Not many people come to Bangkok and DON’T continue their journey to other Thai cities. I suppose the beach bums among us will head south to Phuket or Ko Samui for some relaxation on the golden sands, yet the more adventurous explorers in our midst will want to head north to the rural countryside of Chiang Mai. This journey to Chiang Mai is quite an extensive one (7-10 hours), but it is one of the more popular routes that a backpacker will take in his or her lifetime.
Tickets for the night train to Chiang Mai can be purchased from windows 15-22 at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station. You need your passport with you when you buy the tickets (just like when buying train tickets in Myanmar), but they are cheap and easy to obtain once you’re at the station. You generally want to pay for your tickets the day before travel (2 or 3 days before is more advisable in peak season) since the night train is really popular with backpackers from all around the globe.
There are a few different trains to choose from but I recommend the express train, which is train number 1, as this train is not scheduled to stop anywhere else, plus it arrives into Chiang Mai earlier than the others. The cabin classes can be a little tricky, as the type of seat or bed differs with each train – but whatever you do, do not go the CHEAPSKATE option of 3rd class, as this will probably be the worst ride of your life! The sensible options for all backpackers are the first class sleepers, or the second class sleepers.
First class sleepers are little cabins, and usually two berth (I have used similar cabins in Myanmar on my way to Bagan, and on the Reunification Express in Vietnam), although on this occasion I chose the 2nd class sleeper, which contains a seat that converts into a bed.
Second class is probably what most people will want to pay for, and this class doesn’t have personal cabins, but rather a completely open plan row of beds running horizontal down the carriage. Each bed has curtains for privacy, and although the windows don’t open the carriage does have air conditioning – although be warned that it gets GOD DARN COLD! I paid 900 Baht for my ticket, although if you want to go cheaper you can choose a cabin without air conditioning. I know from my time riding trains in Indonesia that carriages get very cold, as the air conditioning is WAY TOO POWERFUL, yet I simply cannot use public transport without air con!
Fortunately, when departing Bangkok, the crew will give you a pillow and a small blanket, and I had a jumper in my backpack, which I put on immediately (quite strange seeing as it was 75 degrees outside!). They never turn the lights off on the train, which kind of surprised me a little. I have very sensitive eyes at the best of times, so I was not looking forward to trying to sleep in full light. I would recommend that you bring an eye mask, and of course some earplugs in case you get some unscrupulous neighbours…
On my journey, I was on close confines with a very large Russian family, and a few other British tourists. We all seemed to get along very well with each other, although socialising was at a minimum. I tried to do some offline blogging on my laptop, but gave up in the end, and just watched a movie on my iPad until I needed to “hit the hay” (for Non-English readers, this idiom means “go to sleep” – impress your friends!). I think I slept for a few hours with 1 time fully awake and a few more times “restless” (I know this because I use Fitbit). The time that I was awake I spent thinking about what I could see in Chiang Mai, as this would be my first time to this splendid Thai city. I hoped it would be the opposite of dirty, smelly, polluted Bangkok – and my tummy began to rumble as I thought over and over about the kind of food I would find in the night markets there…could I finally find myself some authentic Sai Ua?
To my surprise, the other passengers were pretty quiet throughout the journey (even the Russians), although in the early hours of the morning, a couple of hours before arrival in Chiang Mai, Thai locals began socialising in the aisles and talking loudly. As Thai is one of the few Asian languages I cannot speak, I had no idea what they were chatting about, but I wished they had been more considerate to the rest of us who were still trying to sleep (or dream of food, in my case)!
Other transport is of course available to use between these two popular Thai cities. Buses are really no cheaper than trains in Thailand, but I think us backpackers just like the ease of use of these buses, and it saves us having to travel to the train station to begin our journey in earnest! The overnight bus between Bangkok and Chiang Mai takes around 7 hours, and it is something of a backpacker’s ritual to take this bus. However, with my experience of transport in Thailand (and with the arduous journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap in mind), I just wanted to try something different, and that’s why I went with the train. If you simply cannot be bothered to travel overnight, or for a long period of time, then flying will be your best option! It is more expensive than land travel (obviously), but air fares are still much cheaper than they used to be, and AirAsia is a cheap(ish) and reliable option, with multiple flights per day. Flight time is under an hour. Make sure you don’t choose the last flight of the day, though, as if there is a cancellation due to technical problems, you will have to wait until the morning for the next flight!
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, I was pleasantly surprised at how…rural it seemed. Of course, there are still little ugly reminders that you’re in Thailand, but overall, the air felt fresh in Chiang Mai, and everything seemed so green in comparison to the capital further down south. I can now see why they call Chiang Mai the adventure capital of Thailand – the verdant jungle scenery and tropical rivers (as opposed to Bangkok’s concrete jungle and polluted canals) is perfect for rafting, biking, hiking, and even spotting the local wildlife, such as elephants!