Trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai; Thailand Train Tour
Posted on 12/10/2017 2:48:56
Traveling from Bangkok in central Thailand to Chiang Mai, the ancient “capital” of the north, is one of the most iconic trips you can take in Thailand, and one of the most popular ways to travel there. Train travel is still popular in Thailand, and the trains are used a lot, by both locals and tourists alike. A stark contrast to the early days of Thai tourism, when western backpackers would travel the length and breadth of the country by local bus, the train has become a faster, albeit slightly more expensive, alternative to those long, colorful bus rides. And it is way more comfortable than sitting on a bus for 2-3 days.
While the emergence of budget airlines in Asia has taken the edge of train travel, many people still prefer to see the country with their feet firmly planted on the ground. And there is no better way to see the beautiful, exotic countryside of central and northern Thailand than through the window of a nice, comfortable train. After a series of bad publicity and union strikes in 2009, the rail network has been sidelined somewhat, and modernization ideas were dropped in favor of flights. However, as a budget option for traveling the length of the country, the route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is hugely crowded in the peak season, with seats and sleeper berths on the overnight trains being booked weeks in advance.
Train travel in Thailand can be a little hit and miss, as trains tend to arrive in their own time, often up to an hour after the scheduled arrival time. This can make planning journeys a little tricky, and it is advisable to leave a good gap between connecting trains, just in case “Thai Time” applies to your train. However, being on time is probably the only low point of traveling by train in Thailand.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Traveling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is relatively easy by train, and it is a single route with no stopovers or transfers. Travelers have the choice of taking the daytime train through the exotic Thai countryside in an air-conditioned express railcar, or taking the overnight express in the comfort of a sleeper cabin, to wake up refreshed when you arrive in the morning.
The sleeper train to Chiang Mai is the most popular train for foreign travelers in Thailand, as it can save you on the hotel bill, and you get to spend more time exploring the north of the country. And, while you may not see much at night, the last 4-5 hours of the trip is as the sun rises, and the train is then heading up through the mountains as it approaches Chiang Mai. The scenery on the approach is spectacular, and even in a sleeper berth, watching the sunrise from the window of the train in the morning is wonderful. And the sleeper train in itself is a real experience, and a chance to mingle with and meet Thai people.
There are six trains that run daily from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, starting at 8:30am, with the last leaving at 10:00pm. The journey time varies between 12-15 hours, depending on the type of train you ride and the number of stops. Costs can vary from as little as 300THB for a 3rd-class upright seat to around 1,700THB for a first-class sleeper berth, with a wide variety of classes and prices in between.
The train leaves from the Bangkok railway station, informally known as Hua Lamphong Station, which is situated in the center of the city, in Pathum Wan District. The official name is Sathani Rotfai Krung Thep, although most maps and guide books refer to it as Hua Lamphong. The train takes the Northern Line, with Chiang Mai as the terminal station for the line. At 751 kilometers long (467 miles), it is the second longest railway in Thailand. It incorporates 132 stations and halts along its length, and for some villages in remote locations, the train is the only road in or out.
Whether you travel by day or by night, there are literally hundreds of sights to see as the train makes its journey almost due north to Chiang Mai, you can stop at any number of places along the way to see the sights, the most popular being Ayutthaya (Thailand’s former capital), Lopburi, and Phitsanulok. From Phitsanulok, travelers can get a bus connection to the nearby ruins and temples at Sukhothai, before returning to the train for the last leg to Chiang Mai.
The main highlight of the train ride to Chiang Mai is the spectacular scenery. If you are traveling during the day, then spend as much time as you can by the window, or even in the dining car, which normally has the best views and biggest windows. For those traveling overnight, try to wake up early to watch the sunrise over the dense, northern jungle. As the sun lifts up over the forested mountains, the sight is completely breathtaking, and one that is worth waking early to photograph. The restaurant car windows are normally open in the morning, and make the best place to get great photos. However, it is often quite cold in the early morning, so have a sweater to hand.
Train Ticket Types
The train to Chiang Mai has several different types of carriages, as well as different types of tickets for each, and the choice is yours, depending on how much you want to spend, and how comfortable you want to be. Majority of the foreign travelers who use the line tend to go for the second-class trains, mostly without air-con, so they can hang out of the windows and take photos, and watch the beautiful Thai scenery as the train sweeps through dense jungles and over plunging ravines.
