The railway network in Thailand, run by the Thai government, is surprisingly good. The train wins hands down as the best form of public transport in the kingdom. It is not possible to take the train everywhere in Thailand, but if it were that's how to go. If you travel 3rd class, it is often the cheapest way to cover a long distance; by 2nd class it's about the same as a 'tour bus' but much safer and more comfortable. The trains take a bit longer than a chartered bus but on overnight trips especially, it is worth the extra time it takes.
The trains offer many advantages; there is more space, more room to breathe and stretch out - even in 3rd class, than there is on the best buses. The windows are big and usually open, so that there is no glass between you and the scenery - good for taking photos - and more to see. The scenery itself is always better along the rail routes compared to the scenery along Thai highways - the trains regularly pass small villages, farmland, old temples, etc. Decent, reasonably priced food is available and served at your seat or in the dining car. The pitch-and-roll of the railway cars is much easier on the bones, muscles and nervous system than the quick stops and starts, the harrowing turns and the pothole jolts endured on buses. The train is safer in terms of both accidents en route and robberies. Last, but certainly not least, you meet a lot more interesting people on the trains.
For those who plan to travel extensively by train in Thailand, the State Railway of Thailand has announced that, as of 23 October 1989, a Visit Thailand Rail Pass will be available for 'holders of international passports'. The pass allows 20 days of travel at 1500 Baht for a Blue Pass (2nd and 3rd class, supplementary charges not included), or 3000 Baht for a Red Pass (2nd & 3rd class, all supplementary charges included).
There are four main rail lines: the Northern, Southern, Northeastern and Eastern routes. There are several side routes, notably between Nakhon Pathom and Nam Tok (stopping in Kanchanaburi) in the west central region, another between Tung Song and Kan Tang (stopping in Trang) in the south, and between Hat Yai and Songkhla in the south. The Southern line splits at Hat Yai, one route going to Sungai Kolok in Malaysia, through Yala, one route going to Padang Besar in the west, also on the Malaysian border, Within the next few years, there will probably be a line extending from Kiriratnikom to Phuket in the south, establishing a rail link between Surat Thani and Phuket.
The State Railway of Thailand operates passenger trains in three classes - 1st, 2nd and 3rd - but these can vary considerably amongst themselves depending on whether you're on an ordinary, rapid, or express train. A typical 3rd-class car consists of two rows of bench seats divided into facing pairs. Each bench seat is designed to seat two or three passengers, but on a crowded upcountry line nobody seems to care about design considerations. On a rapid train (which carries 2nd and 3rd-class cars only), 3rd-class seats are padded and reasonably comfortable for shorter trips. On ordinary trains, 3rd-class seats are usually made of wooden slats, and are not recommended for more than a couple of hours at a time. An ordinary train is much slower than a rapid train, naturally. Express trains do not carry 3rd-class cars at all (except for the Special Express 19/20 between Bangkok and Sungai Kolok). Commuter trains in the Bangkok area are all 3rd class and the cars resemble modern subway or rapid transit trains, with plastic seats and ceiling loops for standees.
In a 2nd-class chair car, seating arrangements are similar to those on a bus - pairs of padded seats all facing toward the front of the train. Usually the seats can be adjusted to a reclining angle, and for some people this is good enough for overnight trips. In a 2nd-class sleeping car, you'll find two rows of facing seat pairs; each pair is separated from the next by a dividing wall. A table folds down between each pair and at night the seats convert into two fold-down berths, one over the other. Curtains provide a modicum of privacy and the berths are fairly comfortable, with fresh linen for every trip. A toilet stall is located at one end of the car and washing basins at the other. Second-class cars are found only on rapid and express trains; some routes offer air conditioned 2nd class as well as ordinary 2nd class.
First-class cars provide private cabins for singles or couples. Each private cabin has individually controlled air conditioning, an electric fan, a fold-down washing basin and mirror, a small table and a long bench seat (or two in a double cabin) that converts into a bed. Drinking water and towels are provided free of charge. First-class cars are available only on express and special express trains.
In dining cars and in 2nd and 1st-class cars, there are usually two menus available, a 'Special Food' menu with prices at 50 to 60 Baht per dish (generally given to tourists) and a cheaper, more extensive menu at 15 to 20 Baht per dish. If you want the latter but are handed the expensive menu, ask for the menu thammadaa or ordinary menu. The food is basically the same on both menus but the 'special'-menu items get a fancier presentation.
The disadvantage of travelling by train, in addition to the time factor mentioned above, is that they can be difficult to book. This is especially true around holiday time, e.g. the middle of April approaching Songkran festival, since a lot of Thais prefer the train, too. Trains out of Bangkok should be booked as far in advance as possible - a week minimum for such popular routes as the Northern (to Chiang Mai) and Southern (to Hat Yai) lines, especially if you want a sleeper. For the Northeastern and Eastern lines a few days will suffice.
