Rocking on the Rails: Riding Third-Class Trains in Thailand

The ride from Chiang Mai to Den Chai, a small town in Phrae province, takes four hours by train. We rode the “rapid” train, third class, departure time at 6:30 a.m. I was nervous.

There was a heavy group debate among the Outpost Team on whether we should take first, second or third class. Should we take first class and get some rest, maybe catch up on blogs and arrive refreshed for a full day of shooting? Or take third class and sneak a peek at the authenticity of a Thai train?

We ultimately decided to take third class, wanting to get a true feeling of what a Thai train can offer. After all, we are making a travel documentary about Thailand!

I was a fan of the decision for a number of reasons. Unlike in first class, the windows in third class open up, allowing a stream of fresh air to flow through the car. I was also excited to meet local people, break the language barrier (or at least challenge it) and eat some more delicious foreign food.

riding third class trains thailand

Open the windows and let some countryside air in. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

As we boarded the early-morning train, I was delighted to find myself seated across from two adorable Thai women that insisted on feeding me the spiciest chicken on a stick I’ve ever eaten. I love spicy food, but these chickens were straight from an episode of  Fear Factor, and let’s not forget it was 6:30 a.m. My eyes were burning and my face was sweating, but I couldn’t stop eating them!

The train authorities came by to punch our tickets, and off we went. We had the wind in our hair, spice in our bellies and four hours to kill. I attempted to communicate with my new Thai friends by complimenting one on her gorgeous pink scarf; she showed that she understood by pointing, giggling and smiling. Mission complete; friendship made.

Within the four hours, we made many stops along the way, and at every stop we would pick up a new group of locals selling bags of fruit, sticks of meat, hardboiled eggs and paper cups of coffee. I took a chance with some sticky chunks of pineapple and it turned out to be some of the most delicious fruit I’ve eaten. I was reluctant to share, but I thought it best to at least offer. When I discovered that the team had also purchased some pineapple, I was relieved that I could eat every bit of my tropical treat.

what are thai third class trains like

Smiles for everyone aboard! (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

Although people are free to move about and explore the train, we were most curious about the restaurant car. What type of food do they have? Are there tables? How big is the menu? We decided to take a stroll.

The restaurant was three cars back from our seats, so it was a quick walk. Upon our arrival, a smiley man in a brown uniform gave us two menus: one in English and one in Thai. We decided it best to choose the fried rice with vegetables as we didn’t know if the food would be fresh or microwaved… after all, we were on a train!

But when the food arrived, to our surprise and delight, it was all freshly prepared. Carrots, bok choy, corn, celery, broccoli and cauliflower sat over fluffy rice, mixed with a light soy sauce. Yum!

Halfway through the meal, our waiter brought over a long, red speaker and his iPod. He immediately started blasting out Bon Jovi’s iconic “It’s My Life,” and right away, Jess and I (using utensils as microphones) started belting out the lyrics. Afterwards we finished the meal, thanked our waiter-cum-DJ, and settled back into our seats to finish the journey.

A fabulous adventure filled with food, laughter and music is always great. Throw in some culture and spice and you’ve got another win for the records.

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