State Railways of Thailand
Though road travel is extremely well organized in Thailand, train travel is still the most comfortable way to get around for those who do not like to fly. Train travel is cheap (about the same as travel by bus), fast (though typically some 50% slower than buses) and reliable (by and large trains arrive with tolerable delays of around 5% of the travel times). This may well be challenged in 2004 with the opening of several "low cost" airlines providing domestic and regional services. It can be a mistake to think that you will see the countryside from the trai, due to the intensity of the sun, the blinds on at least one side of the train will be drawn.
Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station on Rama IV Road is the central hub for all rail travel in Thailand. From there, railway lines reach out much as a star to all four directions. When traveling from the south to the north, or the east to the west, one will not only have to pass through Hua Lamphong Station but also change trains as all lines end in Bangkok.
The State Railway of Thailand divides its network into a southern, a northern, a northeastern and an eastern line. Though the network does not branch out much, there are actually two northeastern lines, and there is a short western line as well. One of the northeastern lines goes to Nong Khai, just opposite the Laotian capital of Vientiane, while the other goes to Ubon Ratchathani.
The main eastern line is to Aranyaprathet at the Cambodian border, and one could continue on that line until Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, were it not for the extensive damage the Cambodian railways system suffered during that country’s long civil war. The first obstacle on the route is the Thai / Cambodian border river. The railway bridge near Aranyaprathet on Cambodian territory was bombed. It is, however, just a question of time until the rail service to Phnom Penh is re-established.
A shorter branch of the eastern line goes along the coast, passing by Pattaya. Unfortunatley there is only one train a day, leaving Bangkok just before 07:00 am and arriving in Pattaya at 11:35. The return journey departs at 14:00 leaving little time to explore. Any thought of a day trip is further hampered by the fact that the station is way outside Pattaya itself. The bus ride into Pattaya will probably cost you more than the train fare from Bangkok! As an added bonus, there is no service at weekends. Timetable
The northern line goes straight to Chiang Mai, without branching off anywhere. Timetable
The western line goes up to Nam Tok, beyond Kanchanaburi; it is commercially important only up to Kanchanaburi, the site where during World War II, prisoners of war built the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. Timetable
The southern line connects with Malaysia at Padang Besar and at Sungai Kolok. There is a straight connection from Bangkok up to Butterworth, much travelled by Westerners who stay long periods of time in Thailand without becoming residents; they have to leave the country every three month, and so far, the most convenient place to go to for renewals of visas is Penang, just opposite Butterworth. View Timetable
Singapore and Malaysia
Though one can purchase in Bangkok through-tickets to Singapore, the connections aren’t very good, and one cannot make reservations for Malaysian trains in Thailand. Though it’s possible to reach Kuala Lumpur in time for an overnight connection to Singapore, it’s often not possible anymore to make reservations for sleeping berths as the reservation counters in Kuala Lumpur just close when the train from Butterworth, carrying through-passengers from Bangkok, arrives.
Quite a few people end up with no sleeping berth on the last leg of their trip, even though they hold sleeper tickets. Refunds are easily obtained at Singapore Railway Station which is run by the Malaysian Railway; conductors in the trains make notes on sleeping berth tickets that they weren’t used.
The connections from Singapore to Bangkok are even worse than those from Bangkok to Singapore. Often passengers from Singapore arrive in Butterworth just a few minutes after the Thai train for Bangkok has left. In 1992, a direct luxurious train, dubbed Orient Express, is to go into operation between Bangkok and Singapore.
Travel on Thai trains is in three classes, first, second and third, though in second class, two sub-classes were created, one aircon, one non-aircon. Roughly, fares for second class aircon are about double of third class fares, and first class costs about four times as much as third class. Third class is on small hard benches and not very suitable for long trips. Most foreign visitors travel second class, either aircon or non-aircon. For second class aircon and second class non-aircon, and of course in first class, sleeping berths are available on long distance trains.
