Thailand by train: Experience real life on the rails

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The train journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is far more rewarding than flying, says Andrew Eames

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 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 on to 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. Moreover 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 manufacturers.

Every now and then a 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 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 into Bangkok by 7.15, half-an-hour late. Reverend 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 www.railway.co.th, 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 thailandtrainticket.com.

Rail rovers: Five great train journeys

Turkey

Istanbul to Adana

Travelling between Istanbul and the resort-rich Mediterranean shore involves a scenic long haul up and over the Anatolian plateau via Konya, home to the whirling dervishes, and onward to Adana. The journey begins in particularly romantic fashion from the grand station of Haydarapasa, which stands right at the water's edge and is reached by ferry across the Bosphorus. The daily Mavi Express, with comfortable sleeping cars, takes 20 hours to reach Adana. Details are on the Turkey page of seat61.com, and online bookings can also be made via the Turkish railways site at www.tcdd.gov.tr

Vietnam

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

The longest train journey in South-east Asia links Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and it is very popular with travellers, particularly as it runs along the coast for much of its route. To do the whole journey takes three days, so you should plan to stop at Danang, Hue or the resort of Nha Trang. There are air-conditioned sleepers and bags of local character. The English version of the train operator website vr.com.vn doesn't seem to be working, so enter via the Vietnamese version and navigate with the help of Google Translate.

India

Mumbai to Goa

So you want to see a bit of Indian city life, with all its oppressive humanity, plus a bit of beach? Then you need to travel from Mumbai (Bombay) to Goa along the relatively high-speed Konkan railway, right – a piece of railway engineering through wild, hilly country whose construction cost many lives. The Konkan Kanya Express leaves Mumbai at 11.05pm and arrives in Madgaon (Goa) 12 hours later. Standard accommodation in three-tier sleepers is a cultural experience in itself, with many Indian families prepared to share their dinner and their life stories with foreign travellers. Booking possible via konkanrailway.com.

Egypt

Cairo to Aswan via Luxor

Even before the recent political upheaval in Egypt, tourists were carefully shepherded towards specific departures on this well-travelled journey alongside the Nile. There's a daytime train which leaves Cairo at 8am and arrives at about 9.30pm, or a choice of night-time sleepers, particularly the one which is meant to be foreigners only, which leaves at 8pm and arrives at 9.40am. This latter service is comfortable and partially privatised (details on sleepingtrains.com) and you pay more for the privilege. Unfortunately, online booking is not yet perfected, so you'll need to go to Cairo's Ramses station.

Morocco

Casablanca to Marrakech

The Marrakech Express was put on the map by Crosby, Stills and Nash, and although the hippy era has moved on, the train still runs through the village life immortalised in the song. It's a good journey, from the urban sprawl of the coast to the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Trains are ex-French and comfortable. There are plenty of departures daily, and the trip is four hours. While Casablanca has fewer flights from the UK than Marrakech, a new link on BMI from Heathrow means you could build it into an open-jaw itinerary. oncf.ma

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