Thailand is a very large beautiful country with vast jungles, cities, coastlines and everything in between. Luckily, when it comes to transportation between all the places you want to see, there is a variety of choices. There are many bus companies, tour guides, boat companies, and airlines that you can choose from in getting to where you need to go. When it came to us traveling Thailand, Lisa and I always went by train for the longer distance routes, the State Railway of Thailand.
When traveling the State Railway of Thailand, you will find different classes of travel, just like on an airplane. We have traveled 1st Class, 2nd Class with air conditioning, and 3rd Class without air conditioning while getting from city to city and by far, my favorite was 2nd Class with air conditioning. I will review everything we traveled though and you can decide the best class for you.
1st Class Air Conditioned Sleeper Berth
The first class air conditioned sleeper berth is a great way to travel long distances in Thailand if you want privacy and a completely lie flat bed. The room is basic, about 3 square meters, two windows with curtains (one looks into the corrider of the train car, the other directly outside), a sink, one electrical outlet, a mirror, a padded sitting bench that converts to a bunk bed, and a lockable door. If you are traveling by yourself, you will share the room with someone else that is the same sex as you. If you want the bottom bed when they convert the room for bed time, you will pay a a few hundred baht more when purchasing your ticket. You will not be able to change once you are onboard unless your roommate wants to as seats, and consequently beds, are assigned when buying tickets. If you are traveling in groups of 4, you can request conjoining rooms as there is a door between the two that can be unlocked and opened.
My only problem with this class was the area is very cramped when the bunk beds are put away. You are just sitting on the bench as there is no space to put your luggage or backpack anywhere except right at your feet making it difficult to move about. The generator was also right below our room and is consistently running, making it hard to talk to the person you are sharing a room with and too noisy to sleep at night. It might be quieter in another location in this train car but for us, it wasn’t worth paying almost double the price as air conditioned second class. In my book, the only positive in first class that second class did not have was the privacy but the cons do not outweigh it. Usually we’re more sociable anyway so first class was pointless for the most part.
As far as toilet facilities are concerned, the first class had one western toilet and one squatter at the end of the train car. Toilet paper was provided for both in addition to the bum gun. Soap was plentiful for washing hands and the water coming from the sink was safe to drink as well.
2nd Class Air Conditioned Sleeper Berth
Similar to first class, second class converts your sitting area into two bunk beds when you are ready to sleep at night. The most obvious difference between the two classes is a lack of privacy, you do not have your own room as before and share the train car with about 30 other people. However, being air conditioned and the ability to lay completely flat when you are ready for bed makes this class an excellent choice for long distance journeys at night and you will save on accommodation.
One thing I noticed was depending on the cities you are traveling between, you may either have a newer train car or an older one. In terms of quality of service, they are the same. The cars are quiet and you do not hear the generators as you do in first class. The newer train cars do have more width than the older ones giving you more sitting and sleeping room. We rode the newer cars between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and the older ones between Surat Thani and Bangkok. I do not know if the newer ones are always on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai route so it could be hit or miss but for the money you are paying, the older cars are still well worth it.
The toilet facilities were the same as first class but toilet paper was not provided, only the bum gun. Again, no issues with soap for washing hands or the safety of the water coming out of the sinks.
3rd Class Fan Only
By far, third class was the cheapest but also the worst class to travel by for a few reasons, the largest being the lack of air conditioning.
Without air conditioning in this train car, all the windows open instead and there are overhead oscillating fans every 8 seats to keep the air moving. Unfortunately, Thailand is a very hot and humid place so this setup still makes a 14 hour train ride unbearable. To make matters worse, mosquitos love this car and there isn’t enough Off! in the world to keep the bastards away from you because the fans suck them off the ceiling of the train car, where they all congregate, then spit them directly at you. Yuck! As if that wasn’t disgusting enough, their dead carcasses landing on you but sometimes, the fan just mutilates them and they still manage to suck blood out of you only dying after their last meal, while still on your skin.
That’s definitely the worst part of third class without air conditioning but isn’t the only shit thing wrong with it. In Thailand, Thai citizens can ride third class fan only for free which is fantastic for them but not you. Unlike you, they do not need a ticket and can simply hop on the train and off whenever they please and since they don’t have a ticket, they don’t have a reserved seat and if you disappear long enough, they will most definitely claim your seat for themselves! I saw this happen a few times on the train and luckily for those people, the Thais gladly moved but they don’t have to so be aware of this! The most annoying thing about this however is Thais will get on the train to sell you food and drinks all the way to your next stop. It might seem great at first, having food and drinks available that are cheaper than the monopoly restaurant on board but they constantly are yelling and screaming throughout the third class cars to sell you something. Not ideal if you are trying to sleep.
Finally, the toilet is simple at it’s best, a squatter with a bum gun. That’s it. No toilet paper, no soap, and no sink. You are better off trying to sneak into the second class toilets than using these as they are primitive and should only be used if you’re a guy taking a leak, even then, bring hand sanitizer.
Like I said, third class with fan should be avoided at all costs. We didn’t travel third class with air conditioning but I saw it and it was better than the fan only version. People were still trying to sell you stuff but at least it was cool, dry, and most importantly, mosquito free.
You can purchase tickets at the train station either the day of or the day before you need to travel. You can also prepurchse tickets up to 60 days in advance. We usually bought our tickets the day of our journey a few hours before. We only got screwed over and had to take third class when going to the Full Moon Party. I do not know what the process is like buying tickets before your day of travel but it is probably just as straight forward as buying them a few hours before.
To purchase, just go up to a sales window displaying All Tickets in the screen, tell them what your destination and desired class is and pay. At the train station they accept Visa, MasterCard and Thai Baht. Most of the sales representatives speak and understand English well enough that there won’t be any screw ups. Be patient with them and they will be patient with you. Don’t lose your ticket as the conductor will punch it once you have boarded the train and it has departed the station!
Tickets are also available through travel agents but will cost slightly more as that is how the travel agent makes money off selling the train tickets. If you’re a penny pincher, buy them for at cost at the train station. Tickets cannot be bought online through the State Railway of Thailand’s website but this might change in the future. If you are outside Thailand and need a ticket you will have no choice but to purchase through a travel agent.
Keep in mind trains are seldom to their final destination on time but somehow always manage to leave the first station on time if not 5 minutes early. Don’t rely on your train being on time if you have a flight out of Bangkok, one of our trains arrived to our destination 5 hours late.
Food and drink is available for purchase on the train both from the dining car and train staff that can bring the food to you. The train staff might sometimes deny the existence of the dining car since they get commission so don’t let that deter you from passing them up on bringing you food if you want to eat in the dining car. After 9pm the dining car turns into a disco eatery which is quite a sight to see! If you are on a budget, keep in mind train food will be the same price from the dining car or staff but will be 5 times what you would pay for on the street!
Also travel during Thai holidays and Full Moon Parties via train is extremely popular. Be sure to book ahead of time.
Hopefully this article gives you some insight into taking the train in Thailand which I would recommend everyone do at least do one since it’s cheaper than it would be in your home country and is safer than the buses! As always, if you have questions just ask them in the comment section. When I’m reunited with my laptop, I will add more pictures and links to the official website so you can get schedule information!