A 2-month trip around Southeast Asia and I had no plan whatsoever. In the weeks leading up to my flight to Thailand from the UK, the lack of a plan was exciting, thrilling even, but a few days before my flight, I panicked.
I started worrying about how my two friends and I were going to move on from our first stop (Bangkok), what the next stop would be, and whether we were leaving it too late to book a ticket to our next destination.
After two days of searching online for trains that weren’t sold out or extortionately priced, I finally discovered Bookaway. A last-minute sleeper train to Chiang Mai for $39 per person that looked reasonably comfortable and modern?
We’ll take it.
We knew that a sleeper train was the perfect option as it doubled up as accommodation for the night, meaning we were able to save money and not waste a full day getting to the next place.
The booking process through Bookaway was extremely straightforward, with clear instructions stating that we’d need to pick up the tickets the day before from the supplier’s ticket office (a company called Thai Sriram).
Fast forward a week and I found myself on the other side of the world, roaming the streets of Bangkok, attempting to get my bearings straight off the back of my 13-hour flight. After a quick Google search, I realized the ticket office was only a 10-minute walk from our hostel.
Once I’d given the kind lady at the Thai Sriram office my booking reference and ID, I was handed over the tickets with ease. No issues with the language barrier so far, which was a relief!
Station drama avoidance
The next day, after some serious Bangkok sight-seeing, we got a metered taxi to the station. There are several bus terminals as well as the main train station in Bangkok, so make sure you’re clear on which one you need to get to.
Pro tip #1: Look up the Thai name of the station in advance and have it saved on your phone to show your taxi driver. (For Hua Lamphong station, it’s สถานีรถไฟกรุงเทพ – don’t worry, I got you covered.) English may be an international language, but there’s no guarantee that your driver will understand you.
Upon arrival, after a 20-minute drive due to inevitable Bangkok traffic, it was clear which platform we needed to be at. We gave ourselves an hour prior to the 18:10 departure time to allow for any mishaps or confusion. We also made a very cute friend whilst we waited.
A carriage of dreams
Boarding the train was painless, with our car and seat numbers clearly stated on our tickets. This was the first sleeper train experience for the three of us, so we were certainly in for a treat.
We admired the modern carriages and appreciated the cleanliness of the facilities and the much-needed air-conditioning! As backpackers on a budget, we were more than prepared to ‘slum it’, but our journey with Bookaway was surely the opposite.
After settling into our seats and finding our hoodies – it took some time to adjust to the brisk A/C – we got chatting to our fellow passengers.
We met two girls, one from Australia and the other from France, and a guy from the Netherlands. All three of them solo travelers. The six of us exchanged tales of our previous adventures, and the ones who were reaching the end of their trip imparted their wisdom onto us newbies. It was the perfect introduction to life on the road in Southeast Asia.
We also shared our carriage with about forty other people. Mostly tourists, but locals clearly used the service as well.
After an hour or so after our train set off, an attendant came through our carriage and laid out each bed individually. The upper level beds folded down to reveal a selection of freshly washed blankets, sheets and pillows. The attendant made every single bed up for us and was very efficient in doing so – he’d clearly done this before! We were also offered a free small bottle of water each. Although we had bought our own snacks with us, we also had the option to buy from the food cart that was walked down the aisle once or twice.
Three’s a crowd, fifty’s a very interesting sleepover
Originally, I thought it would be tricky trying to sleep in the same carriage with fifty other people having conversations, rustling around in their bags, watching videos without headphones, but that wasn’t the case at all.
As the night drew closer, everyone respected the mutual need for a few hours of undisturbed sleep. With my eye mask and ear plugs at the ready, one by one each passenger drew the curtains of their designated compartment. Slowly but surely, the carriage fell into a slumber, whilst gradually chugging its way 693km up the country. The steady rumbling of the train was unexpectedly peaceful, and I was asleep in no time.
Rise and shine
I woke up to my 5:30am alarm which was set in mutual agreement with my two friends as we wanted to be awake to watch the sunrise as the train continued through the Thai countryside. So far, we’d only witnessed pitch black outside our window. Seeing the sun slowly light up the green open spaces was a refreshing sight after two days in crowded Bangkok, and it quickly boosted my excitement for the next adventure in Northern Thailand.
There were a few stops along the way once we’d woken up, but we knew this was scheduled within the 13-hour journey, and we had more time to enjoy the views regardless, so we had no complaints.
Staff came around offering morning coffee and snacks around 6:15, at which point most passengers were awake and packing up their things.
Soon enough, the train came to a halt and we were making our way onto the Chiang Mai station platform. We were greeted by a huge number of ‘tuk-tuk’ and taxi drivers awaiting our arrival. We ended up choosing a ‘sorng-taa-ou’ (a sort of pick-up truck that can seat up to 10 people in the back). It seemed to be the cheapest option to get us closer to our hostel to drop off our bags before a new day of adventures ahead of us.