Bangkok to Chiang Mai via Overnight Train

I managed the train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai twice during my stay in Thailand. The first time took 14 hours. The second? Twenty.

The Thai railway system is excrutiatingly slow. However, the sleeper train is cheaper than an Air Asia flight (pay more to get there in an hour) and much more comfortable than the 12-hour, upright bus ride. Not to mention, I had heard the experience is well worth it. (Click here for the most reliable time and price tables.)

Heidi sits in our crowded sleeper room.

My first trip, back in February, was with my friends Duke and Heidi from Colorado. I met them in Bangkok for a self-declared extended holiday (Hey, the school grants sick days. I might as well use them!) and crashed their VIP cabin ($48 each) for the overnight journey. Instead of purchasing a ticket like an honest person, I copied Heidi’s printout and hoped for the best. The train attendant didn’t even blink. I was in!

We stalked up on beer, but ended up ordering another bucket because we liked our cabin attendant and he works on commission (“Oh yes, a bucket? Thank you. Thank you!”). We ordered a disappointing dinner, watched a movie on Duke’s iPad, enjoyed our 40’s of Chang (it’s rare to order anything smaller because food and drinks are typically shared) and eventually passed out to the rumble of the train chugging along .

In the morning, I awoke with an immense load of remorse for my free ride. Four months in a Buddhist country can amplify one’s belief in karma, and I was certain I had something terrible coming my way. I asked for another cold, unsatisfying meal to wash down my guilt and stared out the cabin window, noticing for the first time how vastly the scenery in the north differs from that in the rest of the country. The landscape is green, mountainous, gorgeous.

“Be there in one hour!” The attendant shouted in the walkway.

An hour later, we heard the same announcement. Eventually, we arrived. And just when I didn’t think the trek could get any longer, my second journey proved me wrong.

In April, I was with my friend Nicole. We lucked out and bought the last two tickets available, opting for split, second-class sleepers ($26 each). We were traveling during Songkran – the Thai New Year and Thailand’s largest holiday – hoping to experience the five-day celebration in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

I warned Nicole about the terrible food, so we took enough for dinner and breakfast. We didn’t expect to still be on the train for lunch, but we were. While stretching our legs, we discovered a food car and ordered the only thing left in the kitchen – a dry, ham and cheese sandwich – and a beer to wash it down.

After twenty hours on a frequently stopped train, without a shower or a decent meal, we arrived in Chiang Mai. If an extra six hours spent in route was my only karmic payback, I’d say Buddha wasn’t too offended that I cheated my way out of a free ride the first time.

Where was the best/worst train ride you’ve taken? Do you have any karmic travel stories?


  1. Jonathan says:

    I have nothing like the journey you have described, but I do have a story about walking high in the hills of southern Turkey – where local people with nothing offered us food and drink they didn’t have to share. Humbling experience… I’ll have to write it up for the blog at some point.

    • jessicajhill says:

      That sounds amazing – I would love to read about it. I had similar experiences in Thailand and Laos. It’s amazing how generous some people really are.

  2. Coreen says:

    I just could not help laughing. Great story and thank you for sharing your travels with us.
    I’m from South Africa and when I get the opportunity to travel overseas I will grab it with both arms and legs. For now I’ll travel through South Africa. I am very lucky that both my boys also love traveling and don’t mind that a 6 hour road trip turned out to be 14 hours. I just love taking photo’s every few kilometers….

    • jessicajhill says:

      You sound like a lucky mom! I certainly hope you get the chance to travel overseas one day, but in the mean time, South Africa doesn’t sound so bad. I would love to come visit your country. Ill have to check out some of your photos, Thanks for following my adventures!

  3. We took the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It was a long ride and we made the mistake of not getting first class. We also ended up right next to the bathrooms…not the best place to be on a busy train. The worst part was that at some point they turned off the air conditioning. The smell, the heat, and the shaky bed meant no sleep and a long, uncomfortable night.

    • jessicajhill says:

      Oh wow, being near the stinky bathrooms would be horrendous! Im really glad I did the ride once, but the second time was too many. Next time, I’d fly! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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