Night Train to Chiang Mai

Hey, remember when I actually used maps to illustrate this blog? That was fun, wasn’t it? Let’s try that again: Bangkok’s at the bottom, Chiang Mai’s at the top.

“Remind me again why we have to take a night train to get to Chiang Mai?” I said to Hayley as we dragged our backpacks to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station on Thursday.

“I don’t know… because it’s what you do,” she answered, probably frustrated at me for having posed this question at least 37 times since Thailand made its first appearance on our proposed travel itinerary.

“But,” (and I always had the same “buts” for this answer), “it takes 13 hours. And the bus only takes ten. And why does it have to be a night train, anyway?” At this point I’d usually go on about the discomfort involved in sleeping with one’s laptop under the small of one’s back to hinder theft, the sweaty inconvenience of wearing a money-belt for 13 straight hours, the general difficulty I foresaw in sleeping soundly with nothing but a curtain between you and what could be a train chock-a-block with criminals, for all you knew.

“Look,” Hayley answered for the 38th time, “It’s just what you do. And so many people we’ve met wouldn’t have told us to do it if it weren’t good, right?” And then, the ultimate kicker, “Look, I mean, do you have a better idea?”

That argument tends to shut me up pretty quickly these days. And so, with some degree of apprehension, I strapped my passport and credit cards on under my shirt and boarded the 7:30 p.m. train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

The “hallway” in 2nd class. Each of these yellow curtains denotes a set of two bunks; four to a nook.

My plan for the night, I’d decided while waiting to board, would be the following: I’d drink copious amounts of Diet Coke – enough to stay up all night writing and watching movies on my laptop, but not enough to have to brave the train’s toilets. By remaining awake and alert throughout the night, I’d be ready at all hours to fend off lookie-loos or potential felons who might come peering through the curtains around my bunk. I might develop a mean kink in my back from sleeping on my MacBook; I might be a zombie by morning. I’d just have to get through it.

But as soon as we boarded and settled into our little cabin, I realized something truly shocking: sleeper trains are pretty sweet.

Hayley would like me to clarify that she actually slept in the top bunk, while I slept on the bottom bunk. Still, I was not about to pass up a chance to climb up a ladder inside a train.

If you can’t comprehend how that could possibly be true (I definitely didn’t), let me throw a few facts at you:

1. On the sleeper train, an attendant will come around and make up your bed for you. He’ll roll a little mattress out across the bench-like seat, tuck a clean white sheet around it, fluff your pillow into a crisp new case, and break the plastic seal on a fuzzy blanket that you can snuggle up with as the AC sets in.

2. You can order actual, cooked food that gets physically delivered to your cabin. I’m talking about a real, printed menu, a stewardess who will come around to take your order, and a multi-course platter of freshly prepared Thai food brought straight to you with real cutlery.

Three-course meal plus rice and pineapple juice, delivered to our cabin. Approximate cost: US $5.50. And that’s an expensive meal in Thailand.

3. You basically get to spend the night in your own private blanket fort.

My “room” for the night.

4. You can, and do, actually wake up with the sunrise. Light starts to seep in through your bunk’s window around 6:00 a.m., your first indication that you have, indeed, fallen asleep, and have managed to fall surprisingly deeply at that.

Sunrise, somewhere in Central Thailand.

5. Once you rub your eyes awake, you can spend hours just watching jungle- and farm-scapes drift lazily by while you curl up in bed and eat a croissant.

First bull sighting of the morning.

6. You quickly begin to see the worthwhileness of just taking your time to get somewhere. Suddenly it’s not about the cheapest or fastest way to get from point A to point B: it’s about chugging along the length of a country so slowly that you can actually make eye-contact with the guys working in the rice paddies outside your window.

Right side of the tracks.

7. Instant coffee and fresh pineapple in the dining car, with warm air pushing through the open windows and Thai love songs floating on the radio airwaves, can make a three-hour delay feel like an unexpected bonus.

Working our way, slowly, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

In the end, I still slept on top of my laptop. I still went 15 voluntary hours without peeing. And I still enjoyed it immensely.

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11 thoughts on “Night Train to Chiang Mai

  1. Oh gosh… I took a 36h train journey from beijing to guiyang once… Let me just note these three differences…
    1. 6 bunks to a compartment
    2. It was BYOFood
    3. There is no earthly way to go 36+ hours without peeing.

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  4. Oh the night train looks so nice and european–I took the night bus years ago, and I think you how how that trip was! Ha! But I’m forever hankering to go and do it all again. Enjoy! Elizabeth

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  6. Hey! Thanks so much for this post we are literally hours away from catching the same train. It was really great to read and see what the experience will be like. 🙂

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