All you need to know about riding Thailand’s most popular railway
All aboard the Northern Line
Running between Thailand’s principal two cities is, unsurprisingly, Thailand’s most popular railway. Stretching 751 km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the mountainous north, Thailand’s Northern Line is the perfect way to travel from the chaos of the capital up to the “new city”.
Passing through some fantastic scenery on clackety-clacking, heads-out-of-the-window, old-school trains, the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train journey is, for many people, one of the highlights of their Thailand trip. With plenty of fellow travellers and friendly locals with which to pass the time, as well as great food and great views, it’s a journey that is as much a part of the Thailand travel experience as the cities at either end.
There are those that would choose to fly, of course. But there are also those that would choose luggage over rucksacks, or Singapore over Hong Kong. Because some people just live for making wrong decisions. We, however, know better. Plus, take the overnight sleeper train, and if you manage a decent night’s sleep after departing Bangkok, you can wake up twelve hours later ready to begin your Chiang Mai adventure the next morning. Perfect!
Choosing your train
The first thing you need to do is choose your train. There are several types of train that run on the Northern Line and several classes of travel available on each. Let’s try and break it down into some recommendations.
Bangkok – Chiang Mai
|Class: 1, 2 or 3||Seats: 2 (a/c)||Sleeper: 2|
Seats: 2; 3
|Sleeper: 1; 2 (a/c)||Sleeper: 1; 2 (a/c)||Sleeper: 2 (a/c); 2|
Seats: 2 (a/c); 2; 3
|22 km||Don Muang||09:13||14:34||18:57||20:23||22:50|
|683 km||Khun Tan||18.23||02.58||06.06||07.37||11.05|
|751 km||Chiang Mai||19:30||04:05||07:15||08:40||12:10|
Train 7: Not much choice on this one. As the train runs during daytime hours, there are no sleepers available, only 2nd class air-con seats. Overnight trains are a better option if you don’t want to waste a day. Though you would get plenty of time to admire the view.
Train 109: Not a great choice. Arriving in Chiang Mai at 04:05 doesn’t sound like fun. A non-air-conditioned sleeper sounds even less fun. You would also be passing most of the best scenery during the night.
Trains 1 & 13: These are considered the best trains to travel on in terms of comfort. They are faster than train 51 but there’s not as much old-school fun to be had.
Train 51: A bit of everything on train 51. Sleep in relative comfort in the 2nd class air-con, then find a spare seat in another compartment to enjoy a bit of nature’s own air-con while enjoying the views on your approach to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai – Bangkok
|Class: 1, 2 or 3||Seats: 2; 3||Seats: 2 (a/c)||Sleeper: 2 (a/c); 2|
Seats: 2 (a/c); 2; 3
|Sleeper: 1; 2 (a/c); 2||Sleeper: 1; 2 (a/c)|
|0 km||Chiang Mai||06:30||08:50||15:30||17:00||18:00|
|68 km||Khun Tan||07.36||09.47||16.50||18.24||19:21|
|729 km||Don Muang||20:13||18:40||04:30||05:18||05:58|
The above times were taken from the official http://www.railway.co.th website. Though I have found during my own travels that although the departure times from Bangkok can generally be relied on as being accurate, the arrival time in Chiang Mai stated on your ticket, could be an hour or so later than you will find online (see the photo of my own ticket for train 13). Delays are also not exactly uncommon on Thailand’s railways, so make sure to check at the station before buying.
Buying your tickets
Unless you are travelling during New Year (30 Dec – Jan 3rd) or Songkran (around 13th – 15th April), you shouldn’t have too many problems buying tickets on the day of travel, or preferably, a day or two beforehand.
I’ve done the journey in both March and June before and had no problems buying tickets for the trains I wanted the day before. Obviously, if you buy on the day, you may not get the train or the class you want, but if you really have to travel, you should be able to do so somehow.
If you are travelling during the two peak periods mentioned, it is advisable to book as far in advance as you can.
