The Night Train to Chiang Mai
By John Borthwick
Ride the rails from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s most popular — and best fun — train journey.
Train travel. Suspended in the rocking, rattling belly of the iron beast, with Thailand scrolling past your window — bridges, backyards, paddies, hills and the clang of level-crossing bells — there’s nothing like it.
I want to go to Chiang Mai. I could fly cheaply — no frills-no thrills class — or take the bus, but it’s been years since I’ve done the 750 km journey on the rattler, so I head to Bangkok’s Hualamphong station.
Its grand, Italianate iron hoop of a roof (one hundred years old now), one of Rama V’s projects to modernise Siam, arcs above the waiting hall and platforms. Below it, hundreds of Thais patiently await (while snacking constantly) their rot fai departures to all points of the Kingdom’s compass from Nong Khai to Hat Yai.
And there’s my ride — Special Express 13, the famous night train to Chiang Mai — ready to rock. (Quite literally so, on Thailand’s narrow-gauge line). I’m travelling in the popular, air-conditioned second class; my reserved sleeper seat is in a compartment with two upper and lower bunks. At 19.45 we pull out of Hualamphong, just slightly behind schedule.
As I look down the corridor, I see mostly foreign faces, including tourist families with kids. My fellow passengers in the compartment are a polite, mid-30’s Swedish couple — Victor and Inge — and a Thai man, Lek. He has the upper bunk, while I’ve paid a little more (at 881 baht) for the lower one. Two Danish friends join the Swedes and they settle in for a game of poker on the lower bunk.
There’s plenty of laughter and banter swapped in a trans-Scandy mash-up of Svensk-Dansk. But every now and then, on a bum card, someone yelps in distinct English, “Oh, #@$%&*-it!” Or similar. “Why do you speak in Swedish-Danish but swear in English?” I ask, amused. Victor explains, “We have young children and we don’t want them to learn swearing, so by habit we do it in English, which they don’t yet understand.” And why not — Chinese as a shouted language, English as a sworn language?
Before boarding I enquired if the train had a restaurant car? No. So I load up on snack food and drinks. Just to be sure, once on board I ask again. “No restaurant. But you can order dinner and breakfast served in your compartment,” is the answer.
We roll north past Don Mueang and Ayutthaya, and begin our serious trundle through rural Thailand. An impressively decorated inspector in military uniform checks our tickets, followed by the catering staff who take our meal orders from a set menu. My vegetarian choice (190 baht) turns out to be filling but bland: “Monk food, I think,” jokes Lek. “No spices, no meat, no fun.”
“And we can’t smoke or drink on Thai trains anymore,” he adds, “So I think I’ll go to the restaurant.” “The restaurant! Where?” I blurt. He explains that there is certainly a restaurant car but the caterers often stay silent on its existence or at least its whereabouts — “Because maybe they make more on selling the delivered meals?”
Our carriage, an ex-Japan Railways vehicle, is tired but clean, and has toilets and a washroom at the end of the car. Around 9 pm a Railways of Thailand attendant makes up our bunks with a mattress, pillow, fresh sheets and blanket. It has long been dark outside and Thailand’s temples, jungles and plains now slide by unnoticed, along with towns like Lopburi and Nakhon Sawan.
The poker game reaches its happy, expletive undeleted conclusion; we’ve all swapped travel tales; Lek has returned, having found not only the restaurant but also, somehow, a brief dose of fun with nicotine and alcohol. I’ve read a chapter, written a diary page and edited my photos. The restaurant is closed (with the staff now asleep on the tables). There’s only one thing left to do.
I stretch out to sleep, mentally ticking off trainspotter songs … Love In Vain, Mystery Train, City of New Orleans and an obscure Kingston Trio number, Fast Freight … Clickety clack, clickety clack, the wheels are saying to the railroad track / Well, if you go, you can’t come back, if you go, you can’t come back …
Morning breaks with sunlight on the savannah and the temple cheddis of Den Chai. We make a long stop at Lampang where a handsome, painted statue of a rooster stands on the platform looking in our window.
We glide on, with teak forests, rivers and tapioca fields flickering past, and the blue ranges of northern Thailand rising in the distance. Breakfast (a much tastier omelette) has come and gone by Lamphun, and with Chiang Mai soon on the horizon — we’re running ten minutes early — we scramble to pack and bid our farewells.
A gauntlet of eager taxis and trishaws awaits us. From the platform I take a look back to see what kind of humanity our train has carried. It could be re-named the Farang Express. The passengers are predominantly foreign, both Western and Asian — backpackers, budget travellers, adventurers, families, all keen to see “the real Thailand” and to meet real Thais. Ironically, the Thais mostly seem to have taken the plane or the bus.
Train Travel Tips
– There are eight Bangkok-Chiang Mai departures daily, of different durations, price and classes.
– Book in advance if possible, especially if travelling near public holidays, at a station or through an agent (who will add a fee).
– Go for the lower bunk; the upper is slightly smaller and, near the A/C vent, is colder.
– Prefer a compartment in the middle of the carriage.
– General information: www.thailandbytrain.com; www.seat61.com/thailand
– Chiang Mai accommodation: Kum Phaya Resort, www.centarahotelsresorts.com/destination/chiang-mai