A Brief Guide to Taking the Train in Thailand
Thailand has a rail system that stretches the whole length of the country, with lines in all geographical directions.
And while the trains may admittedly come in for some criticism now and again for being somewhat on the slow side, they do provide a cheap and easy – not to mention authentic – means of seeing some of the country.
It’s comfortable according to the class of ticket that you select, it is definitely the cheapest method of covering any kind of distance, and it’s…Thai.
All train operations in Thailand are owned by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), and the tracks span the length of the country. The line is quite narrow and in some areas there is just a single track, which sometimes causes delays.
Bangkok is the network’s main hub, from the Hua Lamphong Station located not too far from Chinatown and the old part of the city. A few other trains operate from 2 other stations (Thonburi and Wongwian Yai), and there are plans afoot to relocate the majority of activities to a newer, more modern location in Bang Sue.
This operation will apparently be one of the biggest in SE Asia when open, and the plan is to help ease congestion, by moving long-distance services out to the new terminal. This facility is still under construction at the time of writing although it had an initial estimated opening date of December 2021.
The planned new station is at the Bang Sue junction, and this is a further 11 km north of the current hub Hua Lamphong station. Apparently all long-distance trains will start from the Bang Sue station upon its opening and the new Bangkok metro also links Bang Sue to the rest of Bangkok.
You can find a metro map here: www.bangkokmetro.co.th.
Aside from the main Hua Lamphong Bangkok Station and also the northern Chiang Mai station, many of the smaller Thai railway stations around the country are somewhat more sparse and dated than those in Europe and other parts of the world, and usually you will find them with just a roof, a ticket office and maybe an onsite restaurant or snack shop.
The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is popular with some travellers looking for an authentic or budget experience, and Ko Samui, Phuket or Krabi can also be reached from Bangkok with the addition of a ferry.
Travelling from Bangkok to Vientiane, Cambodia, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore is also possible. If you can spare the time for a trip like this you will save considerably on travel costs compared to flying. By way of example, the Singapore train takes 48 hours but costs less than $100.
Thai trains operate according to three ticket classes. First class is an option only if you are taking an overnight ‘sleeper’ train. It basically means a modern-style, air-conditioned carriage with a bed and a sink.
If you are a single traveller is a double-berth carriage, apparently you must stipulate that you don’t want to share this carriage with any other passenger (of the same gender as yourself) – otherwise you may find yourself with a new friend on your overnight trip.
The 2nd class is available on most trains and is also an option on sleepers. For some reason many travellers actually find a 2nd class sleeper more comfortable than a first class one, although you are much more likely to be sharing a carriage with other passengers in this class.
The 3rd class option is usually an OK way travel on local trains and shorter trips, unless during a particularly busy period. During these times it will be rather cramped and you also find people will also be standing in any space there is – and there is no limit to passengers.
First and second class tickets get checked before any boarding is done, whereas with the third class tickets you just jump on and fight for the best seat you can find (if you are travelling during a holiday or other busy period) before a collector comes round.
Buying tickets at the station
It’s easy enough to buy tickets at the station in Thailand, but you will need your passport in order to buy a ticket.
The long-distance express trains all require ticket reservations, and you can make them either on the day of travel if seats are still available, or up to 90 days prior to that. Tickets have the train time and the seat number printed on them.
Sleepers on the best trains can often sell out weeks ahead if there is a peak Thai holiday like New Year coming up (30 December to 3 January). Songkran is the other main one (Thai New Year, usually 11-16 April).
Booking ahead would definitely be necessary during any of these times, and the 1st class sleepers usually sell out first. Part of the reason for this is that there is actually only one 1st class sleeping carriage on the trains that have them.
Third class trains are usually more local or just make shorter runs, so you don’t need a reservation.
You can actually buy tickets online here: www.dticket.railway.co.th.
When do bookings open?
So we know that the long distance journeys open for bookings 90 days ahead of the trip. This does vary for some other journeys though.
For instance, reservations for journeys that between 25% and 60% of a long-distance train’s total journey open 30 days ahead of the trip, and bookings for journeys that represent 25% of a long distance train’s total journey will only open one day prior to the trip ahead. Confused? Probably best just to check the website for details.
Checking train times, fares, and other information
You can check train times in Thailand at the official State Railways of Thailand website, www.railway.co.th. There is an option that allows you to switch it to English by clicking the UK flag top right. You should then be able to scroll down and click Timetable & Fares.
It is always useful to know the difference between the Northern Line, which runs to Chiang Mai, the Southern Line which heads south to Surat Thani and Hat Yai, and also the line from Bangkok that leads in the direction of Kanchanaburi and the famous the River Kwai.
You can check real-time train running information online (including on your smartphone when in Thailand) at tts.railway.co.th.
The Trains in Thailand
There are various types of trains in use in Thailand. They have different speeds, different engine sizes, and number of carriages. Hence they have different prices. These are:
The Special Express Train is the fastest and the most expensive. This is usually non-stop, and has both first and second class carriages
Then there is the Diesel Railcar. Almost half of all Thai trains currently run on diesel, and this one usually has 2 or 3 second-class carriages.
Express Trains have first, second, and third class carriages but usually take quite a bit longer due to the number of stops along the designated route.
Rapid Trains are another option, and these also have second and third class carriages. These trains stop at almost every station, and they are the most common type of train likely to be encountered when it comes to shorter journeys.
Ordinary Trains are the slowest of the current crop and make the maximum number of stops out of all the different train types in Thailand.
Commuter Trains are pretty much the same as the Ordinary ones, but operate largely in urban settings.
Local Trains are also similar to Ordinary ones but run for fairly short distances only.
Luggage on Thai trains
The luggage arrangements on Thai trains are fairly straightforward. You basically take your luggage onto the train with you and find a suitable space on any luggage rack as close to your seat as is possible. Either that or it goes next to your seat, or inside your 1st class sleeper compartment if that’s how you are travelling.
It should be quite safe, although you may see some travellers who like to be extra cautious and use a bike-style lock to secure it to the closest rack at night, just to be sure. Your carry-on bag with personal belongings such as camera and passport etc. can just go in the berth alongside you at night. If you had a large suitcase it could go next to your seat on the floor.
All passengers are allowed one large suitcase and a smaller item like a bag, although this is not that strictly enforced and you won’t find anything like your bags being weighed. Baggage limits are actually set at a generous 60 Kg for 1st-class passengers, a slightly lighter 40 Kg for 2nd-class passengers, and 30 Kg all other passengers. Of course don’t be too surprised if you see blatant disregard for any such rules on occasion!