Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand

Post Published October 18, 2023

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Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Experience Thailand's Stunning Scenery by Rail

For travelers seeking to experience Thailand's natural wonders, there may be no better way than riding the rails through this visually stunning country. Gliding past mountains, forests, fields, and coastlines allows you to take in a broad diversity of landscapes at a relaxed pace. Thailand's scenery ranges from the golden temples of Bangkok to misty northern mountains to palm-fringed southern beaches. Its trains provide easy access across regions while serving up constantly changing vistas.

One great scenery train is the route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This overnight trip winds through the central plains, where water buffalo graze and farmers work emerald rice paddies. Passing rivers and hills, you may spot messy stork nests atop telegraph poles. In the morning, the terrain changes, becoming hillier and more jungle-clad. The train reaches Lampang, where the Wang River courses under an antique wooden railway bridge. Further on, limestone cliffs and peaks signal arrival in the mountainous north.
The leg from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai offers more mountain eye candy. After rolling through scenic Lampang, the train traverses high-altitude country around Thoeng. Prepare for stunning hill tribe vistas as you approach Chiang Rai. ACL's observation car offers prime wildlife viewing as gibbons swing through trees and colorful birds flit by.

In the far south, the train from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok borders Malaysia, hugging the coastline. Glimpse islands rising offshore as you cross bridge after bridge. Watch fishing boats bobbing on the shimmering sea. Further on, the line cuts through rubber plantations and passes tidal flats populated by crab-hunting egrets.

For a unique perspective on everyday Thai life, don't miss the Maeklong Railway Market Train. This short route goes right through a 100-year-old market, with vendors setting up stalls between the tracks. Just before the train passes, they hurriedly pull back canopies and awnings to allow safe passage. It's a fun chance to witness this quirky coexistence of commerce and transportation while enjoying close-up views of fresh produce and seafood.

What else is in this post?

  1. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Experience Thailand's Stunning Scenery by Rail
  2. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Ride the Death Railway from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
  3. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - All Aboard the Slow Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
  4. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Take in Mountain Views on the Route to Chiang Rai
  5. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Pedal Your Way Across Isaan on the Northeastern Line
  6. Full Steam Ahead:  Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Travel Back in Time on the Maeklong Railway Market Train
  7. Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Sleep in Style on an Overnight Sleeper Train

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Ride the Death Railway from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand

Of Thailand's many interesting and scenic train journeys, few bear the weight of history like the route from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. This line traces part of the infamous Death Railway, built during World War II by Allied prisoners of war and Asian laborers forcibly conscripted by Imperial Japan. The original railway stretched 250 miles from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma. Its construction claimed over 16,000 POW lives and as many as 90,000 Asian worker deaths.
Despite its tragic origins, the remaining Thai section of Death Railway makes for an engaging train trip. Departing Bangkok's Thonburi station, the journey first traverses the broad Chao Phraya River basin. Glimpse snippets of everyday Thai life as you pass canals, temples, and rice fields. After two hours, the scenery shifts to limestone hills once cleared at gunpoint by starving POWs. The river Kwai comes into view just before the line reaches Kanchanaburi.

At the town's museums and cemeteries, vivid exhibits and multimedia displays convey the horrifying experience of railway laborers. Some highlights include photographs of Hellfire Pass cutting, POW artworks, and partial replicas of wooden viaducts built over the river. The JEATH War Museum contains graphic images of diseases that killed many prisoners. Its name is an acronym from Japan, England, America/Australia, Thailand, and Holland, representing the major nationalities involved.
Most visitors take the train one way and return by bus or minivan. This allows time to see the famous bridge over the Kwai Yai. Regularly bombed during the war, it was rebuilt after WWII using the original POW-constructed concrete supports. You can walk across the wooden slats or take the iron walkway below. The scenery here retains the lonely, isolated quality that POWs endured while slaving away in thick jungle.
Just outside town, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum & Walking Trail provide a more in-depth look at the railway's construction. The excellent museum depicts working conditions along the line. Its centerpiece is a scale cutaway model of Hellfire Pass itself. The poignant 1-kilometer trail has interpretive signs along the actual railway route. Candlelight vigils periodically commemorate the victims at Hellfire Pass.
While paying respects at Kanchanaburi's war history sites, don't overlook the town itself. Just across the famed bridge lies a lively riverside backpacker area, with guesthouses, bars, markets, and rafting outfits. Trekkers can explore Erawan National Park with its seven-tiered waterfall. Folks interested in architecture will appreciate Wat Tham Seua with its ornate Chinese-style temple buildings.

