Train travel. Suspended in the rocking belly of the iron beast, with Thailand scrolling past your window—bridges, backyards, paddies, hills and the clang of level-crossing bells—there’s nothing quite like it, says veteran travel writer John Borthwick.
It all starts at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong terminus, the heart of a rail web stretching from Nong Khai to Hat Yai. A throwback to the glory days of rail travel (it was built in 1916 by King Rama V, the monarch credited with protecting Thailand from colonization), this grand old dowager with its vaulted roof gives any journey a ceremonial sense of departure.
The night express to Chiang Mai is the classic Thailand rail trip. I board it for the 750-kilometer (465-mile) journey, ready to rock (quite literally) on Thailand’s narrow, one-meter gauge tracks. I’ve booked a four-berth compartment with upper and lower bunks in the popular, air-conditioned second class.
A snappily-dressed State Railway of Thailand inspector checks our tickets, followed by a caterer who takes meal orders. When my vegetarian option arrives, a Thai gent in the compartment laughs: “No spice, no meat, no fun. Monk food, I think.”
“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” says train traveler extraordinaire Paul Theroux, who rode the Thai rails twice during his epic, round-the-world train jaunts, as later immortalized in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). The old wooden sleeper cars of his 1970s jaunt from Bangkok to Singapore are long gone but this 2000-kilometer (1250 miles) rail adventure is still there for the taking.
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For this is one of the great train journeys of the world, all yours for two days of your time and less than a hundred dollars. However, should a distant uncle will you his secret Bitcoin wallet, lash out on a once-in-a-lifetime rolling romp on the Eastern & Oriental Express. This private Bangkok to Singapore special is a rolling work of art—the rosewood and elm marquetry alone is worthy of a museum spot—and then there’s its unique caboose with a view.
True, the E&O Express is a heinously expensive, post-colonial bubble—retro-Rajing, so to speak—but to stand on its open-air, last car viewing platform and watch Thailand slip away behind you, green and templed, jungle or riverside, is one of the most beautiful perspectives anywhere in the kingdom of rails.
Meanwhile back in Thailand, try the country’s shortest rail line. The 67-kilometer (40-mile) Mae Khlong Railway, between Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai and Samut Songkhram, terminates amid the melee of a local market. Thais call it Talad Rohm Hoop, “umbrella pull down market,” but foreigners know it better as the Risky Market. The tracks run through the middle of the market stalls and are completely overhung by canvas shade awnings.
The morning train, a two-carriage electric service, arrives with a horn blast. Hawkers rush to pull back their awnings, with only seconds to spare. The market parts before the train, like the Red Sea before Moses. My Thai buddy hauls me backwards, saying, “The train got no wrong.” Understood! I fling myself against a wall, flat as a pressed duck, as the train rumbles by, inches from my face. Risky marketing, indeed.