Tag Archives: train travel

Overnight train: Bangkok – Surat Thani

Last April, just after Songkran, we took a night train to the south of Thailand. It wasn’t our first overnight train and definitely not the last – we love trains! So we want to share this with those who are planning their Thai train trips.

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The best option is to book seats on a 2nd class sleeper train (fan) at Hua Lamphong train station, roughly two weeks ahead of your trip. South of Thailand has many popular destinations, so tickets do sell out. This time the lady at the counter offered me a joint ticket consisting of a train to Surat Thani and bus service to Krabi, and back. I agreed, but was later disappointed as upon our return from Krabi the transfer service had some organisational issues, as the bus company wasn’t informed that they had to transfer us from Surat Thani bus station to the train station. So next time we will just book the joint ticket one-way, as it’s generally organised, and it costs roughly the same as it would if you did all the legs on your own (which is more fun and adventurous if you have time).

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We go to the station with at least an hour to spare. We’re kind of cautious now as I’ve seen public transport leave slightly ahead of schedule. Nobody would be bothered if the train left a bit early, so keep that in mind. Both at the station and inside the train felt like there was some government campaign going on – there were yellow posters reading ‘NO ALCOHOL ON THE TRAIN’. You can find videos on Youtube of young westerners partying on a night train and drinking excessively, but that’s history now.

I suppose once you close your curtain for the night you could have a sneaky beer or something, but you can only fit two people comfortably in the sleeper seat, plus there are train guards patrolling throughout the night. Actually I thought of booking just a lower bunk-bed because Auste and I both fit in that one bed alright, including our two 30+ litre Ospreys! And we’re not even that skinny. Well, sort of. But I just can’t picture myself trying to explain this sort of arrangement to the ticket officer. Well, even with two tickets, we both sleep in that one bed anyway. In general, the train is very organised, and they have shower cabins, squat toilets (with toilet paper!), sinks, bins, and some trains even have women-only carriages as there have been some accidents in the past.

The tickets cost us 500 for the upper bed and 550 for the lower bed. That is for the fan carriage, not air-con. We have travelled in air-con trains before and they turn too damn cold, where the blanket which they provide isn’t enough and you can’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night. The fan-carriages are really warm, and the fans are actually useless apart from their monotonous hypnotising noise that they make. A few hours into the ride though you get a nice breeze through the window.

The lower bed is more expensive because you can open the window for some air, but it does let a few mosquitos in. You’re still actually sweating for the first half of the night, because the train is extremely slow and keeps stopping every two minutes to give way to faster trains. Those, by the way, scare the hell out of me even when I’m sleeping, as they fly-by at the speed of light and it feels as if it’s going to hit the old rusty sleeper. Half-way through the journey it gets cooler and you need to use the blanket.

The upper bed has no window, you can smell the fumes, and you see the light all night, and you are closer to the noisy fan, and you feel more motion, and there’s less leg room – that is why we both sleep in the lower bed. It isn’t as comfortable, but it’s better than the upper bunk, at least for me. Regardless of where you sleep, in the morning your nose will be blocked and full of dark substance.

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The staff usually start making the beds almost as soon as the train starts moving at around 8 PM. They tend to be pretty frustrated and rude, but they have to make a lot of beds! You can also buy (overpriced and not really fresh clingfilm-wrapped) food from the restaurant, and staff distribute the menus throughout the train. They also come round in the morning offering coffee. It’s a shame they don’t let hawkers into 1st and 2nd class carriages, as they usually have interesting foods for sale. When we travel 3rd class, it’s different though, where hawkers jump on at one stop while the train is moving, jump off at another, just trying to sell their dishes.

I see overnight train travel as a good alternative to taking a van with a crazy driver, or flying (which works out roughly twice more expensive). I love train travel – you see good sights, save on accommodation, and it’s fun, it’s kind of romantic and has some glamour to it. Sometimes the trains can be on time, sometimes a bit late, and sometimes very late. And by very late I mean 4 hours, so don’t plan any other connections straight after the scheduled arrival time.

Our train travel inspiration comes from http://seat61.com/

Kind of up-to-date and accurate prices, routes, and times at http://thairailways.com/

Ever-exciting train travel

“Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversations.” — Elizabeth Drew.
Personally this quote makes a lot of sense: new experiences should cultivate our minds and give meaning. How much do herds of tourists learn from visiting the Eiffel Tower? I wouldn’t say we travel all that much, but we’re always on some kind of a journey – not necessarily looking for stories to tell, but to experience something new: new sights, new sounds, new smells.
It has become typical to start a trip with a certain routine, I can’t think of a different way to do so: early morning, over-air-conditioned trip to the train station, coffee, train. It’s a routine, though it never gets boring. We find spending a few moments waiting for the train to arrive so relaxing, that whenever we plan our trips we try to incorporate a train journey to our itinerary. It is also because we love the Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok – it has such an authentic feel to it. We also like train travel as we associate it with a slower lifestyle.
Auste and I had an interesting discussion recently that whatever we do in life, our actions represent our values. In other words, all that we say and do reflects our thoughts and beliefs. Consequently, whatever happens to us in life – is a reflection of those values. In terms of train travel, it kind of makes sense: organization (of train tracks), punctuality, communication, stability – all are not alien to us.
Train travel isn’t just jumping from A to B. It’s a time-tested way of travel that has been around for centuries. It allows flexibility to be productive, as many cannot sleep, read, or eat on other modes of transport. Train travel is almost a world of its own, which echoes an experience most of us are familiar with: a certain leg of the journey has to be spent collectively before each individual parts their own way, whether it’s school, relationships, or work.
Taking a train to places with names we can’t pronounce also adds extra security of not ending up in a completely unexpected setting – there’s just one track!

Travel in general adds a level of excitement to certain things that are generally mundane. For example, packing. Putting stuff inside a backpack is such a dull activity, but when you assess each item individually, you kind of place yourself in your future destination before you even travel. In addition, I find packing my half-moon shaped Osprey like a Tetris game – each item has to be rotated, bent, and squeezed a certain number of times before it fits properly!
And of course coffee. Sitting in our favourite spot, people watching, and adding finishing touches to our trip plans. It’s like a ritual. Even if the weather’s bad, or the actual trip turns out to be less than great – we will have done at least one thing we enjoy!
Obviously it’s impossible to experience every walk of life, but at least travelling slowly, overnight, on 3rd class trains, and so on, has helped broaden our horizons so to speak. We have met interesting people, observed locals and strangers and had chances to peek at their ways of life, which have also influenced ours.
Everyone knows that we need balance in life, but we also need balance in our travels – too much and it loses meaning, too little and we struggle to settle our minds each day. I see our own little routine as a tool to keep that balance when we get out to see the world.