Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Overnight Train to Chiang Mai

Convenience and speed has taken over our lives. Air travel has made distances negligible, and now we can reach destinations in the blink of an eye. Well, almost - frankly, the sooner they invent teleporting the better ... I loathe flying!

But sometimes it's nice to take the slow route, watch the world slip by in real time and appreciate the simple things in life. But even with this in mind, I'm surprised by how reticent I am at the prospect of travelling by train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

I've always flown this route - after all, flights are cheap and plentiful - so why spend an uncomfortable night on a train, travelling for 12 hours when you can do it in one?

Cost is obviously a factor - which is why train travel still appeals to backpackers and budget travellers. Then there is the carbon footprint of flying - train travel is ecologically more friendly and lighter on resources.

It is these factors that inspired Intrepid Travel - an Australian small-group tour company that has just celebrated its 25th anniversary - to use public transport wherever possible in their itineraries, taking their mantra of 'responsible travel' seriously. And having joined a group of fellow journos on an Intrepid trip to the north of Thailand, I'm about to discover exactly what this entails.

We pull up at the main railway station in Bangkok under a sign for the Eastern and Oriental Express, the ultimate in old-school railway glamour. "Oh goody," I joke. "Are we catching the Orient Express?"

To tell you the truth, I'm fearing the worst. I have visions of drunken backpackers, stinking toilets, incessant noise and a sleepless night. You know those trains in India jam-packed with poultry and pigs, with freeloaders riding on the roof? Could it possibly be as bad as that??

But I'm in for a pleasant surprise. The train is clean, and relatively empty. The sleeper carriages are simple, but practical, with double bench seats converting into upper and lower bunks, with privacy provided by a curtain. Our group has been allocated lower bunks for the journey - and we're all praying that no-one will be on top, and that we have space to spread out.

My on-board view

As we take our seats, we are handed menus listing set menu packages, and a staff member fits a metal table between the seats, covered in a checkered tablecloth. We then settle back for the long journey ahead, breaking out the snacks and novels to kill time.

Fairy-lit Bangkok flitting by

The train makes slow progress through the suburbs of Bangkok, allowing us time to gaze out on fairy-lit trees, railway road crossings and family groups gathered in back yards along the tracks. As dusk slips into night and the outside world fades to black, we are distracted by our meals arriving, presented in plastic bowls covered in cling wrap.

Vegetarian meal on board

While it's not up to the usual standard of meals on an Intrepid trip, the train food is adequate, if a little bland; the service, however, is excellent, presented with a smile as if it was a gourmet meal.

In the interest of passengers who want to sleep early, the beds are made up around 8.30pm. It's a fascinating process as a staff member comes along, pulls apart the seating, adds an extra mattress and covers it in a clean sheet. Voila - an instant bed!

Making up the beds. Pics: Julie Miller

My worst nightmare has come true with two Irish backpackers coming on board to claim our upper bunks. I groan inwardly, fearing all night drinking and constant chatter; but these two delightful young men are soon tucked up in their beds, as quiet as church mouses with nary a snore between them. Phew!

Once the beds are made up, there seems little reason not to actually sleep ourselves ... and by 10pm, the whole carriage is in silence, curtains drawn.

I'm a light sleeper, notoriously bad at sleeping in anything other than a real bed. But the clickety-clack is a comforting sound, and even I am lulled into a fitful stupor. There is ample room in the bunk for me and my hand-luggage; and the blanket provided is adequate protection against the (rather frosty) air-conditioning. My only issue is that the incessant rocking jiggles my bladder, and I need to make several nocturnal visits to the bathroom...

Our train pulls into our destination, Lampang, at 5.30am, punctual to the second. It's been a drama and stress-free night, and frankly, very pleasant. It might not have been the Orient Express, but the overnight train has far outweighed by expectations and has elevated "getting there" into a genuine travel experience.

COST: Overnight accommodation in a sleeping carriage from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs 791 baht for an upper bunk, 880 baht for a lower bunk.

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

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