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3rd class trains in Thailand

The charm of 3rd class trains in Thailand

Where I come from (Hungary, Central Europe) we find it almost natural that the railway is left to slowly but surely wane. Lines are closed and stations fall into decay. We don’t even have dining cars any more.

Hua Lamphong, the central train station of Bangkok

The railway in Thailand is alive and kicking as it’s still one of the main modes of transport. What’s more, the construction of new lines can be expected in the future thanks to Chinese investment. All this in spite of a busy network of budget airlines and thousands of bus services throughout the country. Low fares must be one of the main advantages for local passengers and it’s something we, travellers, also appreciate. On the other hand, the train rides that can often take half a day or more offer a very special opportunity to know more about Thai people, their customs and even their food.

Why take the train?

I have always thought of the bus as a necessary evil. In my childhood I constantly struggled with motion sickness even on shorter rides – I remember one day I could hardly get off the city bus in time… Later I learnt how to control my breath and other factors but I still prefer to travel by boat, motorbike, bicycle or, better still, by train. And in Thailand there are rails to take you to almost all main attractions (except the islands but you don’t go there by bus anyway).

We got off the plane near Pattaya and we spent the first few days there to get over the jet lag. Many years ago we were lucky enough to try the slowly crawling its way to Kanchanaburi. So when I noticed that Pattaya has its own railway station, there was no doubt how we should get to Bangkok.

The train arrives at Pattaya South.
The train arrives at Pattaya South. There are only 3rd class carriages on this line but it hardly takes longer than the minibus, where you are packed like sardines. Plus you arrive right in the city centre.

Faux leather seats and refreshing breeze

Then when we were heading south the night train came in handy. It takes the adventurous traveller to Chiang Mai in 13 hours, a flash of time really. The only problem is that we don’t like to plan ahead weeks in advance, far from that. But the better seats are taken relatively fast so once again we had to make do with the 3rd class carriage.

Narrow seats with artificial leather upholstery (that stick better than Michelin tyres in the tropical heat), fans buzzing on the ceiling, windows you can fully open and an attentive choice of squat and sit-down toilets.

3rd class carriage travelling between Bangkok and Pattaya
3rd class carriage travelling between Bangkok and Pattaya. You can easily book tickets online in Thailand here.

Suddenly disgusting gutter stench fills the atmosphere of the carriage. I look out and see that we are just passing by a smaller river, so upset by road construction that it no longer knows which way to flow. It doesn’t really flow anywhere. However, filthy water flows into it from all sides because sewerage is still missing. But the vivid green rice fields and the coconut palms soon make us forget the unpleasant experience.

Sawaidee!

The landscape you are leaving behind is well worth the attention but if you get tired of that you still have your fellow passengers. They are mostly simple everyday people, hardly any tourists. You can even catch a glimpse of traditional woven skirts on the north-eastern line. Heading in the other direction towards Malaysia more and more female faces are hidden behind hijabs while men wear the sarong instead of trousers. Thai people are generally smiling and open so it’s not hard to strike a conversation with them. Although language can be a difficulty. This didn’t prevent my son from making friends with two young girls who happened to sit opposite him…

Thai girls on board the train heading south

The trains have a dining car with chairs and tables carefully protected with nylon cover. The chairs are not fixed to the floor; your orders are taken by a smiling waiter and the dishes won’t leave you disappointed…

Oiled business

Finally, there are the hawkers! I have observed how they work – I had plenty of time as it took 18 hours for us to get from Bangkok to Hat Yai, in 3rd class again. 5-6 men and women get on the train with their goods at a larger station and they start moving to and fro between the carriages. Others sell food prepared in the train’s own kitchen. The array of goods is amazing: all types of “fried rice”, the typical Thai fast food, pre-portioned with plastic spoons; the same with pasta; peanuts, home-made rice pudding, cakes, biscuits and fruits served with spicy sugar and quall eggs(!); brightly coloured cold drinks, hot coffee and tea…

Dinner's coming! And people buy everything. Our neighbours were eating almost without stopping and this is contagious...
Dinner’s coming! And people buy everything. Our neighbours were eating almost without stopping and this is contagious…

They keep walking up and down with their boxes, baskets and buckets for two or three hours, offering their goods in a singing voice. As time passes, ice slowly melts in the drinks and hot dishes slowly cool down. As a result, prices start to slowly sink. Then they have reached the level where the seller feels it’s no longer worth carrying their weight around. The remaining drinks end up between the rails and I guess they take home the food for their families.

