Railay to Chiang Mai by Train

Thai Train at Hua Lamphong Bangkok station (Wikimedia Commons: Mark Fischer).

The trip from the Railay Peninsula to Chiang Mai involved four different modes of transport (boat, bus, train and tuk tuk) over about 40 hours.

Thailand is unique in that it has a highly-developed tourism industry geared specifically to the young, budget backpacker. As a result, if you stick to the well-worn backpacker trail (and it can be difficult to get off of if you are only there for <30 days, which is the max stay for U.S. citizens per visit), you can easily find yourself dealing exclusively with people connected with the tourism industry, which are rarely representative of every day people.

We found that train travel largely mitigated our issues, as it seemed to be largely a local form of transportation in Thailand. We rarely encountered other backpackers on the train, because, I suppose, the train required more time and effort to figure out than the alternative — the alternative being “joint tickets” offering door-to-door service from hostel to hostel involving taxi vans, coach buses, and, in the case of island hopping, a ferry. Numerous backpackers that we observed seemed happy to pay several times as much as independent transport to be shuttled in this manner, taking the guesswork out of the journey and ensuring that they reach the next party as quickly as possible. The Joint Ticket option may make sense for many, but we didn’t really see the point of segregating ourselves from Thai people and giving up one of the best aspects of travel. So we tried our best to avoid the dreaded Joint Ticket, taking trains, city buses and even an overnight freighter with Burmese migrant workers.

Regardless, there were a couple of times in which we had no choice but to purchase a Joint Ticket. Towards the end of our time in Thailand, we needed to get from Railay to Chiang Mai in as little time as possible, preferably without flying. We knew that this could be accomplished on an overnight train from Surat Thani to Bangkok (12 hours), followed a few hours later by a day train onward to Chiang Mai (10 hours). The only hang-up would be getting from Railay (which is accessible only by boat) to Surat Thani. Local options would take too long, so we opted for — you guessed it, a Joint Ticket.

The Joint Ticket got us a local boat off of the Railay Peninsula back to Krabi. Then, what we thought, a bus onward to Surat Thani. But this was always the kicker with the Joint Tickets – they rarely work as advertised. Based on previous sour experiences with these Joint Tickets, we made sure to ask multiple times before purchasing the ticket how long it would take, how many transfers, etc., and emphatically, every time, the same answer: five hours, big bus in Krabi. Five hours, big bus in Krabi. As you might have already guessed, it did not take five hours, and it was more than one transfer.

This holding room (and others like it) are what the Thai travel agents don’t tell you about. I don’t know how many hours combined we spent waiting here during our time in Thailand, but whatever it was it was too much. Somewhere out on a dusty highway in the middle of know where between Krabi and Surat Thani, there are a perpetual group of travelers spending time in this Thai purgatory. For us, the claims never gelled with reality. There were always multiple transfers involving multiple minivan taxis, and sometimes a large coach bus, thrown in for fun, I guess. Total travel time ended up taking much, much longer than advertised, largely due to the hours we spent at this mysterious place that doesn’t exist as far as Thai travel agents are concerned.

I rarely see Lori genuinely angry, but Thai Joint Ticket travel had a special way with both of us. Judge for yourself.

Hours later, we finally made it to Surat Thani railway station, catching the overnight train to Bangkok. This particular journey has to be one of our all-time favorite rail journeys of all time. For overnight travel, at US$25/passenger (2012) you simply can’t beat 2nd Class A/C sleepers for the money.

By day, our compartment consists of two comfortable seats facing each other with a table.

Meals were included and were delicious!

By night, a train attendant came by and magically turned our two seats into to comfortable and private beds. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos or video of this myself (we were too busy watching in awe), but here’s an excellent video of the process:

Well-rested and well-fed, our train rolled in to Bangkok shortly after sunrise, where we disembarked and waited for the next leg of our journey.

I confess, way too big of a smile at 7am on a travel day for anything, but an iced Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was a rare delicacy on our travels that we were obviously very excited about in the moment.

Also not caught on camera was the point at which loud music started blaring and everyone promptly stood up to face the ginormous photo of the Thai king high up on the wall and sing. All we could do was follow their lead until the loud, scratchy military music was finished and everyone quietly sat back down as if nothing happened. We assumed we had just participated in the singing of the national anthem, perhaps done across the country in all public buildings at a certain time every morning…or maybe just for that special occasion in that one place for some very significant reason that we were completely oblivious to. Who knows…

And they’re off!

Along the way we spotted none other than a Library Train, which seemed like a cool concept.

And more good food included with the ticket.

As snazzy and comfortable as the sleeper car was on the overnight leg, I’m a sucker for day trains. Nothing like comfortable watching the countryside of a foreign land steadily pass before your eyes…at least for the first several hours. At around hour eight, we were getting ready to be off trains, altogether. But heck, we only had two hours left — judging by the timetable. Nope, before we reached Chiang Mai we had spent 12 hours on this train, and those last two hours in the dark, lazily inching our way closer to our destination, were brutal.

Suffice it to say, we had had our fill of trains for a while.

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