This story about the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is written by one of our contributors, Nicholas Wong. Some parts of the article may have been edited for length and clarity.
In 2019, my wife and I had originally planned a trip to Thailand around early February 2020. As the date approached, news of COVID-19 had already begun to spread, though it hadn't impacted this part of the world as severely yet and lockdowns were not yet in place. As it was getting too close to cancel, we decided to go ahead with this - with additional safety measures in place.
The plan was to spend some time in Chiang Mai before making our way down to Bangkok for the second leg of our trip. We had done extensive research on our options - a flight was naturally the fastest route, but that would mean going through the airports with checked luggage and needing to spend an extra night on a hotel stay. After watching a few YouTube videos, we decided to take the overnight sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok instead.
P.S. Visiting Chiang Mai for the first time? Check out our Muslim-friendly guide to Chiang Mai!
There's a couple of things to note of before booking tickets so let's break it down here:
The newer, electric trains are trains No. 9 and No. 10. These are the ones you should go for as they're faster, quieter and likely in better condition than the older trains.
You can choose from 1st Class, 2nd Class and 3rd Class. 1st Class gets you your own little room with seats that fold-out into bunk beds and sink.
In 2nd Class, seats line the sides of the train car and they face each other with a fold-out table in between. These are later converted into bunk beds (upper and lower) and you get curtains for privacy and to block out the light. If you're in the upper bed you won't get a window. 3rd Class is just basic seating with no air-conditioning.
Both upper and lower bunks in 2nd Class get their own power outlets in case you need to charge your devices. These are Thai standard sockets so make sure you pack a travel adapter.
Toilets are only slightly larger than airplane toilets, but you have the choice of the seated kind or squatting toilets. There are sinks inside as well as community sinks outside. I heard 1st Class toilets also have showers.
Booking of tickets
The official website for the State Railway of Thailand
only carries a very limited number of tickets to purchase. Most ticket sales appear to be outsourced to travel and ticketing agents as well as online travel agencies and aggregators. You might also be able to purchase tickets at the train station itself but I'm not sure what your chances are of getting the tickets you want.
We were aiming for 1st Class at first, but the tickets were sold out across all the sources we could find so we settled for 2nd Class instead. We bought our tickets from 12Go
for MYR197.15 per person for a 1-way ticket from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (expect to top-up around 60-odd bucks extra for 1st Class!) It was on train No. 10, which departed at 6PM. After much research, this seemed like the most reliable option for getting tickets short of going to the train station ourselves. However, tickets were not issued online - you get a booking confirmation which you had to bring to the Bossotel Hotel just opposite the Chiang Mai Railway Station to physically collect your tickets at the lobby. You can only collect this on the day of your train journey, at least 30 minutes before departure time. I guess 12Go has some sort of partnership with Bossotel to have someone physically buy tickets from the station when bookings come in online.
On the day of our departure from Chiang Mai, it was a pretty straightforward affair. We arrived early to collect our tickets from the hotel and I was surprised to find that they returned any surplus from foreign currency exchange rate fluctuations from the online booking to you in cash. There's a cafe or two nearby (non-halal - dine at your own discretion) if you need to kill time before the trip as well as a couple of convenience stores to stock up on snacks.
The great thing about 7-Eleven stores in Thailand is that they tend to carry CP Brand food like burgers that are halal-certified
and taste pretty good for something off-the-shelf in a convenience store - and they'll heat it up for you on purchase.
The train does have a dining car, but it's non-halal and prices can be a bit higher than what you would normally find outside.
I was initially a bit worried about bringing check-in luggage, but our 2nd Class seats had sufficient space to slide both our luggage bags underneath. I had also heard that the train tends to depart a bit late, but in our experience, we departed exactly on time, with a few stops along the way.
There are screens on the ceiling that shows information like your current location, arrival time as well as which toilets are vacant, which spares you the trouble of walking to the toilets only to find that they're full.
The seats in 2nd Class were decent enough but as they're designed to fold out into bunk beds, don't expect much lumbar support from them. If that's a concern, you may want to pack a travel pillow for your lower back.
At around 7PM, the staff will begin transforming the seats into bunk beds. They'll also pull out some bedsheets, blankets and a pillow stowed away above in bags (I believe they're cleaned/sanitised after every journey) and set up your bed for you.
Now you get your own bed-cum-cubby hole, and you can pull the curtains closed for some privacy and to shield yourself from the ceiling lights, which remain on throughout. At a point in the night the train actually cuts through a national park, but you won't be able to see anything in the pitch darkness outside. That also means that your Internet connection will be spotty to nonexistent in places.
We'd also heard that the central air-conditioning gets pretty cold at night but it felt pretty fine. Just pack some removable layers if you're worried. We arrived at the Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok the next morning - almost an hour later than expected, probably due to the rush hour traffic.
P.S. Check out our 4D3N Muslim-friendly Bangkok itinerary for your future trip!
Would I recommend this to other Muslim travellers?
Sure - it's a great alternative to flying interstate in Thailand and the price of your ticket pretty much covers the journey plus a night's accommodation. Just make sure you do your research beforehand and make the necessary preparations.
I was a bit apprehensive about spending the night on a train during a time when news of the coronavirus spreading in the region was starting to pick up, but the overall journey was a pleasant surprise. Admittedly, I didn't get much sleep during the ride, but if you have no problem sleeping on flights then you won't face any issues here (plus you get to lie down). Overall it felt like quite a little adventure of its own, off the usual touristy route of just booking a flight.
There are faster ways to travel, but there's something inexplicably romantic and adventurous about a cross-country train journey. More so if you have to spend the night on board!
Important tips to take note of
- The Chiang Mai Railway Station's pretty easy to get to - you could just get a Grab from your accommodation.
- Book your tickets in advance online.
- The dining car of the train does not have halal food as far as I know. But the 7-Eleven near the train station has some pretty decent budget halal options you can bring on board.
- Take note that there are no prayer facilities available onboard. (But you can bring your own prayer garments and pray while seated if you wish!)
You can find out more about Nick's travel adventures on his Instagram @niwongcm
and Youtube channel
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