The train keeps rolling and a new team gets on with fresh stock at the next stop. And I eagerly watch what else I should try.

Slow boat down the Mekong

Slow boat ride on the Mekong from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos

Sailing past some awesome landscape

Part 1

Compared to its neighbours, Laos is still relatively less visited. However, due to the shape and geography of the country, there is a tourist trail that most visitors follow. It features most of the must-see sights in Laos from Buddhist temples and colonial cities to waterfalls and caves. And you can start your adventures in this beautiful country on a traditional slow boat ride that takes two exciting days.

 

One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos
One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos

Many tourists choose to start this route in the north after exploring the famous Thai city of Chiang Mai and perhaps the Golden Triangle. Arriving from Bangkok, you can take a night train or bus to Chiang Mai. The most convenient train is No. 9 that leaves Hualumphong Station around 7 pm. When I tried to book our tickets, there were absolutely no seats left so we took the afternoon train. A third class seat set us back only 240 baht. There are also domestic flights connecting the two cities but then it seems more practical to fly directly to Chiang Rai.

A short stop in Chiang Rai

It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!
It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!

I’d recommend Green Bus to travel on to Chiang Rai (you can also book your tickets online). It costs about 170 baht and takes 4-5 hours. Chiang Rai is much less touristy and much more hassle-free than Chiang Mai but it also offers a few nice sights.

Apart from the recently built White Temple, there are two lovely old Buddhist temples, too, within walking distance from the centre.

If you break your journey here, you should check out the night market with great street food options. We tasted fried larvae with some delicious sauce besides the usual spring rolls and fried rice.

The red bus to Chiang Khong
The relaxing journey in the rickety red buses to Chiang Khong by the Lao border takes you through spectacular landscape.

Take it easy in Chiang Khong

The town itself doesn’t have too many classic tourist attractions to offer. Its location by the mighty Mekong river and the backwater atmosphere still tempts many people to stay bit longer. For those on a tight budget, there is decent street food and Chiang Khong even boasts with its own humble bar strip. We spent two nights at Namkhong Resort and Bungalows (300 baht for a triple room with fan and free use of the resort’s pretty swimming pool).

Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
The Mekong with Laos on the other side
The Mekong with Laos on the other side

Across the border to Laos

There is a convenient ferry connecting Thailand with Laos but sadly it is only available for locals. We, foreigners, have to cross the border on the new Friendship Bridge. This means an extra hour’s travel in the morning and higher costs. Many if not all the guesthouses in Chiang Khong offer tickets for the slow boat including transfer to the border and, in some cases, all the way to the pier. It may sound a good deal and most tourists we saw opted for this solution. We don’t fancy the idea of being driven like cattle from one tuk-tuk to the other so we decided to arrange things for ourselves.

If you know the prices, it is actually cheaper this way and certainly feels more independent. Hotels offer the combined ticket for 1250-1500 baht. The trip from Chiang Khong to the pier in Huay Xai cost us 120 baht per person and we got there faster than most others. You can buy the boat tickets at an office on the hillside on the left as you approach the pier for 220,000 kip (880 baht). However, make sure to change money somewhere in Huay Xai first because they’ll charge you 1000 baht if you pay with the Thai currency.

A row of long boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos
A row of slow boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos

The slow boat

The boat was scheduled for 11.30 am and we could have a quick lunch in a riverside restaurant before departure. We could also buy Laotian kip there but the rate was awful. If I did it again, I wouldn’t exchange more than 100 dollars for three people because there are much better rates in Luang Prabang.

