayam.

If people travelled at a more leisurely pace through Thailand they would be rewarded with delicious food, friendly people, great deals on hotels as well as stunning mountains, beaches and forests. Moreover, there are many important temples, palaces and other culturally significant sites scattered all over Thailand.

Train travel from this perspective seems a lot more attractive. The joy of trains is that you can hop off, stay a couple of nights and then hop on another train to continue your progress. There are five lines in Thailand. The longest are the Northern Line (Bangkok to Chiang Mai) and the Southern Line (Bangkok to Malaysian border). The Eastern Line ends at Aranyaprathet, the Cambodian border. Thus it is possible to have a train holiday in Thailand as part of a tour of South East Asia.

The Southern Line

To take one line, the Southern Line, you could easily spend two weeks stopping off along the way at places like Phetchaburi (temples, palace and large national park), Hua Hin (royal city with beaches, golf courses and great seafood) and Suratthani (Samui Archipelago and national park with boat houses). Stops like Prachuap Khiri Khan (beaches, mountains and national park) and Chumphon are also possible. You will discover lesser known beaches that people in the know have hoped to keep secret to protect them from the tourist hordes. You will also get to meet Thai people that are genuinely interested in foreigners, not just in their money.

Travel by train in Thailand allows you to explore and provides you with travel experiences that are impossible with plane travel. Trains hark back to the days when people explored the East, not went there for a beach holiday.

Outside Bangkok

Tickets, Sleepers and Food

There are a number of ticket types on Thai trains. There are first and second class sleepers as well as seats. If you travel during the day you can save money and just get a seat. Fan second class sleepers are very reasonably priced. A porter goes down the carriage early evening and converts your table and seats into two bunks. They have light and a curtain for privacy.

The first class sleepers are private compartments that can be locked from the inside (not the outside). They don’t have a private toilet but the first class toilets are never busy.

Many of the trains have a food carriage. The food and drink is a little expensive but of a reasonable quality. It is not really a dining car; more like a cafe car. Don’t expect silver service and men in white tunics serving you.

If there isn’t a food carriage then you will get food vendors going up and down the train selling polystyrene boxes with meals. A guard might tell you to only buy from the official train vendor, but most people usually ignore this advice. After all who lets the vendors on if not the carriage attendants? Here is a chance to see how in Thailand an accommodation is made between the rules and the need to give people a chance of making money.

Thai Railways don’t offer luxury travel. Rather the attraction of Thai trains is the chance to see more of the country; to admire the scenery from the window. It is also the ability to break up a journey, to get off the well-worn tourist track and see something of the rest of Thailand. The scenery just outside Chiang Mai (heading south to Bangkok) is particularly impressive – it is through forest highlands. Another impressive sight is the Krasai Cave Bridge Train on the Kanchanaburi Line.

Krasai Cave Bridge Train

Sprinter Train

Timing

Thai trains are slow at getting to their destination. This is partly because the Kingdom is long. Whereas the Bangkok to Cambodia journey is just a few hours, the Chiang Mai to Malaysia route is at least 3 days. I have followed changes in Thai train timetables for a few years now and I have noticed that the trains are slow to arrive, and they often don’t set off on time. Rather than make the trains faster or the train staff stick to the schedule, those revising the timetables every year just add 20 or 30 minutes on to the journey time. Unlike with trains elsewhere which are keen to shave minutes off travel times, the Thais are adding minutes on so that schedules fit with reality a bit more. Again another insight into Thai culture, perhaps.

I might have spoken too soon. Thailand now has a few faster trains called ‘Sprinter’. They have been in limited operation in the north of Thailand.

Luxury Train Travel in Thailand

For those looking for luxury train travel in Thailand, Thai Railways has nothing to offer. There is, however, a private company running the Eastern and Oriental Express. The train is made by the same people who made the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. It holds only 60 people and offers a 2 day trip between Bangkok and Singapore. There are packages available that allow people to see Vientiane (Laos) and the Cameron Highlands (Malaysia).

Eastern and Oriental Luxury Train

Conclusion

I love travelling on Thai trains. They are cheap. It is a state owned rail system and so the prices are set by the government. The trains are designed to be affordable for the people. They are not run as a business that charges as much as the market will stand.

Thai trains are more comfortable than Chinese trains. The sleepers are fine for those who dread overnight bus journeys. For those not on a tight budget, Thai trains give the freedom to explore. You can always find a hotel near a train station. You can watch the scenery from the window. You don’t get car sick. These are all advantages of travelling by train.

For those who just love trains Thailand is a good location. They have plenty of trains to see. The rail network is extensive. Tickets are easy to buy. There is a romance about Thai trains. There might not be luxury hotel trains or high speed trains or old steam trains but Thailand is a country that still values trains as part of its infrastructure.

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