Do you sometimes decide to take the train despite the plane being cheaper and a lot quicker? Well, I don’t usually, but I was obsessed with the idea of taking the train for a recent jaunt up to Chiang Mai.
I think the main reason I wanted to do this was to perhaps reduce my carbon footprint for this short journey, which according to this infographic produces half the emissions a plane would for a journey of this distance.
I’ve been taking trains to Chiang Mai for 20 years
Truth is, overnight trains in Thailand have a special place in my heart. When I was tour leading here 18 years ago, I was taking an overnight train one or two times a week. It was how we would travel within the country in Thailand. Up and down. Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then back to Bangkok again a couple of days later or Bangkok to Surat Thani. Taking 12 people on the train was so much fun. For many of them, this was their first overnight train. There was usually drinking and some partying. When I look back on this time, I realize we must have been pretty loud and obnoxious. It makes me feel very nostalgic.
Pros of taking the train
I also think that I want to still prove to myself that I still can still do things like overnight trains and feel positive about them afterward. In recent years, I have become a much more fancy traveler so I want to prove that I can still rough it.
- So, traveling on the train in Thailand is really good for a number of reasons!
- A lower carbon footprint than a plane would have. It really has a romantic old feel about it. The train is so nice, very, very clean, safe and secure.
- It’s really comfortable. The seats convert into beds, there are curtains, blankets, and pillows.
- No having to deal with a crowded airport or actually getting to the airport (the train station in Bangkok and Chiang Mai is quite centrally located.
- There is something nice about waking up with views of misty hills and countryside when the last bit of daylight was the bright lights of Bangkok. On this trip, I woke in the morning and I saw kingfishers, bee-eaters, and doves perched on the overhead wires at dawn.
There are several overnight trains to Bangkok that depart in the early evening, but if I were you I recommend taking a 2nd class aircon which is very comfortable but reasonably priced. A seat on the bottom bunk costs 1041 THB (the upper bunk is a little bit cheaper). I recommend the #9 and #10 trains as these trains were recently refurbished and they have a lot of extras like plugs to charge your phone and everything feels lots cleaner and newer.
Second Class Aircon
It’s important to know the setup of the 2nd class because if you are someone who gets anxious at having lots of people around you, then you might want to opt for first class which is what a girlfriend and I did for the return journey. With second class, the seats (and the beds) are parallel to the windows of the train, there are about 50 or so beds in each carriage and people can move from one carriage to another. This might make people feel less secure.
The first-class train is more expensive of course, but there are only two-bed inside a cabin and the price is 1463 for a top and 1653 for a bottom bunk or you can get the whole cabin for 2453 THB.
Where to buy your tickets?
You can go to the train station and buy your ticket. There is usually a counter for people who don’t speak Thai and it is pretty easy to communicate what you want.
The second way (and what I did) is to just pop into a travel agent. They are able to book the ticket for you and you usually come back and collect the ticket the next day. You must pay for the ticket before it is issued. I booked mine with no problems whatsoever.
Getting ready for the train
Here are my top tips for enjoying the train as much as you can #vegan and #zerowaste style.
Getting to the station
Make sure you are there at least half an hour before. You do not want to be rushing around. It can take a good 15 minutes to get from the MRT stop or the taxi rank to get inside the train especially if you have not been there before. You will be able to get on the train from about 30 mins before departure. Most people get to the train station from the MRT (underground network) or by taxi or Grab.
Internet data and WiFi can be intermittent and slow so we recommend making sure you have all your TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks downloaded ahead of time.
You will probably want to bring some food on the train. You will be departing at 6:10 pm (if you take the number 9 train so you will probably want some dinner. Now, 15 years ago when I was taking the train, I always used to buy food on the train because I wanted to support the train staff who relied on people ordering the food to make money (and as a result, they can be quite pushy).
Sadly, though I can no longer recommend that option to people for a couple of reasons. Number 1, there are a couple of vegan options for dinner (and breakfast the next morning) but they are not that great. Also, the amount of single-use plastic that is used is horrifying! This is very different from how it was 15 years ago where metal cutlery and plates were used. I recommend that you bring your own food in Tupperware to eat on the train. One option I recommend is ordering from Nourish in Bangkok. Nearly all of their food is delivered without the use of single-use plastic and it is delicious! Of course, you should pack your zero waste cutlery kit so you don’t need to use anything plastic to eat too!
The same goes for drinks. You will be given a small single-use plastic bottle of water when you get on the train. Bring your own bottle of water (and check out this blog post for water purification methods so you can avoid this). For your morning coffee, it will be served in a paper cup with a plastic lid. If you simply must have coffee in the morning, consider buying a can of iced coffee the night before or wait until you arrive and head straight to Good Souls in Chiang Mai which is one of the only places that’s open when you arrive in Chiang Mai.
There are a number of things that you can do to be comfortable on the train.
While you have a curtain to keep a lot of the light away from you it is 100% not completely black. If you are sensitive to light, then you will want a good eye mask.
While people are usually considerate when on the train and are very quiet (alcohol is now no longer allowed on the train which is a really good thing in my opinion) the train can be a bit loud. The brakes can make noise, there can be announcements at the train stations and of course, the clickety-clack of the train tracks can be loud, so bring earplugs.
Turning seats into beds
The bed person (person who converts the seats into beds) will start asking you if you want the bed converted from about 7 pm. You CAN delay it for another hour or so, but please don’t make them wait too long. These people pretty much live on the train and need to get a good night’s sleep. They will be awake from 5 am so I always like to have the beds made by 8:30 pm.
Having some comfortable loose-fitting clothes to wear will make sleeping a lot more pleasant. Make sure you feel comfortable enough to go to the bathroom.
Socks and a long-sleeved shirt
The aircon starts off cold and then as it comes to bedtime they do seem to make it less cold, but you might want to have access to some warmer clothes if you are sensitive to air-con.
Make sure that all valuables are attached to you at night. Things like passports, money, and electronics should be on you. The staff encourages you to put your big bags underneath the seats. There is still a risk that these could be taken (although small). To combat this, you should lock your luggage and also lock your luggage to something. A small cable lock should suffice. In reality, I have never locked my big bag and never had a problem, but to be the safest you can be, do as I say and not as I do.
Arrival in Chiang Mai / Bangkok
Arriving in Bangkok or Chiang Mai so early in the morning means that your accommodation will not be ready yet unless you book an extra night. Hopefully, you have slept well and are feeling relatively well-rested but perhaps you need a shower to fully wake up! Both Bangkok and Chiang Mai stations have a shower room that is clean and large enough to get changed. Priced between 10 and 15 for use of the shower, a better deal cannot be had!
Head out for an incredible breakfast
When you arrive you will find dozens of people keen to take you to wherever you want to go and it can be a little bit overwhelming Whichever option you will take from these people will be about 200 THB per person which is much more expensive than a Grab Taxi will be. Also, you will not need to wait until the vehicle is full or go to all the other places. Choose a location just outside the station and walk out there to get your grab. A ride to Good Souls was only 81 THB and I got there really quickly.
Now you can enjoy Chiang Mai!
So, train travel is a ton of fun in Thailand. I hope this post will inspire you to give the train a try when you are here. It’s a fun experience and it certainly does seem like a more environmental way to travel around Thailand, especially if you use the zero waste tips that we told you about!
Is train your favorite way to travel? Have you been on an overnight train before? Have you done the overnight train to or from the south of Thailand before? Let us know in the comments!