My Train Derailed in the Northern Thai Jungle

Train derailed from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on August 3, 2013.

On August 3rd, having just flown back from Helsinki, Sam and I found ourselves racing to get to Don Muang train station in order to get a pair of last minute tickets back to Chiang Mai.

We ran up to the ticket window looking like sweaty mules with all of our oversized bags and inquired about availability.

The young woman behind the counter turned the computer screen towards us; the next train was leaving at 18:57 and there were only two tickets available – in first class.

“We’ll take those!” I yelled from the other side of the glass, half fearing someone else would snatch them up before she had a chance to print them out.

Having just spent the previous day and a half travelling from a remote island in the Finnish archipelago, to Helsinki, to Istanbul, to Bangkok, we didn’t care about the price. We have taken this train many times before and we have always opted for second class tickets; today would be a splurge.

* * *

The train arrived a full half hour later than scheduled, but aside from that nothing out of the ordinary happened.

We boarded carriage #11, the very last carriage on the train, and ordered a curry set to share (as usual). I took the lower berth, Sam was resigned to the upper berth, and we soon dozed off with the rocking motion of the train.

I woke up once during the night to the sound of the metal guard rail on the upper berth grinding with the sway of the train, so I took it down. I was then woken up a second time by Sam who was looking for water, and we put the guard rail back up. I’m glad we did, because at around 2:30 am the train’s motion changed from a gentle side-rocking sway to a very sharp rattle.

The doors to our private compartment swung open, the luggage slid across the floor, and we came to an abrupt halt.

Sam sat up in bed,

“Did we just go off the tracks?”

“Of course not,” I argued, “we probably just nearly missed a train station and had to brake a little last minute.”

Since I assumed we were at a station, I waited for the train to pull out, but it never did.

We couldn’t see anything out of the window in our private compartment, so I walked out to the hall to have a look out of the opposite side of the carriage.

I was shocked to see a wall of rock.

We were inside a tunnel.

This was all very strange.

Train derailed inside tunnel in the Uttaradit province travelling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

When we didn’t start moving again, passengers in the neighbouring compartments began to wake up and wander down the halls in search of answers.

The snippets of information trickled down slowly. There was talk of another train coming for us (why did we need another train?), there was talk of there being smoke in the carriages up front (why was there smoke and where were these rumours coming from?), but for the most part the attendants were just trying to coerce everyone to stay in their compartments and go back to bed.

Thinking the train had probably just experienced a minor mechanical mishap, I went back to sleep.

I dozed off for another two hours or so, but when I woke up again nothing had changed.

We were still trapped inside the tunnel and I was starting to smell fumes. (Did they have the engines running while we were in the tunnel?)

By 5:00 am we learned that our train had in fact derailed.

The train attendants informed us that there was another train about 20 minutes away coming to get us.

We were told to quickly pack all of our belongings and when they gave us the signal, we hopped out of the last carriage with all of our bags in tow.

Hiking through a dark tunnel after our train derailed en route to Chiang Mai.

The tunnel was dark and the ground was wet.

Flashlights partially illuminated the way to a series of trolleys that had been arranged to transport the larger pieces of luggage as well as some passengers out of the tunnel. However, because the trolleys were full by the time everyone disembarked, most of us ended up having to trek out of the muddy tunnel on foot.

When we reached the end of the 382 meter tunnel, I was surprised to see that it was already daylight. It was past 6 am and we were in the middle of the lush jungle.

Officials and train personnel were already on site, as were numerous workers who I imagined would be trying to dig out the train later on.

Passengers were lead to a waiting train that had come to pick us up, and we then began backtracking all the way to Sila-at railway station where rows of double-decker buses were standing by ready to take us the remainder of the 4 hour journey to Chiang Mai.

Coach buses at Sila-at station ready to take us the rest of the way to Chiang Mai after our train derailed.

I was impressed with the way the train officials handled the situation. Considering the train went off the tracks in a rather remote region in the Uttaradit province in the early hours of the morning, it must have been quite the task to get another train out to our location, evacuate the 415 passengers, and then arrange for alternate transportation to Chiang Mai.

