When Sam and I decided we would be attending the Digital Innovation Asia Conference in Bangkok, we both agreed that the best way to make our way there would be to take the overnight train from Chiang Mai to the capital. It’s a 14 hour long journey, which means you hop on the train right around dinner, enjoy some curry and a cheesy movie with subtitles in the dining car, and then return to your cabin just in time for bed.
It’s a smooth ride that rocks you to sleep, so when you pull into Bangkok at 6:30 in the morning, you are ready to take on the day. Which, by the way, is something that would never happen on an overnight bus thanks to the swerving, constant honking, and last-minute braking which wakes you from your slumber thinking you’re about to go over a cliff…
Three days before it was time to travel down to Bangkok we decided to buy our train tickets through one of the local travel agencies – sure, it was a little last minute, but with so many trains heading down there every day, how difficult could it be to get beds for two, right?
We walked into the office, a woman waved us over to her desk, and we explained what we needed.
Two overnight tickets to Bangkok on Saturday. Second class, with AC.
She called (the train station, I presumed) on her cell phone and began speaking in Thai. We sat there nodding along to any questions directed our way, not really worried about the possibility that the train might be sold out.
When she addressed us again, her response was,
“No seats on the train.”
Sam and I looked at each other. No seats? How is that possible when on the way to Chiang Mai we had booked them just a few hours before the train departed? Something seemed a bit off, but I still believed her. Maybe this weekend was a bit busier…
We inquired about travelling at a different time, but she insisted that only non-AC seats were available and we would not like those. Now I’m sure that would have been true since I’ve already travelled on the back of a bus with no AC, but why wouldn’t you want to sell those tickets to two desperate customers?
We decided to inquire about the bus options instead, and after another phone call we were told,
“You must book now. Only one bus, 5 seats left.”
Hmm, only one bus going from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Now I haven’t been living in Thailand that long, but I know for sure that there is an endless stream of backpackers making their way from the capital to this little hippie enclave in the jungles of the north. I see the buses streaming into town every day, so the likelihood of there being ‘only one bus’ might have resulted in a scoffing look sent her way.
She didn’t seem all that surprised when we walked out of her office not having purchased a bus ticket.
Fast forward three days (by which time we managed to secure tickets through an Indian restaurant!) and imagine our surprise when we hopped on board an empty train. Yes, the train was practically empty! Not only did we have our 4 person compartment all to ourselves, but we peeked and snooped as we walked through the different carriages and they were almost desolate. One passenger here, two on the other end, a staff member napping a bit further down.
It was like travelling aboard a ghost train, and we even have photo evidence!
I still don’t understand why they wouldn’t sell us tickets on a train that clearly had room for an extra few hundred passengers, but the lesson learned: next time someone tells you the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is fully booked, don’t be too quick to believe them. Find a different travel agency or go to the train station directly. There are likely plenty of seats available heading where you need to go.
How annoying! Maybe she was working with the bus company and would have got a commission if you had booked tickets with her. We once had to find an airport hotel at Bangkok airport and knew the hotel we wanted to go to, but didn’t bother calling ahead as we knew they’d have plenty of room. We found the driver of the hotel by chance (they have a free shuttle) and asked him if he can take us to the hotel. He looked confused as we weren’t on his list, so we explained that we haven’t booked yet. We went into the car and he started driving. The he made a phone call and returned to the airport all of the sudden. He asked us to leave the car and we were met by a lady who wanted to sell us rooms for a different hotel, but we thought that was a bit dodgy. We got a bit fed up and ended up taking a taxi to the hotel we wanted to go to and, surprise surprise, they had plenty of rooms available.
That’s shady. It’s weird that the driver from that hotel wouldn’t take you guys to the hotel he works for…what did he have to lose by it? Hmmm
Wow!! Good call on taking a chance on tickets somewhere else. Here in Taiwan the trains are nearly always overbooked, especially on weekends. If you want to guarantee a seat you’ve got to buy it days in advance. Somehow when you buy tickets online there seem to be more seats then purchasing at the train station. We are still trying to figure out how that system works :-p Luckily our train rides are only ever a couple of hours long. I can’t imagine a 14 hour ride with no seat. Looks like you guys made the right choice!
