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Trains are a great way to get around Thailand. Though they're a bit slower and generally more expensive than buses, they're more comfortable and safer. They go to (or close to) most major tourist destinations, and many go through areas where major roads don't venture. The State Railway of Thailand has four lines, all of which terminate in Bangkok. Hualamphong is Bangkok's main terminal; you can book tickets for any route in the country there. (Chiang Mai's station is another major hub, where you can also buy tickets for any route.)
The Northern Line connects Bangkok with Chiang Mai, passing through Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, and Sukhothai. The Northeastern Line travels up to Nong Khai, on the Laotian border (across from Vientiane), and has a branch that goes east to Ubon Ratchathani. The Southern Line goes all the way south through Surat Thani (get off here for Koh Samui) to the Malaysian border and on to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a journey that takes 37 hours. The Eastern Line splits and goes to both Pattaya and Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border. A short line also connects Bangkok with Nam Tok to the west, passing through Kanchanaburi and the bridge over the River Kwai along the way. (There's no train to Phuket; you have to go to the Phun Phin station, about 14 km [9 miles] from Surat Thani and change to a bus.) The Southern Line has been attacked in insurgency-related violence. Check the security situation before booking a trip to the south.
The State Railway of Thailand offers two types of rail passes. Both are valid for 20 days of unlimited travel on all trains in either second or third class. The cheaper of the two does not include supplementary charges such as air-conditioning and berths. Ask at Bangkok's Hualamphong Station for up-to-date prices and purchasing; if the train is your primary mode of transportation, it may be worth it. If you don't plan to cover many miles by train, individual tickets are probably the way to go.
Even if you purchase a rail pass, you're not guaranteed seats on any particular train; you'll need to book these ahead of time through a travel agent or by visiting the advance booking office of the nearest train station. Seat reservations are required on some trains and are strongly advised on long-distance routes, especially if you want a sleeper on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai trip. Bangkok to Chiang Mai and other popular routes need to be booked several days in advance, especially during the popular tourist season between November and January, as well as during the Thai New Year in April. Tickets for shorter, less frequented routes can be bought a day in advance or, sometimes, right at the station before departure. Most travel agencies have information on train schedules, and many will book seats for you for a small fee, saving you a trip to the station.
The State Railway of Thailand's rather basic website has timetables, routes, available seats, and other information, but no way to book tickets. The British-based website Seat 61 also has lots of helpful information about train travel in Thailand. Train schedules in English are available from travel agents and from major railway stations.
Local trains are generally pretty slow and can get crowded, but you'll never be lonely! On some local trains there's a choice between second and third class.
Most long-distance trains offer second- or third-class tickets, and some overnight trains to the north (Chiang Mai) and to the south offer first-class sleeping cabins. First-class sleepers have nice individual rooms for two to four people, but they are increasingly rare. If you have the chance, splurging on a first-class overnight cabin can be a unique, almost romantic experience. You'd be hard-pressed to find a first-class sleeper cabin this cheap anywhere else in the world (B1,453 for a Bangkok to Chiang Mai ticket).
Second-class cars have comfy padded bench seats or sleeper bunks with sheets and curtains. Tickets are about half the price of first-class (B881, Bangkok to Chiang Mai), and since the couchettes are quite comfortable, most westerners choose these. Second class is generally air-conditioned, but on overnight journeys you have a choice of air-conditioning or fan-cooled cars. The air-conditioning tends to be freezing (bring a sweater and socks) and leave you dehydrated. Sleeping next to an open train window can leave you deaf and covered in soot. It's your choice. Third-class cars have hard benches and no air-conditioning, but are wildly cheap (B271, Bangkok to Chiang Mai).
Meals are served at your seat in first and second classes.
Chiang Mai Railway Station (053/244795.)
Hualamphong Railway Station (1690 Railway call center;.)
Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm.)
The State of the Railways of Thailand (www.railway.co.th/home/Default.asp?lenguage=Eng.)