The tale of Thomas the Thai engine

The train journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is far more rewarding than flying, says Andrew Eames
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An hour out of Chiang Mai, the Bangkok-bound express ground to a halt among spindly teak trees in the hills above Lampang, and my journey southwards suddenly came over all Reverend Awdry. The diesel, which had started out by growling theatrically and belching black smoke through the suburbs, had begun to wheeze asthmatically now it was up in the hills. So its drivers decided to give it a bit of a rest.

I stuck my head out of the window of the restaurant car in time to witness a little human comedy, as the drivers clambered up on the roof while the rest of the train crew formed a human chain transferring buckets of water from the nearest trackside spring.

The diesel had overheated, so they were giving it a cold shower. The Reverend Awdry, author of Thomas the Tank Engine, would surely have found the scene inspirational and given it a title. But then – I started to think – he'd have to have a name for his main character, and given that this was Thailand, it would be long, unpronounceable, and possibly salacious. "Pornpong, the diesel that wheezed" didn't sound quite right for a family audience.

There was something surreal about my immediate surroundings inside, too. The restaurant, the only non air-conditioned carriage in the train, had all its windows open to the breezes, and it was sharing its very individual soundtrack with the flora and fauna of the rainforest. In front of me a couple of off-duty policemen were studiously working their way through a half bottle of Mekhong (Thai whisky), and joining in on the rather salacious choruses. Outside, dusk was setting in, and distant car headlights flickered through the leaves, while inside the purple disco lights strung along the carriage ceiling flickered back in response, the closest thing to fireflies in the vicinity.

All in all, it was a fairly bizarre scene, but one that made me smile at the time, and one that fills me with affection, as I write this, for Thai trains. I'm no anorak but I've always had a penchant for train journeys. While other forms of transport have become increasingly homogenised, a lot of far-away trains have retained their local character. Moreover on a train you can talk to people and watch the landscape go past, while on a motorway all you can do is mutter and watch the lorry in front, and on a plane you see nothing but clouds and bad food.

And these days there's a new, very compelling argument for making the most of far-away expresses like the one I was on: the increased price of airline fuel. My train ticket for the 14-hour trip between the two cities cost me just 761 baht, or £17.20, and that included my sleeper berth. That's about half the cost of a flight. In addition, I saved a night's hotel bill, and didn't waste a day on the road.

In Thailand, trains like this one are particularly well set up for tourists, and I reckoned that at least 40 per cent of the passengers on my train were non-Thai. In my carriage I got talking to an American missionary with three children under 10, and a German couple who had their own business re-selling equipment from closed-down British manufacturing.

Every now and then a very camp member of the train crew would come past and squeal a delighted "Hello, babies!" at the missionary's children.

I'd seen the crew on the platform of Chiang Mai station before departure, where a dozen of them dressed in white had been drawn up in ranks, to be lectured by the train boss. But beside them, the train also had black-uniformed policemen, the catering crew in custard yellow, the train cleaners in turquoise overalls, and the operational staff in navy blue. There were at least 50 personnel for this one service alone.

The restaurant car was the social centre for everyone, passengers and crew alike. Unfortunately that meant that there was pressure on seats, so once I'd had my sweet and sour fish, and the locomotive had recovered sufficiently to get us over the top and down the other side again, I felt I'd better let somebody else have the benefit of the singing policemen.

By now it was long since dark, and down in the sleeping carriages all the curtains had been pulled, isolating the individual berths into their own little worlds. So I climbed up into my cocoon, unwrapped the clean sheets and lay back with my book, until I was rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the train.

Next morning we were in Bangkok by 7.15, half-an-hour late. Rev Awdry's Fat Controller might not have been impressed, but as we spilled onto the platform in the heart of the Thai capital, we passengers were.

Thai railways information is on, with good information services and advance booking offices in all the stations. If you must book online (not necessary outside main festival seasons) go to