Traditional wooden long boats ply the waters of the Mekong. There are dozens of them in use and they are normally staffed by members of a family, who own the boat and live on it. The captain sits in the front of the boat and there are two rows of seats right behind him. In my experience, locals tend to sit here but we joined them on the first day because most of the better seats were reserved for the ‘package tourists’. We didn’t mind: it was less noisy and fresher than in the back and we had more contact with the villagers.

We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.
We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.

There are rows of old car seats in the middle section of the boat, organised pretty much like in a bus. Only these seats are not fastened to the floor! There is a very basic bar and even more Spartan toilet in the back, followed by the engine room and luggage storage (on smaller boats your bags may go under the board in the front). The living quarters of the family occupy the rear section.

The captain of the slow boat takes a break between two long trips.

 

The "tourist section" inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.
The “tourist section” inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.

Remote villages along the way

We had nice sunny weather on the first day with only a few brief showers. The river flows quite fast and there are some scary rapids with sharp rocks so we weren’t bored. Then when we saw our captain was in control we could enjoy the countryside and chat to our neighbours. It takes about 6 hours to reach Pak Beng, where you have to spend the night. You can only buy boxed noodle soup on board the slow boat (and cold beer) so it’s a good idea to buy some take-away in Huay Xai.

The scenery is interesting enough with a few villages along the way. Now and then the boat stops at one of these settlements or just by a rock and people get off and on. Young girls offered handmade jewellery at one village – unfortunately, we had no time to buy anything from them.

These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.
These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.

 

For many villagers the boat is still the only way to travel
For many villagers the slow boat is still the only way to travel

Pak Beng

We arrived in Pak Beng about 6 pm. Some days before I checked room prices on the internet but they all seemed way too dear for such a small place. And there is absolutely no need to book in advance. We hardly got off board and we were approached by local kids and their parents, all waving faded photos of their guesthouses. We said yes to two smiling girls and in a minute we were sitting on the back of a van with some other tourists. A triple room only cost 60,000 kip. It was all very efficiently organised: they asked us what we wanted to have for breakfast and take away for lunch the next day, we paid and that was it.

What must have been a sleepy fishing and farming village in the past has become a (budget) traveller’s haven in the past decades. I’m sure 90 percent of the villagers either have a guesthouse or run a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. We had a pleasant dinner (fried rice with buffalo meat) with river view and then retreated to our dingy room for the night.

Bangkok highlights for 2 days

Two relaxed days in Bangkok

Krung Thep as the Thais themselves call it, Bangkok is a beehive of over 8 million people. It is famous for its awe-inspiring shrines and colourful night life, not to mention the bustling markets and other shopping opportunities.

A quick photo at Bangkok's Hualamphong railway station.
A quick photo at Bangkok’s Hualamphong railway station.

We spent only two whole days in the Thai capital this time and it wasn’t easy to choose from the wide array of sights. We don’t like to rush from one place to another so we finally decided to look around the Grand Palace (because our son hasn’t seen it yet) and Chinatown, both in the centre of Bangkok.

No shoulders or knees please!

Tourists will know the complex as the Grand Palace although its official name is Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We saw it back in 2000 when my wife and I first travelled to Thailand. We don’t particularly enjoy crowded places (to say the least) but we thought our son should also see the majestic buildings so we paid the hefty 500 Baht each and entered. Well, almost, because we first had to buy a pair of long trousers for Áron, who was wearing shorts. The same thing happens to those arriving in sleeveless tops (only they’ll have to buy a T-shirt).

I thought I'd blend in well with the monkey statues :)
I thought I’d blend in well with the monkey statues 🙂

Visitors are only allowed to see a few of the more than 100 buildings of the complex. The main attraction is clearly the Emerald Buddha and its temple. You can only enter the elaborately ornamented building without your shoes and photography is not strictly forbidden inside. The large room is half empty but the other half is composed in a way that the rich details direct your eyes on the – surprisingly small – green figure sitting on a high platform. Interestingly, the Buddha statue was originally kept in Chiang Rai, where it was accidently discovered after lightning cracked a building.

