Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Slow Train from Bangkok to Hat Yai

Thailand is working hard on a new railway system. Double track and electrified. No doubt train travel will become more efficient. But the older slower trains had some charm too...
This is a trip we made in 2019.

Stage one: Bangkok to Samut Songkhram (Mae Khlong)

Going south there is an alternative to the main line. There’s a stand-alone line from a Bangkok suburb to the almost-coastal town Samut Songkhram. It’s actually fewer kilometers, except it doesn’t connect to the mainline, making it a cumbersome enterprise.

The journey started with the modern Skytrain from Siam Square. We crossed the Chao Phraya river and got off at Wong Wian Yai. It’s a bit of a puzzle to find the right exit and the right flyovers.

Hidden behind a market is a small train station, also named Wong Wian Yai. It’s the starting point of the slow train to the southwest, single track. There are only a couple of connections per day  for this trip. We rode along small houses and the backs of buildings, past banana trees and market stalls. Slowly the urban development became less dense. After an hour, in which we covered 30 km, the terminal station was in a large fish market in Maha Chai /  Samut Sakhon.

From there it was a short walk to the river, which we crossed by ferry. There was just enough time for a quick lunch and a coffee at a halfway café that obviously catered to travellers making exactly this trip. It was much more modern and stylish than its surroundings

Then another ten minutes walk to the next train station, Ban Laem, where a similar train ride took us to the next river. This stretch was more rural, with large fish ponds and salt basins. Here too, the line ends in a market. When a train comes in, the goods have to be moved from the tracks and the marquises folded back. This has become a true attraction in recent years, and is visited by thousands of tourists as a day trip from Bangkok. So our train was welcomed by a huge crowd that was photographing and waving at us.

Unlike most visitors, we stayed the night in Samut Songkhram. That gave us the opportunity to see the evening train arrive. But now the market was closed and there was hardly anybody around.

The next morning we watched the scene from the other side. Already busloads of tourists had arrived from Bangkok to watch the spectacle. Some stall owners had put their crates of goods on a moving rack, which slid over small rails to make just enough space for the train. Others had stacked their vegetables so low that the train ran overhead the cabbage and mangoes. What struck us was how little space there was between the market stalls and the train. Really just 2 to 3 cm clearance. And a train is very big when it passes a few centimeters from you ...

Stage two: From Hua Hin to Chumphon

Hua Hin

It should be possible to take a bus from Samut Songkhram to nearby Ratchburi or to Petchaburi and catch a train there. But we happened to end up in a minivan to Hua Hin. A combination of a typical small Thai town and a seaside resort. Lots of Scandinavian families there.

Hua Hin railway station is a beautiful wooden building, almost a century old. The famous royal waiting room isn’t that old. It was all very pretty, with fancy details.

We bought a train ticket for the next day.The station café was closed, but opposite was Patty’s Corner, a nice place with excellent coffee.

To Chumphon

Our train should leave at eleven thirty. It was delayed for half an hour. Apart from our express train, several slow trains were due to leave both north and south.

We had the fast diesel train, reaching up to 120 km/h. It had only three carriages, air-conditioning, and reserved seats. It was filled half with tourists and half with Thai. We saw a lot of construction work along the way: all for the modern fast track being built. The further south we came, the more green, palm trees and rubber trees we saw.

A lot of the tourists got off at Chumphon. You can take a ferry here to the popular islands Koh Samui and Koh Tau. We stayed on the mainland, and had a couple of days at the almost deserted Thung Wua Laen beach.



Often there were just one or two trains a day that were useful to us (there are also many night trains, which we disregard). These are old tracks and diesel trains, with antique signalling systems that work with hoops, tokens and flags.

To prevent two trains running into each other on a single track, each track section (block) has one token (a metal disc) that a driver must have to be able to drive on that section. At stations where opposite trains pass each other, the token is given to a station employee. To make the transfer easier from a moving train, the token is clamped in a large hoop. The station employee brings the hoop with token to the other train. Sometimes the employee pulls a long sprint for that, once we saw him driving down the platform on a moped!

