It all started very poorly. Settling in to the relative comfort of the first cabin, a crackling voice came over the tannoy. “Just so you know, ladies and gentlemen, there is no food car on this train. Please bring your own food. Sorry for inconvenience ka.”
We had precisely zero food. Cue a mad, Supermarket Sweep style dash around the station looking for sustenance, breathlessly returning to the train a few minutes before departure. Fun fact — Hua Lumphong does not have a lot of food shops.
And so began our overnight train adventure. Thirteen hours on a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, fuelled on the cream of the available station crop – two Dunkin’ Donuts, two bags of crisps. some of those terrifying pastries stuffed with hot dog sausages and two sticks of dumplings filled with something indeterminate. I considered this a pretty good haul in the circumstances. If you stop reading now, just make sure you bring food on an overnight train in Thailand!
Thai Trains 101
I have a bit of a soft spot for Thai trains. We don’t use trains much, but every time we do the journey seems to become a mini adventure in its own right – like a dusty, rumbling trip to Kanchanaburi on a train clinging precariously to the steep hillsides. Or a sleepy, 15 baht trundle back to Bangkok from Ayutthaya stopping at the tiniest towns in the rice fields around the capital. The overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is no exception.
The typical Thai train is a lovable piece of the past, a shed on wheels with all the comfort and speed of a shed on wheels. Hard seats, no windows, food sellers wandering up and down hawking a wide range of goods. There’s a certain romance to these trips, but they aren’t the kind of trains you’d want to spend a full night on, and thankfully the long distance trains in Thailand have first and second class carriages which are much more modern and comfortable.
The Bangkok to Chiang Mai Train
The overnight train to Chiang Mai – specifically train 9 (18.10 departure daily) is one such modern beast, and for this trip we splashed out on a first class carriage at around 1,900 baht per person. Second class would set you back around 1,300 baht and can be booked online through 12go – with tickets to be collected on the day of travel or a few days earlier.
For my money, the privacy of a first class booth is worth the extra outlay vs second class. When you consider that it’s basically your transport and hotel for the evening, the price is pretty good. You can find full details on train times and information at Seat 61
We arrived at Hua Lumphong via the MRT in plenty of time – officially you’re supposed to arrive half an hour before departure. Everything is very clearly signed so you’ll easily find the platform and the train. Hua Lumphong is a lovely building if you have the time to look up and are not sprinting around fast food shops. It will eventually be replaced by the mind-bogglingly large Bang Sue Junction in the not too distant future.
There were lots of mainly younger Thai groups bouncing around excitedly, but it certainly wasn’t busy or crowded. The train stops dozens of times along the way and fills up as it goes.
The first class cabins on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train are neat and compact, with an upper and lower bed that fold up and down, plus an attendant to perform said folding task. There’s also a sink and a small TV, although this just seems to show a map or ten channels of what I can only describe as train-related propaganda. The TV obviously, not the sink.
All the prior research had indicated that there’s a pretty extensive dining car serving snacks and hot meals. Better, these are ordered right to your first class fancy pants carriage. I can only assume the lack of dining is a Covid precaution – they also come around reminding you to sign into Thai Chana at the entrance to the carriage, and masks are mandatory as per usual in Thailand.
It’s advisable to also bring warm clothes – the irony. The aircon in the carriages is set to Baltic and isn’t very adjustable. If you solve the food and heat issues your journey will be fine, we were just under-prepared!
This being an evening train, you’ll quickly descend into darkness so there’s not tons to see on the way out. Attendants will come and prepare the beds at around 7.30pm, with sheets and a thin blanket. The beds are plenty big enough unless you’re particularly tall, not something we need to worry about.
The journey was surprisingly smooth and comfy, and it’s just a very novel way to travel. A group of very earnest teenagers occupied the cabin next to us and stayed up chatting relatively late – so did we in fairness – but you can’t really hear the neighbours so you can get a decent rest.
One fun surprise is that they come to fold the beds back up at the frankly ungodly hour of 6am – not one of my better-functioning hours. The train actually arrives in Chiang Mai at 7.15, so the 6am turf out is actually quite sensible.
At 6am the sun is just thinking about coming up, and by now you’re snaking up into the lush mountains of Northern Thailand. This is a really lovely part of the journey. The mist gentle rises up into the mountains and some of the views across to distant mountains are wonderful. Your phone camera may not properly capture the beauty of these views, or it could just be my shocking photography skills…
The last hour breezes by as you stare quietly out the window, just enjoying the surroundings. I thought we’d be quite tired getting into Chiang Mai, but in the first class carriages it was perfectly possible to get a good night’s sleep, and with the lovely morning views to wake up to we arrived energised and ready for the day and the start of our week on the Mae Salong loop.
I’d recommend trying the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai at least once in Thailand. It’s comfortable and enjoyable (as long as you come prepared!), plus it lets you see some different sights than the usual quick flight from Bangkok.
Just be sure to bring food and jumpers…