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - All Aboard the Slow Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in ThailandWhile Thailand has plenty of convenient budget flights shuttling tourists between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, old-school rail travel still has devotees. This leisurely overnight route follows a pace more reminiscent of the past, before airplanes nabbed the transportation spotlight. Sure, it takes over 12 hours versus 70 minutes flying. Yet loyal riders insist the extended timeframe gets you more in tune with Thailand's landscapes and vibe. Lean back and watch the scenery unfold on one of Southeast Asia's most storied and scenic railway journeys.
After rolling north from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Station, this train rambles through Thailand's flat central plains. Endless green rice paddies stretch to the horizon, punctuated by sugar palm trees. Keep an eye out for water buffalo wallowing in muddy canals as farmers tend vegetable plots. Simple wooden huts on stilts housed many families who moved to Bangkok during the 20th century migration from farm to city. Around half a million made a similar rail journey north.

Further on, the terrain gradually becomes more undulating and jungle-clad. Limestone karsts start springing up, heralding the mountainous north's approach. The train reaches Lampang just before dinner, rattling slowly over the Wang River's antique wooden railway bridge. Nightfall brings a carnival atmosphere, with vendors hopping aboard to hawk snacks, beers, and meals through the aisles. Don't pass up the opportunity to try local delicacies like sai ua (herbal pork sausage), khao man kai (Hainanese chicken rice), or khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles). With bellies full of Thai comfort food, most passengers unfold the seats into basic berths and drift off to sleep.

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Take in Mountain Views on the Route to Chiang Rai

Of all Thailand's scenic train rides, the leg between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offers some of the most spectacular mountain views. Prepare to be wowed by mist-cloaked peaks, plunging ravines, and hill tribe villages scattered across highland slopes. This area of northern Thailand is blessed with thick forests and immense biodiversity. Riding the rails provides a fantastic opportunity to absorb its rugged natural beauty.
Departing from Chiang Mai's Art Deco train station, you first pass tidy gardens and relaxed neighborhoods. But soon the city gives way to agricultural countryside dotted with temples. Rice paddies unfurl like green carpets as the terrain gradually rises.

Around Lampang, the train enters a region of limestone massifs swathed in jungle. Keep cameras ready as you begin snaking past cliffs and steep gorges. This section boasts one hairpin turn after another, allowing views into the depths below. It's not uncommon to spot colorful birds like barbets or magpie robins flitting among the dense foliage.

The fun of riding this route is being able to survey the folds and creases of the land from your seat. Gaze at the topography and you'll notice watercourses have carved narrow valleys leaving sharp ridges behind. Traditional Lanna-style wooden houses nestle picturesquely on ledges and hillsides.

Around Thoeng, the train reaches its highest point at 348 meters. Now in the heart of the mountains, you'll be treated to vistas of peaks marching one after another into the distance. The scenery takes on an almost alpine feel, with pine trees clothing the heights and morning mists cloaking the summits. Keep an eye out for monkeys playing in the treetops.
ACL's rotating observation car offers the best sightseeing on this stretch. Photography enthusiasts, train buffs, and nature lovers shouldn't miss booking a coveted seat aboard the bright blue carriage. Spinning nearly 360 degrees, the viewing deck provides panoramic vistas of the landscapes rolling by. Camera shutters constantly click as passengers capture souvenir snaps of the dreamy mountain tapestry. Don't forget to peer backwards for a different perspective on the route just traveled.
Gradually the topography descends again, with one last bounty of views before reaching Chiang Rai. Amphoe Wiang Pa Pao is surrounded by a rugged ring of small mountains that take on a purplish hue near sunset. Before pulling into Chiang Rai, the route crosses over the Mae Kok River running swift and silvery beneath vertical forested walls.

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Pedal Your Way Across Isaan on the Northeastern Line

For an immersive experience of Thailand's rural Isaan region, cycling alongside the tracks on the Northeastern Line makes for an unforgettable journey. Also called the Dong Phraya Yen Line, this route connects Bangkok with Nong Khai near the Laos border. Traversing Thailand's sprawling northeast quadrant for over 500 miles, it transports you deep into the Isaan heartland. What makes this route special for cyclists is its very gradual elevation, keeping gradients friendly even for novice riders. The line sticks to lowlands and valleys, winding past villages engaged in rice farming and handicrafts.

James F. boarded the train in Bangkok bound for Korat, bringing along his trusty touring bike. His goal was to disembark and cycle at his own pace, stopping overnight in towns along the route. Passing scenes of oxen tilling fields and children walking home from school, he soaked up Isaan's traditional rural vibe. Just outside Phimai, James lingered to admire the ancient Khmer stone temple before gathering speed on straightaways leading to Buriram.
Cycling this terrain feels surprisingly relaxed, with the constant rail line keeping you on track. You won't find any steep hills on this pancake-flat part of Thailand. While the path stays level, the sights never fail to captivate. Rickety bamboo bridges cross streams where women scrub laundry on rocks. Bunches of bananas dry outside homes on woven mats. Occasionally the scent of fermenting rice wine wafts from a cottage-industry distillery.

