One of the most comfortable, and often the least expensive, way to travel around South-East Asia is by train. For long journeys, you can opt for sleeper seats which allow you to lie down and be more comfortable. Travelling by night saves you money on accommodation.
The cleanliness and convenience of toilets onboard trains in South-East Asia varies considerably but they are still better than those on buses or minivans, when you have to rely on the driver to stop for scheduled rest breaks.
There is a certain level of camaraderie onboard, a chance to make friends with local people, and you also get to see some of the breath-taking scenery that you would otherwise miss on a flight. Not to mention it’s better for the environment.
During our seven-month trip around South-East Asia in 2017-18, we took five long-distance train journeys and one short distance trip. These were our experiences of travelling in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Java, Indonesia: Malang to Yogyakarta (7.25hours)
Our first long distance train journey in Asia was surprisingly easy.
We booked the tickets online using http://www.tiket.com (the site can be changed to English by using the arrow next to the flag in the top right-hand corner). We booked two Executive class tickets on the Malioboro Ekspres for 487,000 IDR* (£26) and picked them up from the station. You need your passport to buy train tickets in Indonesia, even when it is an internal route.
We got a taxi from the hotel and arrived just after 7am for the 8.20am train. They checked our tickets and didn’t query our backpacks, even though they were larger than the maximum size limit) and pointed us to the right platform.
The train to Yogyakarta was quite spacious and the seats were bigger than you get on an aeroplane and reasonably comfortable. There was air conditioning on the train and there was a socket to plug your devices in. The toilet was a squat toilet though so not ideal!
The seven-hour plus journey passed quite quickly. The scenery out of the window was mostly rice paddy fields, occasionally broken up with small villages and the occasional city.
We arrived in Yogyakarta about 3.45pm and found the station very busy and confusing. A man appeared out of nowhere offering us a taxi, and we were a bit stupid and just got in his car (he was probably not an official taxi driver). It turned out fine, but it’s not recommended!
*Prices correct in November 2017.
Thailand: Bangkok to Ayutthaya (2 hours)
The most scenic way to approach the historic city of Ayutthaya from Bangkok is by boat, however the train offers incredible value for money.
For just 20 baht* each (less than 50p) we bought one-way third-class tickets from Hua Lamphong railway station in Bangkok. We looked up the times of the trains online and arrived about 30 minutes before the train set off to buy our tickets directly from the ticket office. Coming back, we did the same.
The carriage didn’t have any air conditioning and the seats were hard, but we managed to find a spot near the window and got some fresh air. It wouldn’t have been great for a longer journey, but it was fine for two hours. We didn’t try the toilets!
Ayutthaya is a stop on the main route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai so if you time it well then you can make it a stop on your onward journey. The station is east of the island and you will need to take a ferry across, which costs just five baht and takes a couple of minutes.
*Prices correct in January 2018
Thailand: Bangkok to Chiang Mai (11 hours)
We bought our tickets for this journey in advance at Hua Lamphong railway station. We booked two second-class tickets in an air-conditioned carriage which cost 691 baht * (£15.82) each.
Beware of people offering to ‘help’ you buy your ticket at the station; the chances are they are trying to scam you. It was perfectly easy to buy the tickets direct from the ticket office.
Concerned about the notorious Bangkok traffic on a Monday morning, we got up at 5.30am to get a taxi to the train station, which meant that we arrived ridiculously early.
It did mean however that we were waiting in the station when the national anthem started playing at 8am. Everyone stood to attention and around a dozen policemen started practising their drills in the middle of the waiting area.
There was plenty of room overhead for our luggage and an added bonus was that they brought food at lunchtime! It was similar to airline food but free. There were also vendors at each stop who came onboard with a selection of cold and hot food.
One thing we struggled with was the temperature of the carriage. The air conditioning was extremely cold. I am fairly warm-blooded but I wore my fleece and covered my legs with my scarf but I was still shivering. On the return journey we were more prepared and wore jeans and warm clothing.
There was a Western style toilet which was relatively clean, although a bit exposed due to the large open window!
The scenery as we made our way to the north of the country was very beautiful. At first it was quite flat and full of paddy fields with loads of cranes and storks; then it became more mountainous and the jungle took over. As we approached Chang Mai the sky turned a rosy pink and we were rewarded with lovely views.
We arrived at Chiang Mai station in the dark and were immediately accosted by a woman called Psun who basically shoved us in a shared tuk-tuk for 150 baht each. We couldn’t be bothered to argue, as that was pretty cheap. The tuk-tuk dropped us off at our hotel.
