How to survive train travel in Thailand

(Note – a version this post first appeared on our shiny Medium blog)

If you hail from a place where you can sip chilled wine in an immaculately clean and comfortable train as it slices through countryside at an awesome clip without so much as a wobble, you might be challenged by the State Railways of Thailand (SRT). But with the right attitude and equipment, train travel in Thailand can be marvellous!

1. Book in advance, but don’t despair if you can’t

I will give the SRT this: I’ve never seen more love gone into the maintenance and decoration of even the most minor train station. They’re world leaders in that respect. But when it comes to designing an effective ticket booking system, they’re a stale bureaucracy with no competitive drive or innovative zeal.

The way they see it, if you want a ticket on a train, come to one of their beautiful train stations and lets see what the 80s era computer says.

Just a some lovingly maintained building at Hua Hin Train Station

There are a few booking sites out there and we recommend 12Go.Asia, as we’ve had some success and they seem quite approachable (that’s also why we chose to work with them as a Window Seater affiliate), so they should be the first point of call unless you’re in walking distance to a station.

But even they need to put a physical SRT-issued ticket in your hand somehow, either by sending it to a registered address, or having you come and pick it up the day before your travel. So the online offerings provide certainty rather than convenience.

If you’re looking for good information in English on Thai trains and ticketing services, I recommend reading the Man in Seat 61 — an excellent blog.

Even if you book online, you’ll likely need a physical ticket in your hand to travel

2. Lower expectations of comfort, but choose the right train

SRT has a menagerie of rolling stock, but a train into Bangkok from the airport is likely to prove your high-water mark of comfort for a railcation in Thailand.

On the positive side, the sleeper trains — such as that from Bangkok to Chiangmai or Hat Yai — are quite alright. They’re likely to be relatively modern and comfortable in first class.

Second class sleepers with air conditioning can be relatively new Chinese trains that are comfortable enough too. Second Class sleepers without air-conditioning are getting a bit grubby and harsh, but could be worse. These sleeper cars often have decent dining cars too, with affordable Thai food which isn’t likely to make you sick. So a considered solitary thumb up to Thai sleeper trains.

A second class sleeper carriage.

On the negative side, SRT are making sure that the Thai-Burma Railway experience — Bangkok <> Nam Tok — continues to earn its alternative title: “The Death Railway”. As the first Window Seater app test trip, Window Seater had to suffer this train a few times: You are forced to sit on a right-angled, barely cushioned, sweat-encouraging, sweat-repelling vinyl bench.

I made the mistake of taking my first trip on a 40-degree hot season day, with dust whipped up by the preceding carriages, afternoon sun blasting in, and with my visiting parents staring at me with laboured smiles. Not a cold beer for miles, we were outpaced at times by children on bicycles. I thought I might actually be in hell, until of course, I considered the thousands of forced labourers who originally laid those rails in the same weather, but with the added effects of dengue and a willing whip.

Its still worth the journey for that story alone, and there are many other surprising sights on the way (especially, of course, if you are guided by the Window Seater App). But if you’re going to take this train, please read on.

There are many day trains between these two ends of the spectrum of comfort. However, the average train carriage in Thailand will invariably be:

  • Slow and shaky — reflecting the advanced age of the rails and the carriages
  • Shabby and besmeared — reflecting the carriages’ many oscillations between the tropical seasons of gritty and grimy
  • Bungling and bush-league — reflecting a standard-issued state-owned rail company apathy towards quality and passenger experience

Accept it. Get a window seat, and let your mind unravel outside of the carriage and into the evolving landscape. And when things get tough, perhaps consider that you’re riding in the only rail network in Southeast Asia that wasn’t built by colonisers, and that its actually without peer in the region.

Planning your trip

For the more proactive, this blog is an exceedingly good resource for figuring out which rolling stock run on which routes and at what times, and this can help you to pick less awful train rides. Be sure to have it open when you book your ticket, and you’ll make better choices than WindowSeater has…

3. Love slow travel

Modern high-speed trains are glorious things. But who has the billions needed to upgrade the rails and the carriages in a not-so-wealthy country like Thailand? (Actually, the Chinese do) But armed with an open mind and a philosophical approach towards travel, you can learn to love the lethargy of the SRT:

Slow travel is a thing that people, perhaps not unlike yourself, have been getting into. I submit as evidence two quotes from better writers than I:

“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought. The views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or a plane, moving quickly enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects. They offer us brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting us see a woman at the precise moment when she takes a cup from a shelf in her kitchen, then carrying us on to a patio where a man is sleeping and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure we cannot see.”
— Alain de Button. The Art of Travel.