Aside from different classes of seats (or accommodation), there are also different categories of trains. Ordinary trains are slowest, and they often only have third class carriages. Rapid, express, and special express are fast long distance trains. The difference in speed among the three of them is not really sufficient reason for choosing the one and not the other. Special express is a little bit faster than express, and express a little bit faster than rapid.
There are also diesel rail cars and special diesel rail cars. The ordinary carriages only operate on the eastern line, and there are no other trains there. The special rail cars go on the northern line from Bangkok up to Phitsanulok, and on that stretch they are even faster than special express trains.
The following supplementary charges are in effect, regardless of the distance traveled on a train. Rapid train charge, 20 Baht; express train charge, 30 Baht; special express train charge, 50 Baht. Aircon charge for second and third class carriages, 50 Baht. First class sleeping berth, 250 Baht(cabin with two berths). Second class aircon upper berth, 200 Baht; lower berth 250 Baht. Second class non-aircon upper berth, 70 Baht; lower berth 100 Baht. Second class non- aircon berth on special express trains, upper 100 Baht, lower 150 Baht.
In second class aircon carriages, the lower berths are considerably more comfortable as the upper berths are pretty close to aircon openings in the ceiling. Linens and blankets are provided with all sleeping berths. All express trains have sleeping berths carriages, but only some of the rapid trains.
On all long distance trains, excellent Thai dishes are served either in the carriages or in the restaurant cars. The attendants of sleeping berths cars distribute printed menus which offer the traveler a choice of a number of set menus. Prices are not exactly low but the food is certainly delicious.
The same dishes can be ordered in a less fancy setting (menu thammada) and at a the same prices which are charged at the restaurant car.
While there is generally no budget food available on express trains, good and cheap Thai dishes are sold on rapid trains. They are offered in all non-aircon carriages in Styrofoam packs and typically cost just about 20 Baht. Ambulant vendors offer cheap dishes on railway station platforms but the hygienic standard is sometimes not the highest.
Reservations for sleeping berths on long distance trains are recommended and a necessity to ensure that one can travel on a chosen date. Reservations can be made up to 90 days prior to the travel date. The reservation office in Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station, open Mon-Fri 8:30-18:00 and Sat, Sun and hol 8:30- 12:00, usually is crowded, and not seldom, one will have to wait for more than one hour. The system is that one takes a number and waits until it’s due to be served.
For children under 3 years, no fare is charged, provided they do not require separate seats, and provided they are, so the State Railway of Thailand verbally, "less than 100 cms in height" (39in). This allocation should be generous enough to accommodate children of Western visitors.
Children over 3 but under 12 are charged half of the adult fare, provided their height does not exceed 150 cms (59in).
Changing reservations entails fees. Refunds are only available if they are claimed no later than three hours after the departure of the train for which the booking was done, and a fee is deducted.
The State Railway of Thailand also organizes special tourist trips, for example to Pattaya, Ko Samui and Kanchanaburi. As itineraries change and not all arrangements are offered all the time, it is best to inquire about details either at the Hua Lamphong Railway Station or at any travel agency. Usually, these arranged trips are good value when compared to the sightseeing arrangements of private tour operators.
Foreign visitors can take advantage of the Visit Thailand Rail Pass which allows unlimited travel within 20 days. The prices for the Rail Pass were reduced in 1991, and the Rail Pass is now available at around the cost of a single return trip between Bangkok and Butterworth. Anybody who has to make his or her regular journey out of Thailand every three months may as well buy the Rail Pass instead of the ordinary ticket. And for those who have to travel from Chiang Mai to Butterworth, getting a Rail Pass for 20 days is even cheaper than buying normal tickets. There are two types of Rail Passes:
Pass A which costs 1500 Baht for adults and half for children within the above specified measurements permits traveling in all 2nd and 3rd class cars but supplementary charges such as for sleeper or express trains still have to be paid.
Pass B costs 3000 Baht for adults and again half for children within the age and height limits but includes all supplementary charges. 3000 Baht for 3 weeks really is an exceptionally good deal. If one doesn't mind spending every night on a train between Bangkok and any provincial city, it's really the best accommodation deal one could get.
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