To book tickets in advance go to Hualamphong Station in Bangkok, walk through the front of the station house and go straight to the back right-hand corner where a sign says 'Advance Booking'. The other ticket windows, on the left-hand side of the station, are for same-day purchases, mostly 3rd class. In the Advance Booking office you will receive a numbered reservation form, white for the Southern line, green for North, North-Eastern and Eastern. Then proceed into the ticketing room, taking the blank reservation form to the appropriate counter when your number is called. A clerk will fill out the appropriate forms for you, according to available space on the train you want. This done, you take the filled-out form to the desk indicated by the clerk, separate your numbered stub from the form and spindle the form on the nail standing upright on that desk. Then you must wait until your number is called (most likely in Thai, so keep an eye on the numbers around you), at which point the agent at the desk will give you your ticket and collect the money. It's not as bad as it sounds, but takes some time.
Note that buying a return ticket does not necessarily guarantee you a seat on the way back, it only means you do not have to buy a ticket for the return. If you want a guaranteed seat reservation it's best to make that reservation for the return immediately upon arrival at your destination.
Booking trains back to Bangkok is generally not as difficult as booking trains out of Bangkok; however, some stations can be quite difficult, e.g., buying a ticket from Surat Thani to Bangkok.
Tickets between any stations in Thailand can be purchased at Hualamphong Station (tel. 0 2223 3762), the main railway station in Bangkok. You can also make advance bookings at Don Muang Station, across from Bangkok International Airport. Ticket offices for the State Railway of Thailand are open from 8.30 am to 6 pm on weekdays, 8.30 am to 12 noon on weekends and public holidays.
Train tickets can also be purchased at certain travel agencies in Bangkok, such as Airland on Ploenchit Road or at the Viengthai Hotel in Banglamphu. It is much simpler to book trains through these agencies than to book them at the station.
There is a 30 Baht surcharge for Express trains (rot duan) and 20 Baht for Rapid trains (rot raew). These trains are somewhat faster than the ordinary trains, as they make fewer stops. On the Northern line during the daytime there is a 50 Baht surcharge for 2nd-class chairs in air conditioned cars. For the Special Express (rot duan phiset) that runs between Bangkok and Singapore there is a 50 Baht surcharge.
The charge for 2nd-class sleeping berths is 70 Baht for an upper berth and 100 Baht for a lower berth. The difference is that there is a window next to the lower berth and a little more headroom. The upper berth is still quite comfortable. For 2nd-class sleepers with air conditioning add 100 Baht per ticket. No sleepers are available in 3rd class.
On the north and northeastern lines, all 1st-class cabins are air conditioned and a two-bed cabin costs 250 Baht per person while a single-bed cabin is 350 Baht. On the southern line, air conditioned 1st class is the same but there are also a few ordinary 1st-class rooms available, all with two beds, for 150 Baht per person.
Train fares in Thailand continue to increase regularly, so train travel is not quite the bargain it once was, especially considering that the charge for 2nd-class berths is as high as the cost of most hotel rooms outside Bangkok. You can figure on 500 kilometres costing around 180 Baht in 2nd class (not counting surcharges for rapid/express service), twice that in 1st class, less than half in 3rd. Note that the fares given are guaranteed to the end of 1989 only. Surprisingly, fares had hardly changed since 1987, in spite of an overall inflation rate in Thailand of about 5%. Relative to fare trends over the last 12 years, this is unusual and think they're due for an increase. Although the government continues to subsidize train travel to a some extent, it's predicted that fares will be taking a significant jump in the next two to three years, say around 10% to 15%.
The main railway stations in Bangkok (Hualamphong), Phitsanulok, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai have baggage storage services. The rates and hours of operation vary from station to station. At Hualamphong Station the hours are from 4 am to 10.30 pm and left luggage costs 5 Baht per piece the first day, 10 Baht per piece per day thereafter.
All stations in provincial capitals have restaurants or cafeterias as well as various snack vendors. These stations also offer an advance booking service for rail travel anywhere in Thailand. Hat Yai Station is the only one with a hotel attached, but there are usually hotels within walking distance of other major stations.
The Hualamphong Station has a travel agency where other kinds of transport can be booked. This station also has a post office that's open from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday, 9 am to 12 noon Saturdays and holidays, and closed Sundays.
Accurate up-to-date information on train travel is available at the Rail Travel Aids counter in Hualamphong Station. There you can pick up timetables or ask questions about fares and scheduling - one person behind the counter usually speaks a little English. There are two types of timetables available: a condensed English timetable with fares, schedules and routes for rapid and express trains on the four trunk lines; and complete, separate Thai timetables for each trunk line, with side lines as well. These latter timetables give fares and schedules for all trains, ordinary, rapid and express.
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