However, it worries me that these train derailments are far too common and seem to be occurring more and more often.

Emergency personnel on site after our train derailed en route to Chiang Mai.

How serious was the accident?

After reading about the accident on the Bangkok Post the following day, I learned that the only reason our train did not overturn was because the derailment happened inside the tunnel. Two of the eight carriages jumped off the tracks, and the only thing holding these upright were the tunnel’s walls.

The suspected cause of the accident? The deteriorating condition of the rail tracks.

I am feeling pretty fortunate that all 415 passengers were able to walk away from this accident unscathed.

This very same train going from Chiang Mai to Bangkok derailed just a few weeks ago on July 17 causing multiple injuries on travellers aboard.

And that’s just one of many incidents involving Thai trains.

What’s even more worrisome is that in the past trains have derailed on level ground, but when you are travelling through the Thai jungle, there are many sections where the ground drops on either side of the track and there is nothing but jungle below. What if the train were to derail along that section of the track as opposed to inside a tunnel?

I have taken Thai trains multiple times during the past few months living in Thailand, however, all these recent accidents have me questioning whether it’s safe to do so.

65 Comments

  • Tim Moon says:

    This is so crazy! This is the first story I’ve heard about train derailments there. But this is good to know for when I finally make it to Thailand. Maybe Thailand will get their act together and begin updating and repairing the tracks.
    Tim Moon recently posted..Best Travel Movies: Films That Inspire AdventureMy Profile

  • Scary!! I did that train route in June and it stopped 2 hours out from CM because (rumor has it) there was an accident on the tracks ahead of us. We had to make the rest of the trip by double decker bus which picked us up surprisingly fast considering we were at a middle of nowhere train station.

    Glad you’re all ok!
    Casi @HeyNoobz recently posted..Island Hopping in Thailand – From JayZ To Backpacker StyleMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Yup, that’s likely what happened. When our train derailed we ended up blocking the tracks for all the trains behind us, so they too had to take the double decker buses the remainder of the way up to Chiang Mai.

  • Marilyn says:

    Glad to hear both you and Sam are okay…scary situation

  • Helen says:

    Oh my goodness! Sounds so scary! So glad you are both ok!

    Helen x
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  • I was on a train in Myanmar that derailed but it was a fairly common occurrence in Burma. We were delayed for quite some time while they fixed it but it wasn’t too bad.
    Wil @ Where’s Wil recently posted..How much does it cost to live in paradise? – Koh Phangan, ThailandMy Profile

  • That is really scary! I’m glad that the Thai officials were able to handle this case well. Hope the government will work on the problems immediately since locals and tourists opt to take the train than the bus to Chiang Mai. Glad you and Sam were safe!
    Micamyx|Senyorita recently posted..Travel Books: Love With a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRocheMy Profile

  • Nicole says:

    That’s pretty lucky, really. It’s so scary when things happen at night. But luckily people are ok.
    Nicole recently posted..Ladies: I’m Nuts for This Travel GearMy Profile

  • Relieved to hear you guys are ok. I took a train from Chiang Mai to BKK last year. It was very late, but I didn’t realize there was such a problem with safety on the Thai rail network…
    Adam Pervez | HappinessPlunge.com recently posted..Goa – Portugal’s Piece Of IndiaMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Thailand has been having a lot of problems with its train network lately. The current count is at 9 derailments for the year, and 3 within the last month alone… :/

  • Um. Woah. That is scary. I’m so glad everyone was okay. I have a totally irrational fear of tunnels….I think I would have had a nervous breakdown if that happened to me. I was also pretty surprised while reading how quickly everything got organized with the buses and stuff!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..10 things to do in Vancouver, BC if you’re kind of broke but really awesome.My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Yeah, I was really surprised by how quickly they were able to sort it all out. Considering we were in the middle of the jungle, 4 hours isn’t so bad to get a whole team out there and to arrange alternate transportation.

