Overnight train travel in Southeast Asia causes quite the divide on opinion. Either you find the journey outside of your comfort zone an adventure, or you simply can’t handle the culture shock, but you have to go through with it.
Love them or hate them, travelling by train in Southeast Asia and train journeys across large countries in general are an essential part of the travel experience. At times they are long, tedious and uncomfortable and other times they are, quite simply, epic.
I’ve had a few experiences on overnight trains in Southeast Asia – the most notable being in Vietnam, India and Thailand – and each have their own unique tales. So here’s my overview on the good, bad and ugly of train travel here.
The Good About Overnight Trains in Southeast Asia
1. If you are lucky you can get your own cabin
In Vietnam, it wasn’t an open free for all, see all, hear all train. It meant us four girls could embark on an adult slumber party in comfort and privacy. It meant inviting your mates in for a gathering and visiting people in other rooms… a bit like being naughty on a school trip (who’s hiding the vodka?).
And it’s not always a bad thing if you share with one or two locals, like some friends of ours did. We managed to try out some local delicacies and delight in what cultural exchange was possible.
2. A little beer makes for good times and a heavy sleep
Before boarding a train grab yourself a few cans of beer and some snacks. There may not be a bar/restaurant on board so it’s essential to grab some supplies before the train chugs on its merry way seeing as what’s on board is either non-existent or nowhere near delightful. Plus a good game of cards, a gossip and a giggle is always complemented by a good beer and the bonus is you will doze off more easily. Result.
3. Don’t forget to look out the window
It’s like getting off the beaten track, except you are in a viewing capsule. At times it affords to opportunity to see the true beauty and landscape of the country you are in away from the tourist droves and main cities. I’m certainly looking forward to the train from China to Mongolia in July and soaking up the vast terrain. Learn about shutter speeds on your SLR too and you might get that golden shot!
4. Get the party started
Being on a train doesn’t mean being confined to your seat or your carriage. In this instance I am talking about the one and only infamous Bangkok Express. I’ve had the pleasure of boarding this long journey back to the capital twice and each time the restaurant carriage has provided the space to get everyone together without disturbing the people who want peace in the general carriages. In the restaurant compartment you can buy alcohol and food but then time flies and the guards try and file you out by 9ish. “But I’m not tired and I’m having a great time” you think.
So what do you do? You buy the guards a few drinks and ask them to join you, in exchange for a time extention. We managed to keep that carriage open until 10:30, 11 tops. We even gave them CD’s and played DJ. We bought shite vodka and brandy and other travellers chipped in with their collections. The guards danced, the workers enjoyed the interaction and short break from their duties and everyone was happy. By close you were ready for bed (or a small quiet rendevouz in your bunk area) without having offended anyone.
The Bad About Overnight Trains in Southeast Asia
1. Be prepared for the full-on morning wake up call
Even if your train is due to pull in at 7am, the strategically placed speaker in your private cabin will still blare out a lovely message at say… 5:30am! It could be to announce the first stop two hours later, or mark the delivery of breakfast (be prepared for multiple knocks on the door too), but it pains you when in deep slumber.
If you are in an open carriage you will be awoken by workers walking up and down each carriage shouting “morning, morning, tea, coffee” over and over again. Sometimes you look out of your curtain and you see the dude that was partying with you the night before. He hasn’t got a hangover and he’s enjoying smirking at you.
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 to wake up, get ready and not have to frantically rush to get off.
2. Cultural norms
Or more simply, hawking. This was my main issue on the Indian trains and one which I know I will certainly encounter when I travel through China this year. It’s bad enough walking past a little phlegm release on the street, but when you are on a train, in an open carriage, surrounded by many locals are hawking all night long, all I can say is… good freaking god. It’s the kind of environment where your mother would proclaim “that’s bloody disgusting” and it is. Get some ear plugs and some patience.
3. Cultural sensitivities
Once, on the Bangkok Express, I awoke in the early hours needing to visit the bathroom (always a bummer), jumped off my top bunk and found a few Thai guys playing cards on the floor. I walked up to them and kindly motioned that I needed to pass – cue the ‘don’t step over people’ rule – but they wouldn’t move. Communication was failing and my next attempt was ignored, leaving me with no choice but to have to step over them.
I felt terrible and I hated myself as I pride myself on being super observant of cultural rules. When I did ‘step over’ I was met with a mob mentality of angry “WHOOOAAAA”,“OHHHH” and “AHHHH” cries. It was slightly unnerving but sometimes you might just have to make that call.
4. You get stared at more
Hours on a train means being confined to intense fascination where you wish you were only interesting for five minutes not five hours. However, standing out can allowed for interaction and conversation with locals. I once had a conversation with an Indian guy on the way to Mumbai, who spent 15 minutes laughing at me for calling what he had in his hand ‘chapatti’ and not ‘roti’. It’s those random moments that make for great memories.
The Ugly About Overnight Trains in Southeast Asia
1. Backsplash toilets
Seriously, who thought metal/steel/whatever silver based material those toilets are made of were a good invention? You might as well pee on yourself. And make sure you track the location of the western loo (just hope your bed is near to one) or you will be faced with the equivalent steel drum but in squat form. Try that on a train whilst it’s moving. Hand sanitzer anyone?
2. People will steal even the smallest, most boring items
Like the time I feel asleep on an Indian train with a crappy little torch in my hand. It wasn’t there when I woke up. It’s common sense not to leave expensive items out but if you don’t want those handy little things swiped, including your fake (Ko San Road purchased) Havaianas, lock them up or keep them hidden. Chains, cable locks and a pacsafe – use them.
3. Don’t eat too much sugar
So when I said earlier to get supplies, this normally limits you to junk. The kind of unhealthy, grab whatever you can in 10 minutes, roadside snack junk. And that includes sweets, which I ate two packets of when on the train in Vietnam leaving me with the worst sugar ‘come down’ I have ever had. Too much sugar is not good on a long train journey – I would rather consume shitty train noodles and suffer slight hunger.
4. Interesting bedding
At times you wonder how much regurgitation the bedding has had in its daily rail history (despite seeming very clean). I’m all for the must-have silk sleeping bag and shutting off your brain to such hygienic conundrums. Much effort was made to make the bedding supplied interesting on my Vietnamese train where I was rather impressed with my ‘Baby Bear’ pillow. It was like purchasing random Asian stationary that has words on it that don’t make sense. And it made liking bears in your 20’s perfectly acceptable.
I love a good train trip and even if it does take a good few hours it can be fun, sociable and another means of local social interaction. Besides, the journey is what you make it, especially when you are on the crazy Bangkok Express!
What’s your experience of overnight train travel in Southeast Asia?