We try to travel by train whenever possible. It is an affordable and ecological way of getting around. It is also a very atmospheric way of traveling, particularly by night train and a great way to meet locals as well as fellow travelers.
We had heard stories about the comforts of rail travel in Thailand, so we decided to give it a try when travelling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The alternatives on this long overnight journey were a private cabin in the first class or "behind the curtains" in a second class compartment. We chose the cheaper second class.
We boarded the train and found our compartment. Sitting down face to face on the upholstered seats we wondered how they could be transformed into beds. Because the air-conditioning made the place freezing cold, we put on long trousers and long-sleeved shirts right away.
While the train was still at the station, a guy came to serve us refreshments - so far so good! After the departure, train personnel appeared in the corridors; men in their uniform caps were checking the tickets and taking care of security and the cleaners with their brushes came at regular intervals. Service in the compartment was excellent; meals, coffee, refreshments, beer etc. were on sale. There was also a restaurant car. We went to have a look but did not stay in the hot, smoky car - there was no air-conditioning.
Liz in a second class sleeper bunk
Around eight o'clock the car attendant came to make the beds. Wide-eyed we watched how our two seats were turned into one bed and how a bunk which was fixed to the wall was folded down to make the upper bed. This way the whole compartment was transformed into a dormitory; to ensure the privacy, the curtains could be drawn. Our fellow passengers were passing their time in various ways; one was working with a laptop, behind the curtain a monk was meditating, backpackers were exchanging news... The compartment had been locked for the night and in the corridor the car attendant was nodding, half asleep. We slept well to the clickety-clack of the tracks, with our knitted caps on. The train arrived at Chiang Mai a couple of hours late but that did not matter, we had made it.
On our way back to Bangkok we decided to try a private cabin in the first class. At nightfall, the car attendant came to make the beds, the upper and the lower. We spent a peaceful night; luckily our next-door neighbours were quiet people - but we found ourselves missing the pleasant atmosphere of the second class.
Next we took a day train from Bangkok to Hua Hin. The train was full, but we managed to get adjacent seats. At the intermediate stations vendors got on the train selling all kinds of snacks and food portions, but some food was also included in the price of the train ticket. Tickets for day trains can only be purchased on the day of departure. That means lining up but, as far as we know, there is almost always room for everybody.
Some time ago we traveled on a night train from Hat Yai in the south of Thailand to Kuala Lumpur. The tickets for the first leg, from Hat Yai to the Malaysian border, we bought at the Hat Yai railway station, and the tickets from the border to Kuala Lumpur on the Internet - handy, isn't it. At the border station, in Johor Bahru, we had to change trains, which meant going through passport and customs controls and waiting for the train to Kuala Lumpur.
For this part of the journey we had reserved a private cabin in order to get a good night's sleep before our long flight home in a couple of days. We carried our suitcases into the cabin and, seeing the dusty carpeting, took allergy medicine, just to be on the safe side. But something was moving on the floor, on the bed head, on the ceiling. Cockroaches, big and small. -Can't be true! Must get a cleaner cabin. The train started moving and we remained standing in the corridor waiting for the conductor. -Not worry, they are nice and good, they eat little worms, said the conductor laughing when we told him about our horrible discovery. I can still remember his board smile and his sparkling white teeth... We did not get another cabin.
We went to the restaurant car to have a bite to eat and to have a drink of lukewarm tea, all the while regretting that we had not brought along a bottle of Sam Song, a traveler's nightcap par excellence. The Malaysian Railways, of course, does not serve any alcoholic beverages, not even beer... The evening was long, and the night longer still.
It is easy to travel from Singapore to Malaysia by train. On the other hand, if you only wish to cross the border, a bus is cheaper.
If you really like trains and want to do some easy sightseeing, you can reserve a seat on the Eastern & Oriental Express, which runs between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Luxury ...and for the budget traveler possible only in the form of glossy brochures.
From the capital of Laos, Vientiane (from the Thai side of the border, to be exact) there is a well functioning rail connection to Bangkok. Laos has no railway system, but the river traffic functions well.
The main line of the Vietnamese railways runs close to the sea between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. The journey between the two cities takes about 30 hours plus possible delays. The night trains have soft sleepers (air-conditioned) and hard sleepers, with cabins for four and six respectively. There are no separate cabins for men and women and no seats in the sleepers. Our tickets for the night train were cheap and the price included a small bottle of water, breakfast and lunch.
Hanoi main railway station
There was no restaurant car, but a waiter was selling beer and soft drinks. The cars and the cabins were clean and safe thanks to the numerous staff. They moved about in the corridors uniformed and stern-looking, and we noticed that western tourists were on their guard when meeting them.
The locals took their tea in their cabins, fetching hot water from the person in charge of the compartment. We slept well also on the Vietnamese night train - with all our clothes on under a thick blanket, no warm caps were needed. At dawn we were woken by beautiful Vietnamese music and the smell of breakfast.
A useful tip regarding rail travel in Vietnam: your train ticket is checked when you go to the waiting room or to the platform; on the train it is sometimes changed for a "traveler's card"; on arrival, when you leave the platform it is taken away. So take good care of your ticket.
In Southeast Asia the air-conditioned trains are cold and there is a strong draught. So bring a knitted cap, a silk scarf and warm clothes and keep them close at hand.
Moving from place to place by air is fast and easy, nobody can deny that, but traveling by train is cheaper and often more fun. We feel it is certainly the choice of the real traveler.
Some links to Southeast Asia railways:
Malaysia Railways (also serves Singapore)