  • Colleen says:

    Wow! Scar-eeee. The fact that you guys are still with us all in one piece is nearly miraculous. Hopefully Thailand will make the changes necessary to start taking the safety of their trains and tracks seriously.

  • Beth says:

    Wow that’s a bit scary.

    I’ve been slowly beginning to figure out my SE Asia trip, and had already assumed I’d be taking trains all across Thailand because they’re cheap and safer than other options (read: the reckless driving in Thailand scares me to death haha).

    Maybe I should rethink the trains…
    Beth recently posted..Foto Friday: Tseung Kwan O, Hong KongMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I had also always thought of Thai trains as being quite safe, and you get such a good night’s sleep on them… :/

    • Although these derailments are certainly unsettling, personally, I’d still certainly take trains over buses. Accidents on the roads are way more common and lead to far more serious injuries that those reported in the derailments. Personal choice of course but its important to keep these things in perspective.
      Magic Travel Andrew recently posted..House-Sitting Boy Dogs In RivervaleMy Profile

  • Jackie D says:

    How scary! But how fortunate, too, that no one was seriously injured. I’m glad you both were able to walk away from this unhurt.
    Jackie D recently posted..Jackie Takes Herself to Santa BarbaraMy Profile

  • Not so sure I want to travel by rail in Southeast Asia after reading this!
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  • Peter Lee says:

    Oh my goodness! Scary and crazy post. But, I think it was something new for you to experience. Thankfully, you and Sam are okay.

  • Yeah, Thai trains kind of suck. One of the three carriages on my train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai actually caught on fire. They put it out eventually and we continued, but the people from the affected carriage all piled into the other two and lay around on the floor for the rest of the trip. I guess they didn’t feel like spending the next 8 hours in a soot-covered and still smoking car. All in all, the journey ended up taking twice as long as scheduled.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Lake Toba: The Day I Traded my Hammock for a MotorbikeMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Yikes! I wonder what started the fire in the carriage. I’m glad to hear everyone on your train was okay. Thai trains are such an adventure…

  • Hi there, Sorry to hear about your traumatic experience. As you’re probably aware, we’ve had a very high-profile rail tragedy in Spain. Let’s hope our safety is more guaranteed the next time we board a train.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..MoyaMy Profile

  • Yeah – I’d probably give train rides in Thailand a rest, especially knowing that this is not uncommon. Thank God you derailed in a tunnel!
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted..Beach Bummin’ in Tybee Island GeorgiaMy Profile

  • Yikes! Makes for a great story, but totally horrifying when you consider the realities of the safety or lack thereof…
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..The Last Grains Of SandMy Profile

  • Charles Rahm says:

    Just to scare you a bit more: The double decker VIP buses are even worse. Just recently one had an accident in Saraburi and about 10 people died inside because it is very hard to smash the glass with one of those hammers, because it is security glass.
    In which way you travel in Thailand you always need to hope for your good luck not to run out.
    I will just use the one deck buses from Transport Co. in the future, because that is the state company and seemingly the safest of them all. Their buses are blue/white and only depart from the official bus stations.

  • Amanda @ Adventure Year says:

    This is so crazy to read. Thank goodness for that tunnel! I’m glad you made it out alright and could tell the story. My friend was actually supposed to take the train on July 17 but her plans got changed last minute. Very scary for those of us back home who didn’t know if she was alright!
    Amanda @ Adventure Year recently posted..Traveling When SickMy Profile

  • jess says:

    What an eerie, first-hand report. I was reading about this recent derailment over at Lonelyplanet and quite surprised when I clicked onto one of my regular travel blog reads to see the author had been aboard, my goodness. It seems as thought there is no denying the sad state of the Thai railways any longer and I am glad to hear that everyone on board is alright. I was planning on taking the Chiang Mai > Bangkok overnight next month on my travels and I’m about to check the cost of flights instead…

  • Andrea says:

    Oh my goodness – glad you weren’t hurt!
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  • Hogga says:

    whaaat that’s so scary!
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  • OMG, how scary. Glad you two are allright!
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  • Jessica Wray says:

    That is insane! I’m so glad you guys were inside that tunnel. What a scary thought.

    Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention. You’d assume trains are the safest method of transportation but with this, and especially after the one in Spain, you really never know! Gosh, but what is there to do?
    Jessica Wray recently posted..Backpacking Southeast Asia, As Told By MemesMy Profile

  • It’s really worrisome to know that incidents like this one are happening on a regular basis and potentially in far more dangerous circumstances. Glad that you are safe in Chiang Mai and that you are so calm in unexpected situations! Such is the nature of perpetual travel!
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..BAHAMAS: Embrace Resort Brings Sustainability to the ExumasMy Profile

  • Liz smith says:

    Oh my gosh that’s crazy! So glad that you were all safe. We recently traveled by rail in Thailand, I didn’t know that there were so many issues – I knew Burma was a bit sketchy, but wow! Such a beautiful place, I hope they our effort into fixing it. A beautiful way to travel, and feels safer than the roads!!!
    Travel safely!

    Liz & Josh
    http://Www.PeanutsOrPretzels.com
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  • Heather says:

    Sheesh! What a scary thing to go through – and even scarier to know that it could have been a lot worse! I was taking Amtrak once from NYC to DC at the tracks were hit by lightening in a storm. All the signals stopped working but our train continued on at a slow crawl. What should have been a 4-hour ride ended up taking 9 hours and the under-stocked dining car ran out of food and water. This situation pales in comparison to yours, but just goes to show how much can go wrong with train travel. I always try to fly or take the bus, they just seem like safe options. So glad no one was hurt here!
    Heather recently posted..Budapest: From Rubble to RemarkableMy Profile

  • Rachel M says:

    Thankfully you were in a tunnel and not on the edge of some cliff. Scary nevertheless.
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  • Jan says:

    Me, my wife and son (age 9) and our friends with their 2 children were in the train that derailed and turned over on july 17 at about 3.15 a.m. My girlfried broke her wrist and had an operation in the Chiang Mai hospital. And now I read about another derailment. It’s just luck that nothing worse happened. We could have endend up in the river below when the accident happened a 100 meters before and what if there’s a fire in the tunnel?
    For me, the railway company is putting lifes at stake. All those tourist trains make a lot of money, so they keep them running but they can not guarantee the safety.
    The railway company didn’t want to refund our ticket and another couple I saw at the hospital said that a waitress of the train even asked to pay for the breakfast after the accident happened. How low can you go?

  • Thomas says:

    They need to fix those tracks like 2 years ago. To think the only thing holding up the train was the fact you guys were in a tunnel. Good to hear that not even one person was injured. But it sucks you had to back track and then ride a bus four more hours.
    Thomas recently posted..Memorial Day Weekend Getaways IdeasMy Profile

  • ChinaMatt says:

    That’s a frightening experience. When I was taking a train back to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, I wondered why it was so late. When I asked about the train, I’m swear I heard the station employee say that it fell off the track. I ended up getting a non-sleeper train a couple hours later.
    ChinaMatt recently posted..At the Ball Game After 20 YearsMy Profile

  • Angela says:

    Wow, so glad you’re both okay! I never felt unsafe in Thai trains and I’ve used them a lot. I always prefer trains over busses because they feel more safe and I won’t have to fear for my life all night long. Guess I’ll never sleep again in any train now, dammit!
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  • Ryan says:

    Yowza, that is pretty intense as an after thought, luckily you were in the tunnel! I’ll be headed to Thailand and all around Southeast Asia in November, definitely have me questioning taking the train!
    Ryan recently posted..#Frifotos: Orange Sunsets around the World.My Profile

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  • Abby says:

    EEK Audrey! A freak accident is one thing, but that is really scary that these accidents are happening because of the conditions of the rails. I think that very last phrase of your post is where you need to focus… I mean, wow, what a story! But like I said, super-scary that it wasn’t a freak accident. THANK GOODNESS for the tunnel!! Is there a way to research which parts of the rails are the oldest? I mean, obviously you can’t just never take a train again… Ok, enough rambling. 😉 Keep us posted!
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  • Apol of Wanderful Together says:

    Scary!!

