Although flying certainly is faster, train travel in Thailand is usually an enjoyable experience to be remembered. Clacking along on aging tracks across the countryside is peaceful and scenic, and it allows to travel like the locals do. You may end up meeting friendly people who make the trip even more special.
Technically, flying between Bangkok and Chiang Mai barely costs more than going by train — assuming the budget airlines don't stack fees on top of the original fare. But traveling by train in Thailand allows you to see the countryside. If you're lucky enough to get one of the open-air, fan-only cars, you'll get to smell it, too!
Traveling by Train in Thailand
While scenic and more comfortable, trains are the slowest form of transportation in Thailand. Going by train is even slower than the long-haul buses, but it arguably safer and more interesting. Unlike when traveling on the buses, you will be able to walk around, stretch your legs, and can access a toilet. Train travel in Thailand is more scenic and allows you to avoid heavy traffic and bad roads.
If traveling overnight, you’ll arrive much more refreshed after a night on a sleeper train instead of an overnight bus. Statistically, Thailand has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world; bus accidents are common. Although delays and even occasional breakdowns happen, train travel is still safer than traveling by bus.
Booking a Train Ticket
As with other forms of transportation, you have two options for getting your train ticket: purchase it through a travel agent (there are many in the tourist areas) or take transportation to the train station and purchase your own ticket.
Travel offices add on a booking fee, but the extra charge may not be significantly more than getting transportation to and from the train station to purchase a ticket. Agents often make a bigger commission for booking tourist buses. Some will even try to talk you out of taking the train altogether — doing so saves them the time of going to get your ticket. Check with another office if you are told that the train is full.
You can check timetables and ticket fares on the official State Railway of Thailand website, however, you'll need to book tickets through a third-party agent (a partner is usually linked on the website).
Which Seat Class to Book
The rail fleet in Thailand is highly diversified; three different classes of both older and newer cars are on the rails at any given time. A few cars purchased from Japan and China have also been added to the mix. There is a luck-of-the-draw element involved, leading to some confusion. You may tell someone about the air conditioning freezing you all night only to find out their train had open windows and mosquito problems.
Note: Smoking is officially prohibited on all trains in Thailand, although passengers often sneak cigarettes while standing between the linked cars.
First-class cars are available on air-conditioned, overnight trains only. Aside from some of the repurposed Japanese cars with single-occupancy berths, compartments hold two people and come with a small sink. Solo travelers have to share the close quarters with someone of the same sex unless they're willing to purchase tickets for both berths in the compartment.
As in second class, the sleeping bunks in first class are converted by an attendant to seats during the day.
Second class is the most economical option for comfortable train travel in Thailand. Second-class tickets for overnight trains tend to sell out first; book a few days early if this is your preferred class.
Second-class trains have sitting and sleeping cars. Some cars are air-conditioned and sealed up, while others are fan only. The older, fan-only cars aren't as nice as the air-conditioned ones, however, they do have a large window that lowers to let in sights and smells from the countryside!
Third-class trains only offer hard seats; most are padded but there are still some older cars with wooden seats. Even still, third class is comfortable enough for daytime journeys and as a very economical way to cover short-to-medium length distances. Traveling in third class is fine for the short journey between Bangkok and Ayutthaya.
The Sleeper Trains in Thailand
For travelers who prefer to go overland, the sleeper trains in Thailand are a memorable option. Unlike when traveling by day, you won’t forfeit time to transportation for moving to different parts of the country. Instead, you’ll save the cost of a night of accommodation and wake at your next destination — bonus!
When purchasing your ticket, you’ll be asked if you prefer upper or lower bunk. The upper bunks are discounted slightly and offer a little more privacy due to being off of ground level. They are also slightly shorter than the bottom bunks. Tall people won’t be able to stretch out fully in either top or bottom, however, the upper berth has even less legroom. All have a privacy curtain to pull and come with clean bedding.
Early-morning stops aren’t announced. In fact, no stops are announced. Somehow, people just know when to get off. Err on the safe side by ensuring your attendant knows your final destination. They're remarkably prudent at keeping it all straight and can wake you — hopefully. Just in case, be packed and ready to get off the train in a hurry just in case.
Attendants will come through early in the morning to begin converting bunks back into seats, so you should have ample warning for when your stop is coming.
Although theft on sleeper trains certainly isn’t as bad an issue as on the overnight buses in Thailand, you should still avoid falling asleep with a smartphone in your lap. Don't leave your phone on the seat when walking around.
Food and Drinks on Trains
Uniformed train attendants will probably ask you more than once to order food and drinks. Alcohol sales have been banned on Thai trains since 2014, however, you can still get other food and drinks. Unless your options are low, train food is overpriced compared to the inexpensive-and-delicious standard in Thailand.
The dining cars at the back of the train are an option for socializing, although they are less rambunctious now that beer sales are no more.
Do as locals usually do: Prepare for a long journey by purchasing your own snacks and bottled water before you board the train.
Tips for Better Enjoying Train Travel in Thailand
- If your dates or preference of car class aren't flexible, book several days in advance. Tickets for weekends and holidays fill up weeks in advance for second class.
- Cars that are sealed and air conditioned can get very chilly. Keep a fleece or blanket handy to use.
- Smoking is prohibited everywhere on trains in Thailand, although some passengers do so covertly in the spaces between the cars.
- You will often meet the most people in second-class cars.