If the train enters a new section at a station where it does not have a scheduled stop, the co-driver may just throw the token of the past section onto the platform, and pick up the next token from a post it is hanging on – without stopping!

Stage three: from Chumphon to Surat Thani (Phun Phin)

When we bought our tickets for Surat Thani, they were a lot cheaper than for the previous stage. Even though it was the exact same train. Was it because we bought them on the day of travel in stead of in advance?

Next to the station is Aeki’s Bar, a great place to have lunch before the train departs. Lunch time was quiet. It seemed to have more tourists coming from the islands, waiting for the night train to Bangkok.

So we had the same train, with the same delay, but today it was a much older one. A lot of tourists got off again, but we were the only ones getting on.

At a quarter past five we arrived at Surat Thani station, which is way out of town in the suburb of Phun Phin. The transfer point between the Gulf and the Andaman, and between Koh Samui and Bangkok. We were immediately approached by touts who wanted to sell transport. But we quickly slipped out of the back of the station via the footbridge. Via a small market we arrived at our hotel. The room was very basic but absolutely ok. With train view if you leaned out the window.

Close to the station were some restaurants that catered to tourists waiting for the night train to Bangkok. In one of them we had a great pad thai. The waitress and the cook were in a good mood, so it was a happy bunch. Everybody was very friendly in Phun Phin, which was a lot livelier than I had imagined.

For most people this is a transfer point. But you can actually use Phun Phin as a base for a day trip to Ratchaprapha Dam a.k.a. Khao Sok National Park.

Stage four: from Surat Thani (Phun Phin) to Phathallung

We had tried to book our ticket the night before, but the reservation system was down. When we returned to the station in the morning, the express train was full. So, we took the “ordinary”, the slow train. A very local  affair. The interior, the benches, the walls, the floor, everything was made of wood. Open the windows and the warm air blew through your hair. The noise from the engine and wheels was deafening. Earplugs highly recommended if you don’t want to damage your hearing. We reached almost 90 km / h.

The landscape was green, humid, hilly, rural. We stopped at dozens of small stations. Some were hardly more than a platform, others had cozy looking station buildings and a well tended garden. We could closely watch the procedure of the passing of the hoop. At one station the opposite train was rather long. The station guy drove his moped to the end of the platform to collect the hoop!

It was a lovely ride, but after 4½ hours, wooden benches are very hard indeed and the afternoon heat sort of cooked us.


Phathallung is another dusty provincial town, with a lot of charm once you see it. To reach the foot of Khao Ok Thalu, the mountain overlooking the town, you can go via the shunting yard. Luckily there were some floorboards over the cables that served the signals and switches. One more ditch to cross and we were out of town.

About 8 km to the east of Phathallung is Thale Sap, the largest lake of Thailand, connected to Lake Songkhla.

30 km to the north is the smaller Thale Noi. Still pretty large and with a stunning bird reserve. If Thale Noi is your destination, you may consider getting of the train earlier, at Pak Khlong station. No guarantee though further transport will be awaiting you.

Stage five: from Phatthalung to Hat Yai

We picked up sandwiches and coffee at the Seven – their coffee is simply the best. We drank it at the station. Slowly it became busier, especially with elderly ladies who carried baskets of food to sell on the train. They targeted the express- and rapid trains – our ordinary didn’t have many passengers.

Our train was on time. It was another nice ride through a lot of greenery. Rice fields, rubber plantations, cows, birds. It was quiet on the train. Until we arrived in Hat Yai and so many students got on so fast that we could barely get out.

Hat Yai is the centre of the deep south. From here you can take trains further south to Yala, Sungai Kolok or Padang Besar. The latter is the place for crossing the Malaysian border and catching a train to Kuala Lumpur or Penang (as we did the year after in the opposite direction)

We could have taken the direct night train. But this was much more fun!
Train travel is the way to go in Thailand. It is easy, easygoing, comfortable and gives you a beautiful view of the country and the countryside.


Thailand, January 2019 – Amsterdam, May 2022



The SlowTrain from Trang to Bangkok 

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