    So lucky it derailed in the tunnel. Stay safe on your travels!

    Love the new look of your blog! 🙂
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  • noel says:

    what a scary thought that local transportation can also be dangerous and sub par….I remember taking some scary trips with almost not worthy types of transport in Asia…but I guess that’s just what you do, right?
    noel recently posted..Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, Sunday brunchMy Profile

  • Laura says:

    How scary! Especially to have read about it the next day. It seems you never know how close you are to danger in the moment (which is probably a good thing). Stay safe!
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  • Ryan says:

    How frightening! And how unbelievably lucky you were to be in a tunnel at the time! I often think about travelers tend to get caught up in their adventures and forget about the lack of safety regulations in developing countries, especially when it comes to transportation (trains, planes, crazy taxis with no seat belts, motorbikes, psychotic bus drivers, etc). But then I think…. Screw it! Enjoy the moment and make the most of it!

    This story actually reminds me the time when I was taking a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap years ago (before Cambodia had paved roads), and the bus got stuck in a muddy river (which was actually a flooded road). Granted, my situation was much less potentially catastrophic, but it did involve sitting around in the middle of the Cambodian night waiting for the alternate transportation that was arranged (which ended up being a pickup truck to haul 30 people the remainder of the way to Siem Reap… oh, and the truck didn’t have headlights, just a guy holding a small flashlight out the window to help the driver navigate around the potholes and missing bridge sections).

    btw… I really like the new layout of your blog.
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  • David F says:

    I was also on that train in carriage 11 and did what you did. I said to my wife I think we have derailed and she said no its just poor tracks! So we both kinda dozed off again and went to sleep, I actually thought the train had moved off again. It was 6am when we were told to get our bags and like you said it was just a muddy bog in the tunnel. We were shocked to see it was daylight and we were in the middle of the jungle.

    Although the 4 hour bus journey was horrendous at least we got to chiang mai!

    • Audrey says:

      Wow, glad to hear that you guys also came out unscathed. It was such a surreal experience and such little information was given out after it happened. I was wandering down the hall of our carriage with a few others trying to get answers, but one of the attendants came through and just told us to go back to sleep. She was so nonchalant about it that I figured it was just a minor engine problem or something…I didn’t realize we had actually gone off the rails. Apparently the tracks are finally getting fixed after they had several derailments after ours. Finally!

  • Dave Russell says:

    Amazing story, it’s great you came away unscathed. They’ve actually closed the track until early November to fix the line. I guess they figured three derailments in a month was finally enough.

  • Billy says:

    I too enjoy train travel and I have ridden the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai many times. Pity about the condition of the tracks; until they are restored to good condition, there will be more derailments.

    My last trip from Chiang Mai to BKK was on August 2011 and the tracks were being repaired on several ections. However, I remember the train rocking more than in the past trips, so the tracks definately need a lot of maintenance.
    Kep traveling!

    • Audrey says:

      Thankfully they are finally getting around to doing some repairs along that specific section from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It really was about time.

  • MJ says:

    When traveling Thailand by train, can you buy multi stop tickets so to hop on and off as pleased between Bangkok to Chang Mai

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  • Anna says:

    We were meant to take the same train the day after this happened to you but my boyfriend had read about all of the derailments and decided we would fly instead. Glad we decided to do that!

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  • something to take into SERIOUS consideration… I wonder what’s the case/situation like this year, in 2014?

    I’ll be based out of Asia for the next year starting August/September, so I would like to know whether I should fly within Thailand instead of taking their trains… got any updates Audrey?

    By the way, very happy to hear you were not hurt!

    -Maria Alexandra
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    • Audrey says:

      Hi Maria Alexandra,

      The train tracks were actually shut down for repairs the summer of 2013 because there were even more derailments after the one I experienced. Hopefully, things will be much safer now that the work is complete. If you are interested in flying within Thailand, Nok Air is a cool budget airline that offers really great service – much better than Air Asia, in my opinion!

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