For many, the literal travel aspect of backpacking—getting from point A to point B—is the worst part of, well, travelling. This is especially true if you’re in a country where your only options are stifling buses on winding roads; cramped boats on choppy water; or commercial airplanes if you’re not fortunate enough to be bumped up to first class (I’ve been on hundreds of flights and that has only happened a grand total of once!)
But in Thailand, train travel allows for the journey to be almost as enjoyable an experience as the destination.
When I learned we were travelling on an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I was initially disheartened, assuming it’d be a sleepless 13 hours in an uncomfortable seat. But I was wonderfully surprised when I encountered the spacious berths with crisp sheets and fresh pillows. Each berth had a privacy curtain, and the “female carriage” Lena and I were in was hushed throughout the night—save for that one impudent individual who decided to eat a packet of chips at 4 o’clock in the morning.
During wakeful hours, the berths morphed into plush seating around large windows through which to happily contemplate the passing landscape, and a foldable table that made working on a laptop easy.
If you want an experience that’s less plush and more rustic—more rugged adventure as opposed to a respite—there’s a train for that, too. The rickety train chugging through the sleepy countryside between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi is a fantastic chance to make new friends.
(An aside: Kanchanaburi is a town approximately 144 kilometers east of the capital, where the infamous WWII-era Bridge Over the River Kwai is located. The town houses several testaments to the now-famed story of Allied POWs who were frog-marched through thick jungle and who, alongside Thai and other Asian slave labour, were put to work building a railway to neighbouring Burma. The story did not end well, and a visit to Kanchanaburi offers a great opportunity to leave Thailand more learned and educated about human history than you might have been before you arrived.
Kanchanaburi is also notable for being a fantastic gateway into Thailand’s still somewhat undiscovered western wildlands.)
But back to the train: Lena and I bonded in “Thaiglish” to a chuckling Grandma Poon, who treated us to pork curry served in banana leaves vended by a hawker traipsing the cars. We also had an engaging discussion with a university professor about the recent passing of the beloved King—all the while glimpsing furtively at the entrancing man with the gang tattoos and sacred amulets.
Whether you’re looking to sneak in some sleep or do a few hours of work, or just an opportunity to chat with some locals (after all, what better way to pass the sluggish four-and-a-half hours?), the ideal way by far to travel in Thailand is by train. After all, a country isn’t just points A and B—it’s also everywhere in between.