“Looking out a train window in Asia is like watching an unedited travelogue without the obnoxious soundtrack.”
 — Paul Theroux. The Great Railway Bazaar.

In short, a slow train allows us to better peer into the Thai countryside to capture what is surely one of the last glimpses of authenticity that tourists in Thailand are afforded.

Slow is safe

Secondly, all things considered, slow travel is safer, right? As someone who has experienced a lot of Southeast Asia, traveling anywhere in the region at more than 200km/hr would have me feeling more terror-stricken than convenienced. In orderly Europe, one can send a horizontal edifice down hundreds of kilometres of track at a mach zero-point-something and generally trust that nothing bad will happen. Thats just remarkable! A credit to a marvelous team of engineers.

But the reason we love Asia is that its a great bustling ferment of movement. Moreso than anywhere else, everyone is an engineer of their own little patch of life, and don’t necessarily consider a bigger picture or a central government dictate. So given the aging infrastructure and frequency of level crossings, many of which aren’t particularly well sign-posted, its surprising that rail accidents in Thailand aren’t more common. I hypothesise that the cautious speed is a factor. What do you think?

If you want to enjoy trains in Thailand, learn to love travelling slowly.

4. Self-cater

Unless you have a full dining car, which is usually only on the sleeper trains, the food options can be surprisingly awful for a global culinary force like Thailand.

For example, I found eating on the 13-hour Bangkok <> Chiang Mai day train a challenge: The fold-down table doesn’t quite fold down. The food provided with the ticket came in plastic heat-sealed containers that slid around, sometimes were full to the brim with piping hot soup, and cannot be opened without considerable force and resourcefulness. The plastic fork broke when attempting to lift rice. And after getting some of it in my mouth, I had regrets.

Trains without a meal service are actually better for eating, as vendors are allowed to jump on and parade local delicacies. For example, if you’re heading South or West from Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom is renowned for pomelo, and grabbing some at the station or from a boarding vendor is well worth it. Noodles or rice dishes wrapped in banana leaf or non-stick paper is common and can be quite satisfying. You might score with a satay or fishcake. Or, there was the guy with donuts that wouldn’t leave until they were all sold, there was sickeningly sweet dough stuck in your teeth, and everyone’s clothes smelt like the vendor’s. Its like a lucky draw, so bring some small money and play.

Of course, the safest and best option is to pack yourself a meal or two. In Thailand, you’re never far from a 7-Eleven, a fruit cart, or a hot wok standing ready to char something tasty. Use them.

Thailand has the world’s highest concentration of 7-Elevens

5. Invest in the more expensive tickets

When in 1999 the Wall Street Journal asked global luminaries what the greatest invention of the 20th Century was, there was many a raised eyebrow when Lee Kuan Yew — the late founder of modern Singapore — confidently offered “the air-conditioner”. But on a hot-season day, with the train kicking up dust through the floor panels, the sun angling onto your exposed arm, the plasticky seat sticking to your exposed legs, your window not opening properly, and the fan not swiveling fast enough back to you, I would definitely pick air-conditioning over, say, penicillin.

A train ticket of any class does not cost a king’s ransom in Thailand. So if AC is available, its a no-brainer. Invest!

6. Finally, pack well

Regardless of the train, these items can greatly improve morale on your SRT journey:

  • Long long pants with a light and breathy material. If you’re on the window seat, a hat, shades, and long sleeve shirt for the sun is prudent too. If its hot season, and you’re in a non-airconditioned compartment, your white fabrics may become beige.
  • Hand sanitiser and some tissues for the toilet. But I recommend you have a good go of it somewhere clean and stationery before heading to the station.
  • Some meals, water, and snacks. Bring some small change to make some purchases in the train too, if the option is there.
  • Of course, a fully charged mobile device with the Window Seater app, and with your Window Seater Trip downloaded. (Note: Some carriages how power sockets located in the forward bulkhead).
~ For the travellers ~