1st Class (Sleepers Only)
First-class sleeper cabins only exist on overnight trains as sleeping compartments, and are normally for two people, so you can find yourself sharing with someone you do not know, unless you pay for single occupancy, which is an extra 500THB. However, a few of the trains that run this line are ex-Japanese sleeper carriages, which have single berth compartments, so sole occupancy charge is already included.
First-class cabins are air-conditioned, lockable compartments with a washbasin, and clean sheets, blankets, soap and towels are provided. At each end of the carriage is a western-style toilet, and a shower, although only the new, Chinese-built cars have hot water, others are just warm. Sharing with another passenger will only be with people of the same gender unless single-occupancy is paid for. If you are in a large group, you can book adjacent cabins, as each pair of compartments has a lockable adjoining door. Meals can also be ordered to eat in the compartment, and a stewardess will come to the car to take your order if you require it, though it is more fun to eat in the dining car.
2nd Class Sleepers (Air-conditioned and Non-air-conditioned)
Second-class sleepers do not have compartments, and are arranged in upper and lower pairs either side of the central aisle. During daytime travel, the seats are arranged in facing pairs, which at night are pulled together to make the lower berth, while the upper berth folds down from the wall of the carriage. Clean bedding is used by the attendants to make up the berths for sleeping, and curtains are hung for a little privacy. Lower bunks are wider than the upper bunks, and are normally around 50-60THB more expensive. 2nd-class with no air-con is also a lot cheaper than with, and if you are sleeping overnight, is a good saving, as nights can be cooler as you get further north, and the windows open for better viewing.
A few of the carriages on trains 51 and 52 are also of Japanese origin, and the layout of the sleeper berths is in doorless compartments of four beds, with individual curtains on each. All sleeper berths are normally made up by the train staff by 8:00pm, and bedding is removed in the morning before reaching Chiang Mai. Second-class cars have both western and squat toilets at either end, though there is no shower. Soap and toilet paper is provided in all cars.
Non-air-conditioned sleepers in second class are of the same type as the normal air-con sleepers, and are just a little older, and often a bit less well maintained. Fares are a fraction of the cost of air-conditioned cars, and are ideal if you prefer opening a window to air-con. There are built-in ceiling fans, and the windows have shutters as well as glass, to keep out the hot sun.
2nd Class Seats (Air-conditioned or Fan)
The air-conditioned, Special Express diesel railcars (DRCs) are the best option for those traveling the route during the daytime, and the air-conditioned cars have comfortable reclining seats, with arm-rests and tray tables. A hostess trolley provides light meals, coffee, and soft drinks, which are included in the fare, although the meal is not substantial, so taking other food with you is advisable.
Second-class seating on the normal express trains is almost as comfortable, and is a pleasant way to travel, though they are slower than the DRCs. There are both air-conditioned and non-air-con varieties, and the advantage of the non-air-con is the opening windows, unrestricted views, and the pleasant breeze as the train rolls through the Thai countryside.
3rd Class Seats
On ordinary express and local trains you can ride on a third-class seat, which is a great, cheap option for shorter trips. The seats are normally padded, so if you are after the cheapest way to get to Chiang Mai, then this is definitely for you. However, there is no air-con, although the windows do open as on all non-air-con carriages, and there are still a few trains to Chiang Mai that have hard seats in third-class. These are best avoided at all costs.
Tickets for the first and second-class sleepers and second-class seats can be booked and paid for online, although it is often easier and quicker to book your tickets at the train station in Bangkok. During the busy season, from November to February, tickets should be booked at least a couple of days in advance, as trains can sell out fast on this popular route. At other times, tickets can be bought on arrival at the station, and you can usually get a seat on most trains with just an hour or two to wait and prepare.
Trains in Thailand have ample room for luggage, and it can be kept close to you, or nearby, although locks are recommended. While majority of the long-distance trains are relatively crime-free, there have been instances of theft of luggage on the trains. If you have valuables such as laptops, tablets, cellphones, and documents, keep them with you in hand luggage, especially in second-class trains as luggage storage is mostly at either end of each car.