Thailand train trips: 3 overnight journeys from Bangkok
Every Friday evening, Bangkok's cavernous Hua Lamphong train station cranks it up a gear. Queues form at ticket booths, passengers cram into the convenience store and the chairs in the waiting area overflow with baggage.
But it's not just locals looking to get away for the weekend. Now that everyone can fly, many international travelers are opting to give the adventure of the rails a spin instead.
The top three main overnight train routes in Thailand head to: Chiang Mai, Nong Khai (for travel on to Vientiane, Laos) and Surat Thani (for ferries to Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan).
Here are a few tips for anyone who wants to experience Bangkok's overnight train journeys.
On the northern line, sleeper services depart four times per day and take around 12 hours.
The most fun seats are the second-class sleepers in fan carriages (531 baht for the top berth, 581 baht for the bottom), which are communal and have open windows that (eventually) let in fresh country air.
Couples looking to capitalize on the romance of the rails might want to invest in a first-class cabin. These are private air-conditioned cabins with two berths (Top is 1,253 baht, bottom 1,453 baht. Single occupancy is 1,953 baht.)
If you opt to try the day-time services keep in mind these trains can be delayed for hours, so patience –- and beer –- may be required.
This long, rickety journey on the northeastern line to Nong Khai takes around 12 hours, the last hour of which involves a lot of stop and start action.
In Nong Khai, travelers must change trains for the last few kilometers to Thanaleng on the Laos side of the border, and from there it's a bus or cab ride to Vientiane.
Travelers should take a few books or load up their Kindles, as there's quite a bit of waiting around.
To avoid being charged extra at the border, bring visa-sized photos.
Fan carriage second-class sleepers are 438 baht for top berth, bottom bunk is 538 baht (688/758 baht for air-conditioned second-class sleepers). First-class cabin: top 1,117 baht, bottom 1,317 baht. (Single occupancy 1,817 baht.)
Surat Thani/Koh Samui/Koh Phangan/Koh Tao
The southern line from Bangkok serves Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao via the Surat Thani railway station and ferry port, then heads on to Butterworth station in Malaysia.
The Surat Thani leg should take 10 hours, but can often take as long as 14, with the train reduced to a crawl in places.
The upshot is the scenery -- from messy urban Bangkok to the rice fields and karst formations of the Chumphon countryside.
There are many stops on this route and local food vendors make sure passengers are well-fed, selling cheap barbecue chicken and sticky rice.
Fan carriage second-class sleepers are 698 baht for top berth, bottom bunk is 768 baht. First-class cabin: Top 1,139 baht, bottom 1,339 baht. Single occupancy: 1,839 baht.
Island-bound travelers can buy a combined train/bus/boat ticket at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. A bus will be waiting at Surat Thani station -- it's a 90-minute drive to Don Sak pier, then a 60-minute boat trip to Koh Samui, 90 minutes to Phangan and 120 minutes to Koh Tao.
Travelers looking to go onto Penang should get off at Butterworth, Malaysia and catch a ferry. Butterworth also runs trains to Kuala Lumpur, where travelers can catch a connecting train to Singapore.
Thailand train travel tips:
- There's a restaurant car and food vendor on every train, though train food is more expensive. Local food vendors will hop on and off the train at longer stops, selling cheap eats.
- The air-con carriages are cold. Fan carriages are adequately cool, ventilated via open windows.
- All trips can be done during daylight hours, though not all day trains have sleeper carriages.
- Every carriage has shared toilets, though first-class twin-berths have private sinks. Toilets are basic -- they open onto the tracks -- but even on third-class carriages are quite clean.
- Travelers can purchase advance tickets at most tour operators or at Hua Lamphong.
- If you miss out on a sleeper berth, second-class seats are comparable to first-class bus seats. They aren't wide, but they're padded and recline.