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Overnight train travel in Southeast Asia is often essential to the travel experience here. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the rail experience.
Travelling Southeast Asia by train causes quite a divide in opinion. Either you find the journey outside your comfort zone and an adventure, or you simply can’t handle the culture shock and lack of comfort but go through with it.
Love or hate them, travelling by train in Southeast Asia is essential to the travel experience. It’s how the locals travel across the country. In most cases, they are more efficient and comfortable than long bus journeys – the norm in Cambodia.
I’ve had a few experiences on overnight sleeper trains in Southeast Asia – the most notable being in Vietnam and Thailand – and in a caveat of bias, I love to travel this way despite the downsides. Here’s my overview of the pros and cons of train travel here.
- The Pros of Overnight Trains in Southeast Asia
- The Downsides of Sleeper Trains in Southeast Asia
- The Sleeper Train Experience
- Travelling Southeast Asia?
The Pros of Overnight Trains in Southeast Asia
Small group travel and private cabins
In Vietnam, it wasn’t an open carriage with bunk beds but a private four-bed cabin. It meant four women could embark on an adult slumber party in comfort and privacy. In a small group, it meant inviting your mates in for a gathering and visiting people in other rooms.
It’s not always bad if you share with one or two locals – it’s a chance to try out some local delicacies and delight in what cultural exchange is possible. On some train journeys, you can opt for an all-female cabin.
Beer is plentiful (and helps you sleep)
Before boarding a train, grab a few cans of local beer and snacks. There may not be a bar/restaurant on board, so it is essential to grab some supplies before the train journey begins. More often than not, there’s not a lot of choice once onboard. A good game of cards, gossip and a giggle is always complemented by a good beer, and you will likely sleep more easily.
Prime landscape views
It’s like getting to see all the places you know would be exceptional to get to, except you are in a viewing capsule. At times, it allows you to see the true beauty and landscape of the country you are in, away from the sightseeing hotspots and main cities. Learn about shutter speeds on your camera, too, and you might get that golden shot!
The luxury of a restaurant cabin
Being on an Asian train doesn’t mean being confined to your seat or carriage. Take the famous Bangkok Express as an example – an overnight train I’ve had the pleasure of boarding between Bangkok and Chiang Mai many times. On each journey, the restaurant carriage provided the space to get everyone together without disturbing the people who wanted peace in the general carriages. It politely separates the socialisers from the early sleepers.
In the restaurant compartment, you can buy alcohol and food, but time does fly, and the train guards typically get everyone out around 9 pm. However, on several occasions, the carriage remained open until 10.30 pm, and the staff may even join for a drink and dance, taking a short break from their duties. By closing, you will be ready for bed without having offended anyone in the main carriages.
The Downsides of Sleeper Trains in Southeast Asia
Be prepared for an early morning wake-up call
Even if your train is due to pull in at 7 am, the strategically placed speaker in your private cabin will still blare out a message at 5:30 am. It could be to announce the first stop (even if two hours later) or mark breakfast delivery. Be prepared for multiple knocks on the door, too.
If you are in an open carriage, you will be awoken by the train staff shouting “morning, morning, tea, coffee” repeatedly.
But look on the bright side – you would be more annoyed if you missed your stop. Use it as a means of giving yourself plenty of time to wake up, get ready, and not have to rush to get off frantically. Be aware that the staff also have a system in place to rearrange the beds back to their seats or change the sheets in the cabins, ready for the next journey.
Be aware of cultural sensitivities
On the Bangkok Express, I awoke in the early hours, needing to visit the bathroom. I jumped off my top bunk and found some Thai guys playing cards on the floor. I walked up to them and kindly motioned that I needed to pass – note that in Thailand, it is rude to step over people – but they wouldn’t move. Communication failed, and my next attempt was ignored, leaving me no choice. I felt terrible (I pride myself on being super observant of cultural rules), and when I did step over, I was met with an angry outcry. It was slightly unnerving, but sometimes you might have to make that call.
Read up on the cultural norms and sensitivities of where you are travelling since you will be around dozens of local people on a long train journey. As a visitor, you don’t want to offend unnecessarily.
You may be stared at
Hours on a train means being confined to an intense fascination where you wish you were only interesting for five minutes, not five hours. However, long journeys do mean interaction and conversation with locals. Random moments make for great memories. If you wish to shut off for a few hours, put on your headphones or draw the curtain over your bunk bed for privacy.
Specifically, the metal toilets, which are the equivalent of steel drums but in squat form. Try that on a train whilst it’s moving. Pack the hand sanitiser.
You might lose even the most minor, most boring items
It’s common sense not to leave expensive items out, but if you don’t want those handy little things swiped, including your Ko San Road purchased knock-off Havaianas, lock them up or keep them hidden. Chains, cable locks and a Pacsafe – use them.
Pack layers for sleeping
You sometimes wonder how much regurgitation the bedding has had in its daily rail history (despite seeming very clean). If train journeys are a part of your itinerary, pack a silk sleeping bag and shut off your brain to such hygienic conundrums. You’ll also need socks and layers if you get chilly easily from the aircon ramp-up.
The Sleeper Train Experience
I love a good train trip, and even if it does take many hours, it can be fun, sociable and another means of local social interaction. Besides, the journey is what you make it, especially on the Bangkok Express.
What’s your experience of overnight train travel in Southeast Asia?
Travelling Southeast Asia?
Travelling all around Southeast Asia? You’ve come to the right place. I spent 15 months living in and travelling around the region after my initial visits.
Check out my other travel tips and destination insights on other Southeast Asia countries via the destination pages below.