Overnight Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

It’s an impractical use of time but if all you have is time to spare (especially when you’ve been in Thailand for six months during the pandemic of 2020) I highly suggest that you take the overnight train that takes you from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

The journey takes about 13 hours and if you catch the last train (which I highly suggest) most of the passing scenery will be dark (because it’s night, duh). Grab a group of friends or hop on solo if that’s more your thing and experience one of the dying modes of transportation.

The One Where She Almost Didn’t Make It…

So when a group of friends invite you to celebrate one of their birthdays in a small Northeastern town of Thailand (where they opened a meatless grill), you say Hell Yes.

The adventurer in me decided to take a ferry from the island of Koh Phangan to the mainland of Surat Thani to catch a flight to Bangkok. Practically speaking, it would have been much easier to take the ferry to neighboring island of Koh Samui and fly directly to Chiang Mai. But, like I said, when you have time to spare, the scenic route is always my choice. It was a hilarious day of traveling, getting to Bangkok. At the ferry port, neither my friend Dee nor I had strong cell service and I stood outside waiting to catch her to give her the ticket. Five minutes to departure, Dee waved frantically at me from the top of the ferry. She had already boarded! I ran onto the boat and we had a good laugh before buying an energy drink and sitting at the portside of the boat, speaking out loud our intentions for the trip and saying goodbye to our island home. Soon, we ended up in our seats, curled up and drifting into dreamland…

That is until I heard Dee call my name.

I pulled the scarf off my head (Thai ferries seem to love their aircon) and felt confused. There was no one else on the boat. Dee and I stared at each other until it hit us: everyone had gotten off. We quickly put our shoes on, grabbed our stuff and ran off the ramp as the passengers were starting to board the ferry, cackling madly the whole way. A few minutes longer and we would’ve been on our way back from the island we had just left. It was a close call and I was extremely grateful that Dee was with me to share that experience. From there, we climbed into a minivan that took us directly to Surat Thani Airport where the rest of our friends (Jenn, Florian and Max) awaited us, having gotten to Surat Thani much earlier.

As we got there, I delivered a surprise. I managed to purchase some edibles (the fun kind, if you know what I’m talking about) and passed them out, with Dee retelling our adventurous morning. So off we were, flying from Surat Thani to Don Mueang International Airport.

The One Where Finding The Train is Impossible…

When you arrive in Bangkok, the Talatmai train station is basic and barebones, especially with it being directly across from the airport. The office where our prebooked tickets were sent were closing in an hour and we spent 30 mins of that trying to navigate the labyrinth that led from the airport to the train station, along with language barriers, misdirection and going up and down escalators at least ten times. Not to mention it was pouring heavy rain, almost to the point where the streets were flooded. The workers at the train station pointed us through a sketchy back storage room before we found the door to the office, beaming with fluorescent light. The five of us crammed into the tiny office with all our belongings and successfully got our tickets. We attempted to find food, only to realize that the airport food court was closed. Frustrated and hungry, we ended up wandering into the Amari Hotel, soaking wet and looking like grungey backpackers and stumbled into The Corner, one of the fanciest restaurants in the area. We had a good laugh at the contrast and celebrated the chaos we endured with some wine and delicious food before boarding our train…

The One Where They Board…

Finally, bellies full and slightly wine drunk, the train pulled into the station and we clambered in, excitement washing over us as we discovered our ‘seats’ for the journey. The workers serviced the seats quickly, turning them into beds, placing pillows and sheets over and dispensing a blanket wrapped in plastic (for sanitary measures) on each bed. I managed to score the top bunk (though no one was really fighting me for it) and didn’t notice that there was a ladder the entire time. After a long day of travel, we decided to get ready for bed, opting to brush our teeth together as the train swayed back and forth, clutching onto each other and the walls for balance.

As the day winded down and the scenery projected darkness through the windows, we settled into our respective beds and soon found sleep coming over us…

At daybreak, the train made one of its first stops. I like to think that I can sleep almost anywhere, so the beds were not a problem for me. If you’re not used to hurtling and the clickety clacks from the rails, I’m not sure you’ll have the same experience as I did. Otherwise, excitement and adrenaline roused me from slumber and I was one of the first ones up. I took advantage of the early morning to observe the Thai countryside whizz past my eyes through the windows, pulling down one of the seats attached to the walls and waiting for my friends to wake up. The air conditioning on the train, mixed with the cool morning air, had me wearing the most layers I had in months. The contrast between the humid island heat and the cooler mountain air was stark. Soon, my friends woke up and joined in on getting ready for the rest of our day.

Because Thailand borders were still closed, the train was operating at reduced capacity, meaning that there were more empty seats than usual. Taking advantage of this, my friends and I decided to venture from first class to third class. The difference was interesting. Instead of seats that converted to bunk beds, third class consisted of hardened benches that faced each other to fit groups of four. If you’re a budget traveler and comfort is not important to you, I can see how these seats would be suitable for a shorter journey. Thirteen hours in them would be pretty rough. To our luck, we found two empty rows and decided to pass the time by playing Uno and asking questions. One of the questions was, “If you could eat any food for the rest of your life, what would it be?”. My answer was eggs, which drew some concerned looks. At that exact moment, a lady walked through the compartment, peddling rice boxes with various fillings in them in a blue plastic bucket. The only vegetarian option? Eggs and rice. We all laughed at the almost instantaneous manifestation.

At some of the stops, you’re able to get off and stretch your legs and pick up snacks from the vendors, admiring the greenery, the mountains and the aged aesthetic of the stations. There is always that danger of not knowing when the train will take off, so hopping off to grab a cup of coffee, instant noodles or pack of chips is always a fun gamble. We had a lot of fun breathing in the fresh air, moving about and watching as Max captured some photos of us, being careful not to stray too far from the train (unless we wanted to reenact those movie scenes where the character runs after the train and hops on just at the last moment).

After eating our breakfast, more passengers were boarding and the third class compartment seats were being filled with their rightful owners, so we clawed our way upstream back to our own cabin to enjoy the rest of the ride.

Then, before I knew it, the train pulled into Chiang Mai where we’d catch the next leg of our trip: the infamous gut wrenching minivan ride through 600+ curves to our final destination: Pai.

Now that’s another story for another time…

Photos Courtesy of Maxence Minebois (Instagram)

4 thoughts on “Overnight Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

  1. That train is so rétro, it sounds an awesome trip, thanks for sharing Julia 🙂 stay safe and cheers from Portugal 🙂 PedroL

    Like

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