That reminds me of booking train tickets in Korea. I always had to book my tickets weeks in advance if I wanted to travel to a nearby province for a quick weekend trip. I guess everyone likes to escape the city at the end of the week.
I agree with Tammy – maybe she had an agreement with the other company. But by the way, you bought your tickets through an Indian restaurant? haha
I haven’t had this on transport but I once got turned away from a restaurant at 9pm saying they were ‘closing’ even though they were letting other people in. I tried to argue but considering the ‘bouncer’ looked as big as The Rock, I decided not to bother arguing with his stupidity!
Haha, yeah, it was a really random place to buy train tickets. Turns out the owner had a travel agency gig on the side and he was able to call up the station and get us the tickets we wanted.
Weird. Glad you got the train in the end; such a nicer way to travel overnight than by bus!
Agreed, I hadn’t done a whole lot of train travel before coming to SE Asia, but now it’s my preferred way to travel. You get such a good night’s sleep on those overnight trains!
This kind of thing happens in South America, too. The ticket agents walk around the stations calling out the buses, and people walk up to them to buy a ticket. Then they take you to the counter and you pay. If you ask for a discount, they’ll give you one. They just cut out the shouty person’s kickback and charge you the real price.
I’ve never booked a ticket in South America that way, but it’s pretty cool that you can get a discount just by asking. Was this in more rural areas?
This was everywhere I went all over Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, from big cities to smaller towns. The issue is that they just charge the regular ticket price plus extra for the guy “helping” you buy your ticket, and if you ask for a discount they’ll just charge you the regular price. So it’s not a “discount” so much as it’s kickback-free.
We actually had something similar happen when we were in the south of Thailand trying to make our way north to Bangkok. Every travel agency we went to said that they could not get us train tickets, but we could get bus tickets. We decided to chance it and just head to the train station the day of our train (we had been on an island previously) and what do you know: we were able to get tickets on the train. It seems like in Thailand the rule must now be to just go and book at the train station directly!
I’m glad you guys were able to get tickets to Bangkok. Sometimes it pays to take a chance and just show up at the train station. 😉
Glad you were able to get on train. Definitely, the first agent gets a better commission from the bus.
Yup, they must’ve had some kind of deal set up.
Sounds like she was definitely running a scam with the bus company! It always pays to check around huh?
I’ve learned my lesson and now I always shop around to make sure I’m getting a decent rate, haha
Love the pictures of you guys on the empty train. That must have been so bizarre! Sometimes I feel like that when motels in Korea say that they are full when it’s a Tuesday night, not a holiday, and in the middle of no where. But who would it benefit by us leaving? Oh strangie strangie. 🙂
It was bizarre! I kept wondering, “where have all the passengers gone?!”
So weird! One of these cultural “lost in translation” moments, maybe?
Either that or they really wanted to do some business with the bus companies.
We once took a night bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, we got the tickets from a private company. They opened our backpacks during the journey, help themselves to what they wanted. They did the same for all the other backpacks, there were only farangs on the bus. Asking around we soon realized that it wasn’t the first time that happened and with the very same company. We’ve learnt our lesson for sure!
Maybe they wanted to trick you guys too.
Yikes! Did you guys complain to the company about your missing belonging? Although, I guess it would be hard to notice if anything was missing until you got to your hotel and unpacked…
We have been tricked a few times when booking train tickets at agents or hostels. But we have learned our lesson! Even though we lived super far away from the Chiang Mai train station, we got on our bikes, biked for an hour to get to the train station (it was so hot, my bike almost melted), got our tickets there and biked all the way back. We took the day train to Bangkok which is the best train ever because every 45 minutes they give you something to eat and drink, for free!
I haven’t taken the day train yet just because it’s such a long journey and I prefer sleeping through it, but it’s good to know that they come around often with snacks. If I were to do the day journey I’d probably need them to stay a happy traveller. 😉
It certainly sounds like she had a deal with a bus company. I’m glad you guys went with train in the end because it’s so much better than the bus. Although, we did the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the non-AC car the first time – never again! The interior lights stay on the whole night, and if you closed the curtains to your bunk to block them out, then you didn’t get any air from the weak fans in the center aisle. It was like being in a tiny sauna – it’s definitely worth splurging for AC tickets in this case, because then the ride is actually pretty fun!
