Having moved past the jet lag and the realisation that yes, we had actually made it out of the UK, we wanted to get out of Bangkok and start exploring more of the country. We debated heading down to the islands and beaches in the south, but instead decided to head north first, with the largest city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, our first stop.
There were 3 obvious options for how to travel the ~700km up to Chiang Mai – plane, train or bus.
Bus was discounted fairly quickly. It’s cheaper than the others but didn’t sound particularly enjoyable at around 10 hours long. Having done a few very long (20 hour+) bus journeys in Argentina a few years back, I didn’t need the ‘experience’ and frankly the other options sounded better.
Flying isn’t too expensive – about US$60 pp when we looked 2 days before the flight – and is by far the quickest at around an hour, but between the add ons we were going to be charged (which made Ryan Air’s pricing look fantastically transparent) and the timings of the flights, we decided it would be best to take the train and see a bit of the country on the way through.
We’d previously heard of a sleeper train that does the trip overnight – saving a nights accommodation and transporting us while we slept. Digging deeper, it turned out the carriages are all relatively new as long as you get the number 9 train leaving Bangkok at 1830, otherwise there is a much older version that isn’t as comfortable & takes a bit longer.
Having booked the number 9 the day before, we arrived at Bangkok station at about 1730 with a couple of bags of snacks and drinks from the 7Eleven over the road and waited in the waiting area, entertained on the big screen by what appeared to be the USA version of Grand Designs (the presenter even had the same mannerisms as Kevin McCloud), all dubbed into Thai which made for some interesting dialogue!
As more and more tourists who were clearly doing the same as us arrived, we went over to the platform to see if the train was there already. It was, so we hopped on board to check out the set up that we’d have for the next 13 hours.
When we boarded we were pleasantly surprised. It looked surprisingly spacious, had very strong air conditioning and was very clean.
We sat down and set ourselves up – our big backpacks fit nicely under the seats, there was a little table between us on which to put snacks/drinks etc and there was even a plug socket per person. I had a little walk up the carriages and found that there was a dining cart, a few toilets (airplane style and a lot less gross than expected!) and a load of standard 2nd class carriages the same as ours. I didn’t make it to the 1st class carriage which has hidden away pods for sleeping in, but I hear that it’s not worth paying the extra for it.
At 1830 on the dot, the doors were closed & the train started to move. It was a mix of tourists & locals, with the tourists clearly keen to watch the world go by & the locals keen to go immediately to bed. The bunks themselves were nicely arranged, with the attendants (who appeared to be 1 per carriage) whizzing along & unlocking them about an hour after we set off. Each bunk had it’s own clean sheets, pillow and blanket as well as having a built in curtain for privacy & to help block the extremely bright light that we would later discover remains on full power throughout the night.
Picking the right ticket was important! You can have either a lower bunk for around 1100 Baht or an upper bunk for around 900 baht. Not a huge difference (£5 or so), but the bottom bunk was by far the better choice. If you were on the top bunk, you were very quickly (before we’d escaped Bangkok’s sprawling suburbs) consigned to your bunk – which was smaller than the lower bunks, less practical – as you were further away from everything with a tiny ladder your only access – and more importantly had no window, preventing you from seeing anything! The locals probably didn’t mind too much, but for the tourists, this took a load of value out of the journey, so I’d strongly recommend spending the extra money & getting the better bunk.
We had bought an upper & a lower so we could be next to each other, which fortunately meant we were able to both sit on the lower bunk & watch the world go by as we munched on our store-bought snacks & watched the world go by. Another couple nearby both had upper bunks which looked less pleasant, so we were happy with the choice we’d made.
Before long (by about 9pm) it had gone dark outside and so Claire, who had drawn the short straw due to her lack of height, went up to her bed & we settled in for the night. I was expecting the beds to be very small, and while they weren’t designed for tall westerners, they were surprisingly spacious. I couldn’t lie down full-length but wasn’t far off & the mattresses weren’t too bad overall. I didn’t manage to get too much sleep, but did manage a few hours which was more than i had really expected to. If the lights had been at least dimmed it would have helped, but again those in the too bunk felt the worst of this. I think it was due to the passengers joining us from the stops (10 or so) through the night that the lights stayed on.
A few hours later, the sun rose & it became noisier and harder to sleep, so i opened the curtain by my window & watched the jungle go by. This was the reason we had taken the train in the first place & was a pleasure to see after the concrete & cityscapes that Bangkok had to offer.
Before long i had a visitor from upstairs & so we had our breakfast of “Chocolate & Raisin Loaf” while watching the hills and trees go by, wondering how complicated it had been to build this railway line in the first place. Some of the views we came across were absolutely beautiful (including a golf course built in the middle of absolutely nowhere!) and made the journey very much worthwhile – i’d recommend it to anyone else moving between Bangkok & Chiang Mai for sure.
All in all it was pretty pleasant and i imagine we’ll encounter significantly different conditions when we make it to the trains in India! Next time we’d try to get 2 bottom bunks opposite each other rather than a top & a bottom, but the beds were big enough for us both to squeeze onto one when we wanted to look out so no real issues there. It was timely, clean, relatively cheap & generally a good experience. If we’d have been shorter on time then flying would have made sense, but we weren’t so i’m glad we took this option & were able to see a bit more of the countryside than we otherwise would have done.
At around 7am the next morning we arrived in Chiang Mai & we excitedly hopped off the train to make our way into the city!