Pulling in on a train to Chiang Mai station after a night on board the sleeper train from Bangkok felt like waking up late on a spring morning. With warm sunlight filtering in through the curtains, I broke into a smile: this was light years from the rude awakening you can expect on a sleeper bus in Vietnam.
And I didn’t even have a window – let alone curtains – from which the sun to filter in to my cosy top bunk because the window was in line with the lower bunk. But I didn't mind that; my Thai sleeper train journey had totally absolved any doubt I might have had about whether a sleeper train or sleeper bus was better for cross-country travelling. I was ready to face the day.
The Bangkok-Chiang Mai sleeper route is a popular one, but we had stopped in the historic town of Ayutthaya first – one and a half hours out of Bangkok – for a day of sightseeing around the former Thai capital. It was in Ayutthaya that we climbed aboard the sleeper train to Chiang Mai.
Great for backpackers, flashpackers and regular travellers alike, sleeper trains allow you to catch a train in the evening, have dinner on board and arrive the next morning in a completely new city, feeling refreshed after a full night's sleep and rearing to go after breakfast on board.
Having previously tried to book a sleeper train in Vietnam, on the same day of departure, I was always swayed by the price. You see, sleeper buses in Vietnam are less than half the price of sleeper trains. (And in Laos I had no choice but to take a sleeper bus.)
After this experience, however, there is no doubt in my mind that sleeper trains are far superior to sleeper buses and are worth paying a little extra.
Sleeper trains are an infinitely more pleasant and better way to travel. It’s actually quite relaxing, too, rolling peacefully through the countryside, catching the sunset and sunrise from your window while simultaneously covering hundreds of miles and saving on a night's accommodation in a hotel, hostel or guesthouse. No flat tyres, no loud karaoke videos or horns blaring and no loud music coming on at 6am.
Unlike in Vietnam – where even if we had wanted to catch a sleeper train, we wouldn’t have been able to book it the same day as departure – we were able to book a Thai sleeper train on the same day of travel. But it’s worth noting that it may not be possible to do so during Songkran, the Thai New Year, and other busy periods.
Firstclass sleepers have a lockable compartment for two people but second class sleepers, with two beds either side of the aisle, are more than comfortable, fun and safe enough. Upper-level bunks are slightly smaller than the bunks on the bottom – so if you are around 6ft or taller you should opt for the lower bunk, which costs just a little extra. Seat 61 has the best information on train travel anywhere on the internet, so be sure to check it out before you travel for more details about your journey.
The 2nd class sleepers start out as two comfortable seats facing each other and, as the evening wears on or when you feel like settling in for the night, it’s quick and easy to transform into your sleeping fort. The best part? The train guard will take care of it for you.
Train staff provide fresh linen, a pillow, blanket and curtains to shut you away from the world (and in my case, a noisy passenger sitting across the aisle) and will transform these seats into your sleeping quarters for the evening. As soon as the curtains are up, you can settle in for a quiet and comfortable night ahead.
If you havent eaten beforehand, train staff will happily bring you food from the restaurant to your seat or cabin – or you can avoid the slightly higher prices and opt for a wider selection by journeying to the dining car yourself, which affords an opportunity to meet and chat with fellow travellers. Snacks are also available on board.
Around an hour before your arrival in Chiang Mai you will likely awaken to the sounds of other travellers rising from their bunks and having breakfast, train guards packing the beds away and people heading to the bathroom to clean their teeth. This is a sure sign that it’s time to draw back the curtains – if you have any – and get up and ready for your next adventure.
Hopefully you will have slept peacefully enough that you will be ready to negotiate with the multitude of red songthaews, Thai passenger pick-up trucks waiting to transport you into the city at the station – Chiang Mai in our case.
We negotiated a price of 30 baht each (roughly 1 USD) for a ride into the city, to a backpacker-friendly street near the Thapae gate and old town entrance.
Thai sleeper trains certainly offer a supreme level of comfort far above and beyond any sleeper bus ever could. By train, travelling overnight is a piece of cake and not a test of endurance like it would be by sleeper bus. I wouldn't hesitate to take another one soon.