There are many ways to get around Thailand, but one of the most adventurous has to be the train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
If you are visiting Northern Thailand, you will most likely either start or end your journey back in Bangkok.
You could catch a flight, which is by far the quickest way to travel, but is also usually more expensive.
You could catch an overnight bus, which would take the longest but is also the cheapest.
OR you could catch the overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which lands somewhere in the middle on both the time and cost factors.
I have now caught the train between these two cities three times, and each experience was different to the others.
So, is train travel a good idea? Keep reading to hear my experiences.
On my first trip, I bought one of the cheapest tickets for the train at the station in Bangkok. Third Class.
I was travelling with a couple of friends and one of them convinced us that we would buy some beer and make a night of it.
In third class, there are no beds.
The three of us were spread between two hard benches, facing each other and I knew that there was no way I was going to be getting any sleep.
So we started drinking the beer that we had brought with us and soon we were making trips to the bar carriage to buy more.
I have to note here that this was back in 2013. These days, you are not allowed to drink alcohol on the train.
We soon realised that our plan of drinking the night away and sleeping once we’d reached our accommodation in Chiang Mai had been foiled.
Once the beds had been made up in the second and first class carriages, the bar carriage closed (this was around 8pm).
We drank what we had with us and I soon began to feel fuzzy-headed and VERY tired.
Let me tell you, trying to curl up on one side of a hard bench is difficult, uncomfortable and extremely frustrating!
I somehow managed to get a small amount of sleep before waking up and rejoining the conversation with my friends.
It was a very long journey!
Eventually, we pulled into the station at Chiang Mai and went to find our accommodation and slept the day away.
My advice from this experience would be that if you want to get any sleep at all, spend the little extra and book yourself a bed in second class.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
For my other journeys between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, in 2018, I learned my lesson from five years earlier and bought a second class ticket.
But, despite the fact that they were both in the same class, my next two trips were still very different to each other.
This time I was travelling with Theo, and we went to Bangkok station to buy two berths in second class.
Our seats were facing each other and were very spacious and comfortable with a small table between us. A far cry from the hard benches of third class.
Around 8pm the train staff came around to make up the beds.
I had the lower berth and our two seats were transformed into a bed in no time, while Theo’s top berth was pulled down from the ceiling.
As 8pm was a bit early for us to be tired enough to go to bed, we both squeezed into my little bed to watch a movie we’d downloaded on Netflix.
Then Theo climbed up to his bunk, leaving me to stretch out and get comfortable.
The bed was a good size for me with a curtain pulled across for privacy.
I always sleep with a blindfold anyway, but if you don’t then I’d definitely recommend you get one for the trip as the bright overhead lights in the carriage stay on all night!
The train seemed very new and there wasn’t much sound from outside.
I actually managed to sleep quite well!
The staff come round again quite early in the morning to change the bunks back to seats.
This means that you’ll be up early and watching the views around you as you pull into the station.
The area around Chiang Mai is gorgeous and you’ll be seeing it as the sun rises and lights up the surrounding mountains.
Chiang Mai to Bangkok
On our return journey to Bangkok, we took the same approach in buying our tickets and headed to the train station in Chiang Mai.
At the ticket office, we asked for a second class ticket on the overnight train to Bangkok for that evening and were given a price much lower than what we had paid before.
Confused, we double checked that this was correct and were assured that it was.
When the time came to board the train, we soon realised why we had paid a lot less for these tickets.
This train was much older than the one we had taken on our outbound journey.
We took our seats, which were located right by the door leading to the toilet between the carriages.
Convenient? Maybe. But as the train departed and people started coming in and out through that door, the stench from the toilet started creeping in and assaulting our senses.
I’m sure you can imagine how quickly a squat toilet on a train can become extremely messy!
Of course, the door separating us from the toilet area was not one of the nice, whooshing, button operated doors that we’d experienced on our previous journey.
This one had a handle and required people to actually close it behind them, which of course nobody did.
I have to say I became pretty frustrated at the number of times I had to close that door.
Despite this, we decided to make the best of the situation.
On this train, you could actually open the windows, so we sat there enjoying the breeze and the views of rural Thailand speeding by.
When the staff came to set up the beds, they were comfortable enough and we tried not to compare them to the other train.
It was harder to sleep this time, as the thin, rattly windows didn’t shut out the noise of train running on the tracks.
However, we did both manage to get some sleep and soon we were looking out at the suburbs of Bangkok.
I’ve never had enough money to justify splashing out on a first class ticket on these trains. But if you do, I would recommend doing so.
In first class you get a cabin! Although if you’re travelling alone you’ll still likely be sharing with a stranger.
I can imagine you’d have a much more comfortable, quiet and undisturbed sleep.
Which ticket to buy?
After reading those stories, you’re probably wondering how you can ensure you have the best journey.
There are different train services that run at different times, and your level of comfort depends on this.
Our comfortable trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was on the number 9 train.
Number 9 is a Special Express train service which leaves Bangkok at 18:10 and arrives in Chiang Mai at 07:15.
Our less comfortable trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was on the number 52 train.
Number 52 is an Express train service which leaves Chiang Mai at 15:30 and arrives in Bangkok at 05:25.
We bought our tickets from Chiang Mai station for around THB820 each, or you can buy them online with 12Go Asia for around THB1070.
If you want to save some money, I would still recommend the Number 52 train. Just try to request a seat away from the toilet door!
It is still a fairly comfortable journey through a beautiful landscape. And if we hadn’t already experienced the Number 9 train, we probably wouldn’t have complained about it at all!
When & where to buy tickets
It is generally cheaper to buy your tickets at the station; however, I would recommend trying to get there a few days in advance to ensure you get a spot.
We were lucky in buying our tickets on the day because we were travelling in the low season.
Alternatively, you can use the website I mentioned earlier: 12Go Asia.
This is a reliable website for booking train tickets in advance if you can’t get to the station beforehand.
You’ll get an e-ticket, but there are also offices at the stations where you can get a physical copy. Just in case.
You do have to pay a little bit extra to book online, but sometimes it’s worth it for the security of getting it done early.
When you reach your destination you’ll be bombarded with transport options! Take a moment before you leave the station to work out where you need to go and how you want to get there.
Tuk-tuks and taxis (and songthaews in Chiang Mai) will be waiting at the stations when each train arrives. The crowd of drivers fighting for your attention can be a little intimidating.
Knowing which option you want to take in advance will help.
Overall, I loved my experiences on Thai trains for a number of different reasons, and I would definitely recommend them.
Being able to gaze out at parts of Thailand that most tourists wouldn’t otherwise see is a treat in itself!
And the experience of being rocked to sleep on the train is not to be missed.
Have you taken a train in Thailand, overnight or otherwise? Is this a journey that’s on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Chiang Mai to Pai: a stunning scooter road trip
- Angkor Wat: why you should ditch the tuk-tuk tour
- 6 useful tips for scooter rental in Asia
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