A Train Ride from Bangkok to Hua Hin
We thought our train to Hua Hin was very old, but were mistaken. While looking more than 50 years old, the train apparently was delivered in 1996.
It is good to get out of Bangkok once in a while, and visit the 'countryside'. There are many ways to get around in Thailand. Buses are ubiquitous, trains are available to a limited number of destinations, and minivans leaving from Bangkok are becoming more and more popular. Driving your own car at your own risk is also a possibility.
By far the safest way of travel is by train, and this especially holds true in Thailand, where driving behaviour on the roads is abysmal. Trains however can be best described as both old and slow. The best known traject popular (allowing for an overnight sleep) with backpackers is the one between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
It is quite obvious that the railway system in Thailand has been a low priority for the government for decades, with all emphasis placed on building ever more highways for car transport.
We traveled to Hua Hin recently and elected to leave Bangkok by train. There was only one 'fast diesel' train between Bangkok and Hua Hin, and it left conveniently at just after 8 A.M., arriving in Hua Hin just after 11 A.M. Later experience told me, this was a very fast ride!
In our case, the train had a departing delay of half an hour. It consisted only of two carriages and proceeded to Surat Thani province after delivering passengers to Hua Hin. The train was old (and/or poorly maintained) and did about 3 hours covering the 200 km between Bangkok and Hua Hin. At some stretches, speed really seems to pick up (we assume a speed of about 100 km an hour). However, very often the train just slows down to almost walking speed even when there is no train station or another train about. On another trip though, it took us 6 hours to reach Hua Hin!
The Bangkok-Hua Hin train on the platform at Hua Hin.
There is not exactly a lot to see for the first 150 km after leaving Bangkok. Just the desolate industrial landscape of factories, old looking shops and scrapheaps, that encircles the great metropolis. If Thailand ever has a major unemployment problem, it would be easy to give a few million people a temporary job cleaning up the country.
More greenery starts to appear about 50 km from Hua Hin, and soon thereafter one can also see the often isolated condominiums along the sea shore (starting from before reaching Cha-Am, 20 km to the north of Hua Hin). We were told that most of these condominiums, while standing about in the middle of nowhere, are also mostly empty, only used during some weekends by Bangkok's richer families.
Every carriage on the train seems to have a few staff members attached to it, and they do their best providing drinks and a basic, though most welcome, hot meal (not sure whether it was supposed to be our breakfast or lunch). People on the train mostly 'sit out the time' till reaching their destination. There are toilets in between the carriages, though only for adventurous and somewhat desperate passengers. The train actually does not seem to move only forward, but also in a left to right and right to left direction on its narrow tracks.
When coming back to Bangkok, we elected to use a minivan. Trains back take at least four and a half hours, and leave later in the day, or at night.
Taking a train in Thailand, obviously is a tourist attraction in itself. One should want to experience it, and not be too concerned about a speedy arrival at one's destination. We initially presumed that our train carriage dated from the 1950s or 1960s, but were greatly mistaken about that. In view of the overall appearance of the trains, it is unclear why the authorities ever decided to abandon steam trains. Being the only country (?) in the world to keep on using steam trains, would certainly add to the popularity of rail transport in Thailand.
One can only imagine the appeal of a fast train system. Hua Hin should be reachable in less than an hour, and Chiang Mai in just over 3 hours. It would really open up the countryside to more tourism and business. The Thai government now has plans to finally upgrade its railway network. Unfortunately, it is not really seen as a priority, with completion projected some 20 years in the future.
When arriving at Hua Hin, the doors are opened by manipulating some wires and buttons in a adjacent panel.
One final comment. Trains have the benefit of departing and arriving at Hualamphong train station, making for an easy access through the nearby subway station. In front of the railway station there is a 'help desk'. The staff there are most eager to help you get your tickets and to point out to you the correct platform. You can also buy tickets in advance. Since our train was almost fully occupied, this is maybe a recommended option. Either in 2021 or 2020, the main station in Bangkok will move to Bang Sue, where an giant new train station has been built. It can also be reached by MRT, if we remember well. On our last trip in late 2020, we actually disembarked when passing Bang Sue, it will save you time to go to inner Bangkok from there by subway, rather than going all the way to Hua Lamphong (another 30 minutes, we think).
There is a real problem with finding train schedules online. This was very apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are quite a few websites that want to sell tickets online, but we did not find one that provided reliable train schedules. The best way is to just go beforehand to Hualamphong station, and figure it out there. Alternatively (try first) you can find the latest schedule on the website of the State Railway of Thailand.
You can also book online here (we never did this, so can not give details about the process). It will take a while, to find Bangkok as a origin of travel, do not despair. It is not easy (or possible) to find out clearly, which trains are airconditioned or which are not. My experience : traveling in the middle of the afternoon without airconditioning can be quite exhausting. On the other hand, traveling with airconditioning in the evening hours, can be a 'freezing' experience. Trains often are delayed, so be prepared for that.