Thailand’s national rail network might not have the world’s best reputation for speed or efficiency, but for us there are still few better ways to travel than by train. It’s romantic, the views are stunning, and most journeys are ridiculously cheap. Perhaps best of all, many train rides are graced with plenty of vendors selling delicious and inexpensive Thai food. Whether for a day trip or a longer break, the next time you decide to take a journey from the capital, opt for the slow life and take the train. Here’s where we would head, given half the chance.
Synonymous with railway journeys thanks to the stunningly atmospheric, colonial-style red-and-white teakwood station constructed in the 1920s, Hua Hin makes for the perfect railway escape from Bangkok. The train station is an attraction in its own right, even for those arriving at the seaside resort by car, minivan or bus, while the town of Hua Hin itself has white-sand beaches, vintage-style coffee shops and a popular night market with plenty of very decent and inexpensive food. Khao Takiab mountain is also a popular option, at the southern end of Hua Hin beach, for the impressive views it offers of the town and beyond.
Coming from Bangkok, take the 09.20 ordinary train (third class only; 44 baht, or free for Thai nationals) that is scheduled to arrive into Hua Hin at 11.43; the 13.00 rapid train is another option, due to arrive at 15.25 and at 55 baht for third class or 87 baht for second class. Convenient services on the way back are the 14.10 ordinary train, arriving into Bangkok at 19.00 (third class only; 44 baht, or free for Thai nationals) or the faster but more expensive and less atmospheric special express train, leaving Hua Hin at 16.01 and arriving into the capital at 19.45, at a cost of 412 baht for a second-class, air-conditioned seat. If you have the time, you can also catch the short but scenic branch line train down to Suan Soan Pradipat, a pine-tree-lined beach set inside a military recreation base 12km from Hua Hin itself; trains leave Hua Hin at 11.47 and 17.50, take around ten minutes and cost 4 baht for second class or 2 baht for third class (third class is free for Thai nationals). Better yet, get back on the mainline train from Hua Hin and continue to Prachuap Kiri Khan around an hour further south – not only are Prachuap town and its three bays quiet, laid back and utterly stunning, but there’s fantastic seafood to be had locally, and the coastal views on the way down past Sam Roi Yot national park are simply incredible.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern capital, something like a greener, less frenetic and much, much smaller Bangkok. There’s plenty to do there, and there are few more atmospheric ways to arrive than by train. Both daytime and sleeper trains strike north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, taking in plenty of stunning upcountry scenery and giving you opportunities to stop off that you sacrifice when you fly. Worthwhile pitstops include Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok (for Sukhothai), and Lampang. That’s not to say that taking the train is for the time-starved; most journeys take 12 or more hours. That said, it’s a journey you can do in style – supping authentic Thai food at a dirt-cheap slap-up meal in the restaurant car, or just kicking back in your bunk bed.
The only true day train that plies the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route leaves the capital at 08.30, arriving at 19.30; it’s a small, second-class only, air-conditioned special express service, and costs 641 baht. The slowest of the lot is the 13.45 rapid service, arriving into Chiang Mai at 04.05 the next day; second-class fan beds cost 491 for the lower bunk and 541 for the upper, while it’s 231 and 391 baht for third and second class respectively if you want to brave a seat. Both the 18.10 and 19.35 special express services are sleeper-only, getting into Chiang Mai at 07.15 and 08.40 the next day respectively; for air-conditioned first class, expect to pay 1,253 baht for the upper bunk, 1,453 baht for the lower bunk or 1,953 baht for the whole two-bed cabin to yourself; air-conditioned second class costs 791 baht and 881 baht for the upper and lower bunks respectively. Finally, the 22.00 express departure arrives into Chiang Mai at 12.10 the following day; a third-class seat costs 271 baht, a second-class seat is 431 baht with fan or 541 baht with air-conditioning, the fan-cooled second-class sleeper carriage costs 531 baht for an upper bunk and 581 baht for the lower bunk, and the air-conditioned second-class sleeper will set you back 751 baht and 821 baht respectively for either an upper or lower bunk. Departures in the opposite direction, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, are at 06.30, 08.50, 15.30, 17.00 and 18.00.
Not one of the country’s most common rail journeys, the ride from Bangkok to southern Thailand’s Trang is nevertheless a pleasant trip, and by far the best way to arrive in the coastal town. Trang train station is centrally located, making arrival easy – and the line continues on one station further to the terminus Kantang, where the mustard-coloured wooden station is an attraction in itself and worth paying a visit. Trang itself is gateway to numerous Andaman sea islands including Koh Kradan and Koh Ngai, while on the mainland Pak Meng beach is deservedly popular, and it’s just as easy to spend time exploring the town’s Sino-Portuguese architecture and chowing down on dim sum and plentiful southern-style coffee.
Just two trains a day leave Bangkok for Trang, both in the early evening; the 17.05 express departure arrives at 08.05 the next morning, with third-class and second-class fan-cooled seats for 285 baht and 461 baht respectively; air-conditioned second-class beds cost 761 baht for the upper bunk and 831 for the lower; air-conditioned first-class bunks are 1,280 baht up top, 1,480 baht down below, or 1,980 for sole occupancy of the whole two-bed cabin. The later 18.30 rapid train arrives into Trang at 10.31, with third-class seats for 245 baht, fan-cooled second-class seats for 421 baht, fan-cooled second-class sleepers at 521 and 571 for the upper and lower bunks respectively, and air-conditioned second-class upper bunks for 721 baht and lower bunks for 791 baht. On the return leg, the rapid train leaves Trang at 13.29 and arrives at 05.35 the next morning; the express service leaves at 17.25 and arrives at 08.35.
Have you travelled by train in Thailand? Which is your favourite train journey from Bangkok?
Photos by Uwe Schwarzbach; Connie Ma; Alessandro Caproni.