A few weeks ago I decided to travel from Bangkok to Phuket for Saturday #43. I wanted to take the train. The goal for Saturday #42 was to figure out which train and to secure a ticket. That wouldn’t take more than a few minutes if I was traveling on VIA or Amtrak, but I’m in Thailand, not Kansas, and things are a little different here.
I consulted The Man in Seat 61 (www.Seat61.com) as he’s the undisputed authority on international train travel. “The Man” referenced ThaiRailways.com. Here’s what they had to say:
“The Southern Line splits at Hat Yai into two Branches. The main Line Branch goes Southeast to Sungai Kolok on the Thai / Malay Border. The other Branch goes Southwest to Padang Besar and destinations in Malaysia. There is a rail link at Sungai Kolok (last station on the Southeast Branch) across the Golok River to Rantau Panjang (Malaysia), but there are no cross-border passenger train services there. There are also no cross-border Bus Services between Thailand and Malaysia on the Southeast Coast Thai / Malay Border. From Sungai Kolok Rail Station (Thailand), get to the Thai / Malay Border by taxi or on foot. (1 km). Walk over the ‘Harmony Bridge’ to Rantau Panjang (Malaysia). From Rantau Panjang, get a bus, motorbike, or taxi to the nearest Malaysian Railways Station, Pa sir Mas Station.”
So that was crystal clear, right? After reading a few more posts of similar complexity I decided to just go down to the main train station in Bangkok and deal with an agent face-to-face. Saturday #42 was all about exploring the very heart of Bangkok – the area around Hua Lamphong Station.
It’s easy to get to Hua Lamphong train station as it sits directly above Hua Lamphong MRT (subway) station, and that’s the last stop on the main line. I knew that getting to the station was the easy part. Before heading inside, I took a look around the neighbourhood.
After strolling the main streets and back alleys around the station, and having my fill of mystery meat, I thought I had better get over to the station in case they keep unconventional business hours. You never know!
Adjacent to the front doors of the station sits a well-marked Tourist Information kiosk. There was one young guy manning the booth. He had been reading a comic book but looked up at me and asked where I wanted to go. When I said “Phuket on Friday,” he replied, “Oh, nice, just in time for the Pride.
He went on to explain that one can’t actually get to Phuket from Bangkok by train. However, there is a train to Surit Thani where you transfer to a bus, minivan or taxi for the three hour cross-country drive to Phuket. I knew that. I think.
“Essentially, you have two options, sir.”
I’d prefer not to be called ‘sir’ at every turn, but I guess it’s inevitable in this culture. He explained that I could purchase a train ticket today from the State Railways of Thailand ticket counter inside the station and then shop around for a connecting bus or taxi once I got to Surit Thani. The second option was to buy a train / bus combo ticket from an independent travel agent. Option B was a bit more expensive but the convenience of having both tickets in hand before leaving Bangkok and not having to negotiate with a swarm of bus agents and taxi drivers once I arrived in Surat Thani had some appeal. No less an authority than ThaiRailways.com had this to say about the situation in ST: “Surat Thani Rail Station is a dirty, hot, outdoor station with a few food/souvenir stands.” I’d hate to hear what their critics have to say!
When I told the the pink-shirted guy in the tourist kiosk that I’d go for “Option B” he came out of the booth, took me by the hand, and led me into the station. I followed him through the maze of vendors who set up shop on the periphery of the station and finally to a dark stairwell at the back of the building. He just stood there and looked at me. For a few seconds I wondered if he had misunderstood what I was looking for. Nope. At the top of the stairs I found a row of small offices operated by independent travel agents.
“Well, good sir, you have two options,” replied the agent that specialized in trips to Phuket. She passed a brochure and a schedule across the table and got out a yellow marker.
Not this again, I thought. The agent went on to explain that Thai Railways offers 1st Class and 2nd Class tickets for this particular trip. Single travellers in 1st Class are paired with another traveler of the same sex and together they occupy a lockable compartment with two seats that convert to two berths and a sink at night. Second Class passengers face each other in groups of two and at night the two seats fold down into a lower berth while an upper berth folds down from the ceiling. These berths have a privacy curtain but cannot be locked. Essentially there’s a row of upper and lower berths on either side of a 2nd Class car with luggage stacked in the aisle.
“So, what about the price,” I asked.
“1st Class really is the way to go. Every American choses 1st class. It’s just 1548 Baht.” The sell was on!
When I told her that I was a Canadian, she whipped out a calculator and displayed the price in Canadian Dollars. It was $58 for a 14 hour ride. I can handle that, I thought.
“The 2nd Class ticket is 1140 Baht or $43 in your money,” she informed me.
Hmm. $58 or $43. I didn’t need a calculator to see that we’re talking about a difference of just $15. Of course you know which one I went for? I mean, what’s a measly 15 bucks, right?
Well, it’s about 6 beers at a beachside bar in Phuket, that’s what it is. So naturally I chose 2nd Class. I’ll let you know how that worked out in a future post.