My very favourite train experience took place between Bangkok and Chiang Mai; Nick and I were in a four berth cabin shared with Alana, a vegetarian from the US who was taking a break from teaching in China, and a Chinese man who was travelling with, from what we could gather, his entire extended family. Things got off to an amusing start after we all turned down his pork snacks and it was down to Alana to use her intermediate Mandarin to explain why... much hilarity ensued after he assumed we were vegetarian "for Jesus" and we had to try to explain, through the use of animal and heart emojis, that no, we just really love animals. As the evening progressed Nick and his new friend got closer and he explained, again through Alana, that he thought Nick was very attractive and that he liked his hair very much... after a short pause Alana translated that it was because Nick's hair reminded him of a horse's mane. Brilliant.
Ridiculous experiences aside the added bonus of taking a night train as opposed to a day train is that you're getting your accommodation for the night included in the price of your travels which is super helpful if you're adventuring on a budget. If you're thinking of exploring SE Asia by train (and I strongly suggest that you do) here are my Top 5 Tips to help you on your way...
- Book ahead if possible. Everything I read before leaving for my trip made me think that hopping on a sleeper train that night would be easy as long as it isn't high season and that's not quite the case. On more than one occasion Nick and I rocked up at the station the day before we'd planned to take the train to buy our tickets only to find we'd need to wait a couple more nights or take a day train. Booking ahead is especially important if you have a preference for the type of carriage (be that first or second) and if you want to be seated close to each other.
- Use Seat 61 to plan your journey. Seat 61 is an amazingly in depth website which will help you work out not only the train timetables and costs but also which type of train you're likely to be travelling on. Will you be sharing a four berth compartment with a door or will you be in a more open carriage? This site can tell ya and as someone who likes to have at least some idea what they're getting into it's a super helpful resource. The more open carriages have smaller upper bunks which seemed to me like they were rocking around more than the bunks in the four berth compartments. I'd recommend booking two lower bunks if the carriage is more open as otherwise you may be woken regularly as you get thrown around... those straps in the picture above probably aren't going to stop you landing on the ground if you do roll outa bed in the night! It will also help you work out which seat numbers are together, if the trains are four berth cabin style you and your travel companion probably don't want seats four and five!
- Dress warm...or for the beach. Thai sleeper trains are air conditioned to the max whilst Vietnamese sleeper train air con is completely ineffective. If you're getting an overnight train in Thailand I am not kidding when I tell you to dress warm. I bundled myself up in my long trousers, a t shirt, a hoodie, a scarf, socks and a sleeping bag liner and I was still cold. In Vietnam I was boiling in my long trousers and a t and wished that there had been a curtain so that I could've slipped into some shorts!
- Pack an eye mask and earplugs. You will end up in a carriage with a snorer or a crying baby (or both!) and nope, you can't turn out the lights.
- Take snacks. As a vegan I always have snacks on hand and this is especially important when you're on a train where the meals offered are far from suitable. If you're starting your journey in a city like Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Ho Chi Minh City it's ridiculously easy to grab some take out snacks for your journey. Elsewhere that tupperware you packed (you did pack a tupperware right?!) will be your best friend, just grab an extra meal, some rice and curry perhaps, from wherever your having lunch. Don't get Pho or Hot Pot, you don't wanna be eating an overflowing tupperware of soup on a moving train, trust me.