Ticket Prices (Baht)
|Train Number:||1 & 2||7 & 8||13 & 14||51 & 52||102||109|
|1st class sleeper (a/c)|
|2nd class sleeper (a/c)|
|2nd class sleeper (no a/c)|
|671/ 601 (train 14)||581/531||541/491|
|2nd class seats (a/c)||641||541|
|2nd class seats (no a/c)||431||391||391|
|3rd class seats (no a/c)||271||231||231|
At the station:
The first thing to note is that you will need to take your passport with you when you are buying tickets. If you are in Thailand already, you can book tickets for any journey at any station in the country.
At Hua Lamphong, the ticket office is located just before the entrance to the platforms within the main station building. Windows 15 to 22 (on the right-hand side) are open for advance ticket sales between 08:30 and 16:00 daily. The windows on the left-hand side are available for travel on the day.
In Chiang Mai, it’s best just to jump in a tuk-tuk and buy your tickets from the station a day or two before you will be leaving. If you are used to buying tickets at Chinese railway stations, your experience in Thailand should be like taking a nice relaxing bath in comparison.
Outside of Thailand:
It is possible to buy tickets before you arrive in Thailand using one of several travel agencies as recommended by The Man in Seat 61. 12go.asia is generally considered the most reliable. You can book your tickets and pick them up once you get to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Check out Seat 61 for more info.
Onboard the train
The majority of people reading this will most likely find themselves with tickets for second class sleeper carriages when they reach the platform. This is exactly how I travelled and it’s great. These carriages make for a far more enjoyable trip than a lonely first class single-berth compartment or 12 hours overnight in a seat and they are still ludicrously cheap by Western standards (881 baht = £16 / $25).
The second class compartments are generally open-plan Japanese carriages from the 1980s consisting of two seats facing each other either side of the aisle which, together with the top bunks, are pulled down to make beds once it gets dark. Don’t worry about making up the bed yourself. The attendant will come round and make each bed in turn in one of the most labour intensive procedures I’ve ever witnessed on a train. Check out the video below to see for yourself.
These carriages come either air-conditioned or non-air-conditioned depending on the train, with the a/c carriages being slightly more comfortable with less noise from outside than the non-a/c ones, though it can get pretty cold at night. The non-a/c carriages have large windows making it better for photos and general old-school train fun. The last time I travelled I had a bed in the a/c carriage but spent most of my time in the non-a/c carriage next door. There should be seats available if you want to do likewise.
As for getting a decent night’s sleep, expect to not have the best sleep you’ve ever had on a train. In fact, my last trip on the Northern Line was probably the bumpiest, most shakingest night spent on a train I’ve ever had. It wasn’t just your usual up and down with the motion of the carriage, there were times when I was actually physically shifted in my bed. It was like trying to sleep on a ship in a force 10 gale. The air-con makes it pretty chilly too, even with your thin State Railway issue blanket. Ear plugs would also be advisable.
Food-wise, however, everything is great. The friendly lady will probably come round with a menu just after you set off, from which you can bag yourself a tasty dinner set for around 180 baht. Sweet and sour chicken, chicken and cashew nuts, tom yum seafood and the like are all on there, together with a couple of vegetarian options. It will then magically appear at your seat around 7pm or 8pm for you to tuck into and enjoy. Or, if you’re looking for a change of scenery, you can head down to the restaurant car and enjoy the same Thai tastiness there.
In Bangkok, you are unlikely to have too many problems getting to where you need go when you arrive. Hua Lamphong station is currently the western terminus of the city’s MRT subway line which runs from 6 a.m. to midnight. From here you can join up with the BTS at Silom station. There are also taxis and tuk-tuks everywhere should you arrive on Train 52 before the public transport network opens.
In Chiang Mai, the station is located around 3 km outside the old city and it is easily walkable. Turn right on exiting the station gates, then take a left when you reach the main road and follow it into town. I did this on my first visit and it took me around thirty minutes. Otherwise, you can jump in a tuk-tuk or one of the big red songthaews that act as Chiang Mai’s de facto taxi service instead. You should be paying around 60 – 80 baht/person for the journey in a songthaew. Certainly not more than 100. In a tuk-tuk, 80-100 baht for the journey seems reasonable, whether you are one person or two.
Get Involved: Any updates or additions? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. Also, if you’ve done the journey yourself, how was it for you?
Related Posts: For more Bangkok/Chiang Mai posts, click category: Thailand and away you go.