*Prices correct in January 2018
And back again…
Thailand: Chiang Mai to Bangkok (Don Muang Airport) (10.5 hours)
This journey (unsurprisingly) was pretty much the reverse of the one above, taken two weeks later. This time we stopped at Don Muang airport, which is on the outskirts of the city, as we had a flight to catch the next day.
On arrival at the train station, we found it very difficult to find a taxi and we ended up going into the airport and joining the very long queue there. There is a ticket system and you are warned to ensure that the driver is using the metre. Ours tried to overcharge us by offering to take us to our hotel for 300 baht. When we insisted on going by the metre it cost us 120 baht (and it was even cheaper the next day so he could well have taken us via a longer route).
Vietnam: Hanoi to Hue (14 hours)
Our first difficulty was working out how to pronounce Hue! (We were pronouncing it ‘Hew’ instead of ‘Hu-eh’ which caused great confusion at the railway station, until some kind soul helped us out.
Unlike Indonesia and Thailand, there were no signs in English at the station and the lady at the ticket counter didn’t speak much, so we had to manage through sign language and our guide books. We managed to communicate what we wanted eventually and booked the 9am Reunification Express train to Hue which was due to arrive at 11pm. We booked a soft sleeper cabin so we had a bed to lie on. It was slightly more expensive to do it that way, but we figured the extra comfort would be worth it! The tickets cost around £30 each*.
For the first part of the journey, we had all four bunks to ourselves, but we were joined by an elderly Vietnamese man who didn’t speak much English. He managed to communicate through smiles and pointing to things that he was going home for Tet (Vietnamese New Year).
The view from the train was lovely: rice paddy fields and lots of countryside. The bunks were quite comfortable and the Western-style toilet was clean. We were given a free lunch which was pretty tasty (vegetables, apple, rice and pork in a thin sauce).
We arrived in Hue at about 10.40pm. It was a good job we had set the alarm as we had been expecting to arrive at 11pm so it was quite a rush to get our things together before we disembarked. We took a taxi to the hotel and pretty much fell into bed.
*Prices correct in January 2018.
Vietnam: Da Nang to Nha Trang (9.5 hours)
We had real problems getting tickets for this train as we wanted to travel around Tet, Vietnamese New Year. All the tickets for trains, long-distance buses and even planes were fully booked during the holiday period and we were forced to extend our accommodation for a week before we could get a seat. Even then, we got the last two tickets on the train – sleeper cabins again, but top bunks (not the best choice).
Our first train journey on the Reunification Express had been a dream: comfortable, easy and good company. Our second trip was not nearly as comfortable! As we had the two upper bunks (rather than one side of the carriage), every time we wanted to get up or down we had to clamber over the family we were sharing the cabin with.
For the first part of our journey there was a little girl in our carriage and for the second part a little boy who were both very well behaved but the carriage was noisy and it was difficult to sleep. The toilets were dirty, but passable, and there was no information about where we were (the first train had an electronic sign).
The train ground to a halt and didn’t move for 75 minutes. According to one of the ladies in our carriage, who could speak a little English, there was an accident on the line, but there were no official announcements and we had to keep a close eye on the stations to know when we should disembark. Overall, not the best journey.
Ten top tips for travelling by train around South-East Asia
- Buy the best class ticket you can afford. The better the class of ticket, the more comfortable your journey.
- Book your ticket in advance and online if you can. It’s often cheaper and you have the guarantee of a seat.
- Learn how to pronounce your destination! This prevents any confusion at the station if there are stations with similar names or if staff don’t speak any English. If in doubt, write your destination down on a piece of paper or print off a train map from the internet.
- Pack a gripping book for travel, it will help the time go more quickly.
- Wear layers as you don’t know what the temperature of the carriages are going to be. Carriages without air-conditioning are going to be hot and stuffy, but the air-conditioning on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai route was extremely cold. Be prepared for any eventuality!
- Take toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you and prepare to use squat toilets. It may be your only option on a long journey.
- Take plenty of snacks and water with you, more than you need, in case of delays or if you arrive at your destination late at night and find it difficult to find food.
- Plan in advance if you intend to travel on bank holidays or around festivals. Trains will book up pretty fast around Tet (Vietnamese New Year) for example.
- Book a taxi to meet you at the station or look for an official taxi rank. Unofficial drivers will hassle you as soon as you set foot on the platform. Occasionally we did use them, and it was fine, but you are taking a risk.
- Insist that drivers use the meter, particularly in Bangkok. Many will quote you a price that is way above what it would cost you on the meter. If they don’t have one, or refuse to use it, never accept the initial price. You will probably save 50% by bartering or simply going to another driver.