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Here's rough guide of what to expect regarding the various forms of Thailand train travel. With many thanks to Mike at Myanmar Mike.
State Railways of Thailand are effortlessly the greatest way to get
around and see the country. Train travel in Thailand is comfy, safe,
cheap, environmentally friendly, and unlike flying, its a authentic
Thai experience that makes the journeys as much part of your trip as
Most trains use Bangkoks main Hualamphong station in the city centre, although trains to Kanchanaburi leave from Bangkok Thonburi station (also known as Bangkok Noi) across the river in the West of the city. Though, to relieve overcrowding, State Railways of Thailand aim to move long-distance services out to a new terminal at Bang Sue junction station, 7km North of Hualamphong station, and at some point all long-distance trains will start from there instead of Hualamphong. Suburban and short-distance trains will go on to run from Hualamphong, connecting it to Bang Sue. The new Bangkok metro also links Bang Sue to the rest of Bangkok. For a metro map, see www.bangkokmetro.co.th. Please double-check which station your train will leave from when you get to Bangkok.
Trains sandwiched between Bangkok and Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Nong Khai (for Vientiane in Laos) call at Don Muang station, right subsequently to the (old) Bangkok Airport, about 50 minutes (22 km) from middle Bangkok. This can be practical if you are inward by air and want to head straight off to Northern Thailand or Laos without leaving into central Bangkok.
Thai trains have three classes: 1st, 2nd and 3rd. 1st class only exists as modern air-conditioned sleeping-cars on overnight trains. 2nd class comes in seat and sleeper versions, in air-conditioned and non-air-con varieties, and is very comfortable especially on sleeper trains and the air-conditioned express railcars. Even 3rd class is surprisingly clean and acceptable by European standards, and is a pleasant way to travel for many shorter trips.
1st class sleeping-cars are up to date and air-conditioned, with lockable 2-berth compartments with washbasin. Clean bedding, soap and towels are provided. The toilet at the end of the car even has a shower (cold water, but very welcome). Passengers travelling solo split with another rail user of the same sex unless they to pay for single tenancy. The berths transfer to a sofa for late afternoon and daybreak use. A very good choice if you want space and privacy, although 2nd class sleepers are perfectly adequate for most people.
Most westerners are pretty
happy using 2nd class sleepers, which are comfortable, safe,
and great fun. Berths are not in compartments, but are arranged
open plan along the coach wall either side of a central aisle.
At night, each pair of seats pulls together to form the bottom
bunk and an upper bunk folds out from the wall. The attendant
will make up your bunk with a proper mattress and fresh clean
bedding, and will clasp up the curtains which are provided for
each bunk to give you space to yourself. 2nd class sleepers
come in both air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned selections.
The price for an upper berth is a fraction cheaper, but the upper bunks tend to be narrower. Theres a lot of luggage room, take a bike lock if you want to chain up your luggage for peace of mind.
The express railcar is an excellent option for daytime travel on routes such as Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Bangkok to Hua Hin & Surat Thani. These modern air-conditioned railcars have comfortable 2nd class reclining seats. Unwind and get pleasure from the scenery.
A pleasant and comfortable way to travel for long-distance daytime journeys, although slower than the express railcars. There are both air-conditioned and non-air-con varieties. The benefit of the non-air-con coaches is the open windows and unhindered views.
In spite of its name, 3rd class is a perfectly good option for backpackers. Not usually crowded outside the commuter peaks, unbelievably cheap, and sitting next to an open window as the train clickety-clacks through the countryside is a very pleasant experience. However, 2nd class would be better for long trips such as Bangkok to Nong Khai or Chiang Mai. 3rd class may have wooden or padded seats, is normally non-air-con, but air-con 3rd class exists on a few long distance routes.
Its easy to make reservations yourself
at the station, when you get to Thailand. Reservations are mechanized,
and the booking office at any main station can preserve seats or berths
for any voyage in Thailand. Your ticket will have the train time and
your seat or berth number written on it. In Bangkok, Hualamphong Station
has a well-ordered reservation office, open daily 08:00-16:00. From
the main doorway, walk towards the platforms, and the reservation office
is tucked away on the extreme right, more or less level with the entrance
to the platforms. Theres a queuing system: When you enter, take a numbered
ticket from the appliance and wait until your number appears on the
display, directing you to a particular reservation counter. The staff
is friendly and helpful.
Even though its easy to book at the station, if you want to travel at peak Thai holiday periods or absolutely have to be on a exacting train soon after arrival in Thailand, you may perhaps want to book in advance. You can do this by email with the State Railways of Thailand or via a travel agency. To book with the State Railways of Thailand, email them at least 15 days before your date of travel on firstname.lastname@example.org or fax + 66 2 225 6068. Your fax or e-mail must include the journey, date, train number, departure time, class, seat or sleeper (upper or lower berth), number of passengers, your name and e-mail address, and whether you want to collect your tickets at Bangkok Airport station (Don Muang) or Bangkok Hualamphong station in the city centre. You will obtain an e-mail confirmation and you then collect a ticket and pay at the station booking office at least one hour before departure. Bookings open 30 days before departure, but email bookings are only accepted more than 15 days before departure to give them time to respond. The Thai railways charge 200 Baht (3 or $5) per email booking.
People repeatedly ask, how tricky is it to get a reservation if I go to the station on the departure date? Generally, its not too complicated to find seats or berths obtainable if you order on the day of travel or perhaps the day before, but Thai trains do get fully booked from time to time, particularly at peak holiday periods. Mind that if its important for you to be on a specific train in a specific class on a specific date, then book in advance and if necessary pay the small agency fee. To catch a feel for how quickly Thai trains get booked up, try going to www.railway.co.th and checking seat availability - this seat availability check worked lately, though it has been out of action for a while. If its running (and present reports now hint that the Thai version is functioning, and producing results in English), it will ask you to enter a date. Try entering tomorrows or the day afters date. It will tell you how many seats or berths are still available on precise trains on the particular date.
It is still primitive, but from early 2009 you can buy tickets online at www.thairailwayticket.com. The system is in conjunction with Prida Pramote and works currently for 2nd class sleepers on a few key routes & trains, such as between Bangkok & Chiang Mai, Surat Thani or Hat Yai. (note you can also book the Bangkok-Chiang Mai daytime express railcars - and surely more routes will be added over time) once it is running successfully. Bookings open 60 days before departure, you can use this system from 60 days down to a minimum of 3 days before departure. All e-mails received report success.
Thanks again to Mike at Myanmar Mike.
Over nine million foreigners flying into Thailand each year, and this is one place you can do without being on the LP trail. In all honesty having a RG instead of a LP won't make the crowds disappear and neither guide is perfect, but the RG is the latest (by a few months) and much better than the overused LP effort that reads terribly. It strikes just the right balance and although the book still weighs in on the heavier end in a backpack, its pretty much all useful especially if exploring all this great country has to offer - which is a lot. - Published: (December, 2009)
"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever"