The train crawled and creaked, grumbled and groaned its way into Bangkok station five hours and twenty minutes late. So late, on what was scheduled to be a fourteen hour journey, that I almost felt like I was back in India. During the many months I spent criss-crossing that country by rail I’d very quickly learned to add 25-30% on to the advertised journey time. If a trip is scheduled to be 25 hours then accept it will be in the low 30s and you’ll be a lot happier than if you expect the train to run anything like ‘on time’.
I hadn’t expected the same thing in Thailand but as the train ground to a halt in Hualamphong station I had an urge to start applauding the way passengers in many countries do when a plane lands safely. Given that trains in Northern Thailand are currently falling off the rails like petals off of a dying rose I was grateful to have arrived in one piece no matter how long it had taken. With the 12th derailment so far this year happening the day before my journey, four of those on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai line that I was on, I had wondered if I’d made a wise decision booking the train.
On boarding the train though, I was torn between what I should be most concerned about: the train crashing or developing hypothermia in the Baltic-like air conditioning of the second class sleeper carriage. I couldn’t do anything about the first and luckily I had come prepared for the second with thick leggings, hiking socks, lambs wool sweater and a fleece.
Shortly after departure an attendant will come through the carriage and convert the seats into very comfortable beds. Two facing seats are joined together, a mattress and a fresh sheet laid on top, together with a pillow and freshly laundered blanket in a sealed plastic bag. There was nobody on the bunk above me so I snagged an extra pillow and blanket but was woken up sometime later by an attendant seeking to reclaim the pillow. I managed to keep the extra blanket so I had a pleasantly cosy night despite the air-con.
In the morning I made the mistake of eating in the restaurant, mainly because I was hoping they would charge my phone (they didn’t). Some very unappealing cheese sandwiches and a handful of stone cold fries later I was happy just to sit there drinking tea, watching the comings and goings, and reading my fantastically interesting book. Staff on the train can be very unhelpful and unfriendly but given that their shifts routinely over run by several hours, for which I doubt they are compensated, it’s perhaps understandable if not excusable.
My visit to Bangkok was fleeting. The friend I’d come to visit was stuck in some remote hamlet in far off Isaan province with his Thai girlfriend. Well I say his girlfriend as that’s what she was when I boarded the train in Chiang Mai. By the time I alighted in Bangkok they were planning their wedding. Now that’s a long train journey! I did the chores I had to do in the big city and seven hours after arriving I was back on the train heading slowly northwards through the night, back to Chiang Mai.
One of the attendants on the return journey befriended me and I ended up going to the party carriage aka the Boogie restaurant car with him. This is one of the highlights of the overnight train if you like a bit of a party. Around 9pm they dim the lights, the fairy lights are flashing and music videos playing. Before long there will be Singha-soaked tourists and some equally merry Thais doing Ganghnam Style in the aisles.
On this occasion my new friend disappeared and I was left talking to a couple of the staff I know from previous, recent journeys. My chum returned, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and confided in me: ‘I smoke Bob Marley. You want to smoke Bob Marley?’. It’s been years since I did anything other than listen to Bob Marley so I declined.
I noticed a man in a uniform having a great time, dancing and posing for photos with passengers. When he came over to us I saw his was an officer of the transport police. ‘He smoke Bob Marley’ my chum told me in a matter of fact way as the policeman hurried back to his own space on the ‘dance floor’.
So, the staff are drinking and dancing as much as the passengers, the train could slide off of the tracks at any moment, and the guy with the gun is stoned and dancing the Marcarena in his own happy little bubble.
What’s not to love about the overnight express?
The trains are always late. I’ve made this trip five times in recent months and the train is generally two to three hours late (it was the standard two and bit hours late on the return trip to Chiang Mai). Bear this in mind if you plan to do anything else with your day, especially if you plan to catch a flight.
Second class sleeper is very comfortable though I’ve also travelled on first class in a two person cabin and on the old Japanese rolling stock which is one person to a cabin. All are equally comfortable. The non air-con carriage is reclining seats only so I’ve never travelled in that.
Staff can be a bit pushy when they try to sell you set dinners to eat at your seat – despite the menu giving a phone number to call if they are selling ‘ungently’. I eat before boarding the train and bring my own food as the train food is so bad.
For clear, comprehensive information on this journey, and train travel around the world, look at the wonderful Man in Seat 61 website.