It was good to see that they spend the tourists' money on the restoration works.
It was good to see that they spend the tourists’ money on the restoration works.

 

A Kinaree majestically stands above the crowds.
If you watch the details, you can find some weird statues on the buildings. The Royal Pantheon (Prasat Phra Thep Bidon) is guarded by the Kinaree (halfd-swan, half-woman creatures, while other buildings are supported by the Hanuman, monkey deities from the Hindu mythology.

If I went again, I’d avoid the whole neighbourhood at the weekend. It can be frustrating when you have to stop every second to let someone take a photo and there are queues even for the dustbin. Also, some of the buildings, like the coronation hall, are only open Monday to Friday.

Bird’s nest soup, anyone?

If you’ve got tired of the hordes of other tourists, take a boat down the Chao Phraya river to Pier 5 (Ratchawong). You are bang in Chinatown, surrounded by another kind of crowd. It is as old as Bangkok itself and one of the largest of its kind in the world.

The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)
The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)

During the day it is the gold capital of Bangkok. You can see the golden letters against a red background everywhere. Then there are countless stores selling food products. When the sun goes down some of the streets turn into a night market of clothes, bags and whatever you can imagine.

Chicken for sale in Chinatown
Chicken for sale in Chinatown

Yaowarat in Thai, Chinatown is also famous for its street food and restaurants. We tried a busy eatery across Hotel Royal (we actually had to wait for a table). Professional staff, unexpected but addictive flavours and affordable prices. But you can also try bird’s nest soup or seafood the pricier restaurants.

It doesn't look oexclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service
It doesn’t look exclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service

For a cultural experience, leave the busy streets behind and check out Wat Traimit, the temple of the gold Buddha. It looks like Buddha statue are not made but discovered in Thailand because this 3-meter-tall solid gold figure was also found by accident. All right, the statue itself was there for centuries but nobody knew it was made of gold until it was dropped while being moved. The plaster covering broke and a top tourist attraction was born.

The same building houses a small exhibition about the Buddha statue and a museum about Chinatown on the second floor.

And the Golden Buddha himself
And the Golden Buddha himself. Photography was prohibited but when I saw that everybudy was taking photos with their phones I followed their example.

Breakfast with Buddhist monks

It’s tricky to find a budget room in Bangkok that’s not a cubicle without any windows and so noisy you can’t sleep all night. After a long search I stumbled on a homestay by Wat Sangkathan in the northern Nonthaburi district of the city. For just 10 dollars we had a spacious room with a bathroom and a little terrace. But the main advantage was the location.

Wat Sangkathan is a temple popular with Thai people, who come and spend a few days learning about the teachings of the Buddha. They follow a strict daily routine, which includes that they can only eat once a day before noon. The monks collect food and then share it not only with their disciplines but anyone who turns up in the morning.

 

This is how we ended up having breakfast with all those people in white and orange. Of course, donations are appreciated. At the weekend there is even a small market with a large range of homemade products and fruits and very friendly prices.

Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects
Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects

The temple complex offers a quiet retreat after the craze of Bangkok. There’s a large pond full of enormous catfish, a dream of any fisherman (but be warned, fishing is not allowed). We saw turtles and a giant lizard, too.

Leaving Bangkok

Our plan was to go north to Chiang Rai from the capital but because we dislike buses we chose to take a train to Chiang Mai first. Thai Railways has a very useful website where you can book tickets online. Just make sure you buy your ticket days ahead as the popular lines fill up very quickly. We only got third class tickets one day before departure for the 14-hour journey. The seats were not designed to fit the average European but there were empty seats most of the time so we survived. We loved the restaurant in the train and all the food offered by locals between the stations.