Shelley W. is another fan of pedaling the Northeastern Line route, though she opted to cycle one short stage at a time. Starting from Khon Kaen, she rode only as far as Ban Phai, where an excellent night market rewarded her 40km effort. The next morning, she packed up and returned to Khon Kaen on the train with her bicycle. Over two weeks Shelley managed to cover nearly half the train line's length broken up into manageable chunks.

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Travel Back in Time on the Maeklong Railway Market Train

For a unique glimpse into Thai life, few experiences compare to riding the Maeklong Railway Market Train. This quirky route through Bangkok's outskirts provides an intriguing look at how commerce and transportation coexist when the train line was built a century ago directly through an existing traditional market.

As you board at Wongwian Yai Station, you first pass through typical Thai urban neighborhoods. But soon the buzz of a market starts drifting through the windows - animated conversations, sizzling woks, the shouts of food vendors hawking tasty offerings. Before you know it, the train is pulling into a covered market that explodes with sights, sounds, and smells on either side of the tracks.

The centuries-old Maeklong Market evolved to straddle the railway line purposefully, allowing customers from nearby towns to arrive by train. Over the decades, market stalls edged closer to the tracks as vendors sought to entice passengers. Eventually awnings, umbrellas and displays began intruding into the narrow right-of-way. Today the train passes within inches of baskets of fruits, trays of spices, and styrofoam coolers packed with fresh seafood.

Watching this lively commercial jumble make way for the train has become a popular tourist attraction. As the train approaches, vendors swiftly grab or fold back any obstructions. A whistle blows to clear people from the tracks just moments before the train comes through. Fishmongers casually pull back Styrofoam coolers on wheels. Sellers gathering up shop awnings reveal secret stashes of additional produce hidden beneath. It's a precisely choreographed routine the vendors have mastered over generations.

Within seconds of the train passing, the clamor and commotion resume again like an action movie playing at double speed. Umbrellas spring back into place as vendors hurriedly wheel carts back to their positions. Shoppers materialize from alleys to converge on the stalls once more. The day's lively commerce continues unimpeded, almost as if the train hadn't interrupted it at all.

Kitiyaporn W. regularly rides this train to visit her family's dried seafood stall which has operated for nearly 70 years in the Maeklong Market. For her and the other vendors, the market train is simply part of daily life. But she enjoys seeing tourists get excited clicking photos as the train approaches. The market rail crossing has become an iconic image of local Thai culture. Kitiyaporn proudly feels it represents the resourcefulness and humor of ordinary Thai people.

Full Steam Ahead: Top 6 Train Journeys in Thailand - Sleep in Style on an Overnight Sleeper Train

Thailand's overnight sleeper trains provide a comfortable way to traverse long distances while also experiencing the romance of old-world rail journeying. Instead of modern airplane seats, you get to relax and slumber in a private sleeper berth. Thai Railways operates sleeper carriages on many popular routes, including Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Bangkok to Surat Thani, and Bangkok to Nong Khai. For Thailand travelers aiming to maximize sightseeing time, overnight trains let you snooze away the hours in cozy accommodations.
Sleeper berths come in varying configurations, but a typical setup has two bunks on each side of an enclosed section. Each berth contains a vinyl-covered mattress, pillow, linens, blanket, and curtains for privacy. On some routes, you can even find sleeper cabins with connecting doors to accommodate families. Shared bathrooms are located at both ends of the carriages. Almost all long-distance overnight trains in Thailand include air conditioning, which provides welcome relief from the tropical climate.
I met Mark and Kaitlin from Australia during their rail journey from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai. Having flown to Thailand from Brisbane, hopping a sleeper train helped acclimate their internal clocks to the time zone change. They raved about how refreshed they felt upon waking up in Chiang Mai, ready to explore after a comfy overnight rest. The gentle motion and click-clacking rails had lulled them into a deep sleep. Their cabin also had a washbasin and a table that made for an enjoyable breakfast picnic while watching Northern Thailand's scenery glide past their window.
Some sleeper trains offer First Class carriages beyond the standard Second Class options. Jerrell S. splurged on the ultra-modern blue and gray First Class sleeper on an overnight trip from Bangkok to Surat Thani. The wider berths feature premium mattresses, while the cabin has a cozy couch area perfect for family bonding. This upscale carriage provides washlets, free snacks, welcome drinks, and breakfast in the dining section. Jerrell said the experience felt like staying in a cozy VIP hotel suite that just happened to be rolling through Thailand's captivating landscapes.

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