I’ve actually considered doing the non-AC journey at night because it does cool down a bit in the evenings, but after hearing that the fans don’t really work and it starts to feel like a sauna…I think I’ll pass, haha
Wow, it pays to check around! If something seems weird…it probably is? We got that when we booked a flight in Vietnam, and we had to change around our day to fit the ‘available seating’. I think a better idea would have been to show up at the airport right about when a flight is scheduled to leave and see if we could buy one then. Well done on buying a ticket at an Indian Restaurant btw!
Hehe, yeah, that’s the most random place to purchase trains tickets… 😉
I would guess that travel agent had a deal with the bus company. On my train to Chiang Mai, we didn’t even bother with the dining car. We bought food beforehand to take on board and just went to sleep. Unfortunately, I had the top bunk, which had a light on the whole time.
Yeah, the top bunk is annoying that way. We always request the bottom one if possible.
I planning a trip to thailand in 2014. I shall take note of your experience. I better find an alternative ride to Chang Mai.
This is so true even in a big city like New Delhi India. We had so many travellers crooning about it and we decided to take the agency for railways and started selling tickets at our hostel. I guess hostels and budget hotels catering to travellers should adopt this model to help travellers.
We had similar problems in Bangkok last year. Unfortunately we couldn’t get tickets not even in the train station. They pointed us to different travel agencies and those were not of much help either.
Never book a bus through a travel agent. They are always over priced and a scam 80% of the time. That’s where backpackers always end up getting robbed. The best thing to do is go the bus station and buy a ticket there as all the buses are government operated and take approved routes.
In regards to train tickets, it’s better to just go to the train station yourself. Sometimes the train does sell out (very often from November to May), but this time of year you can almost always get a seat.
Also, second class fan is awesome! It’s quite cool at night winding through the hills and you can see out the window. There are usually more locals as well so it’s a bit of a cultural experience! 🙂
This isn’t really a surprising story. I’ve learnt when in Asia to ask about three or four people before you finally book anything. Everybody has a different answer and it’s usually the case that they can find whatever you need if you find the right person!
Hey Audrey! I’m heading to SE Asia in November/December. I will probably take that same train trip! I was wondering about costs. That’s something you rarely write about. How much did the overnight train cost you? I’m trying to get a handle on my budget. Thanks!
An annoying start but it sounds like it worked out for the best. It’d be a little eerie having the whole train practically to yourselves
Just yesterday I went into an airline ticket office in Shanghai and tried to book a flight. As soon as I said my travel date and the connection point, the girl helping me immediately said all the flights that day were sold out. Mind you, I was inquiring about a flight next month to a city that usually gets two flights a day. I was skeptical, but she was adamant that all the flights were sold out. Finally I reiterated that I wanted to fly next month, in July, not June. Her response: Oh, let me double check. I walked out with a ticket. You have to be on your toes when booking transportation abroad!
Good thing you got your ticket. I’ll be there on oct. I am starting to find way to obtain my ticket South from Bangkok. I must be able this early but I am worried of scams…
Can you tell me which indian shop you went to ?. any contacts ? it will be helpful to all of us here.
Hey bit late to the party with my comment but here I go!
Tried to book an overnight VIP bus from Chang Mai to Bangkok from a travel agent inside the lobby of the Born Guest house here in CM. Lady phoned somewhere on her mobile, spoke some Thai. When she finished her phone conversation she told me that there were no seats on any bus on the day in question. As I needed to get to Bangkok for a flight back to the UK I enquired if there were any seats on a train. She said no, everything was fully booked due to the festival (Yi Peng) which had occurred the night before. However she did suggest a flight from Chang Mai airport at about 20x the cost of a bus ticket. With funds running a bit low in the last week of travel I had to decline, but as I’ve had some experiences with vendors being liberal with the truth when it comes to making more money I decided to try another agent. The very NEXT PLACE had me booked within 5 minutes on the VIP bus, the day I wanted for only 600 baht. Don’t entirely understand how some businesses work out here – why did the lady in the first place pass up a perfectly good sale of a bus ticket to risk a pitch of a plane ticket to a poor-looking grubby ole backpacker (me)!?
Tip for taxis and tuk tuks – in Chiang Mai try and take the red vans that are zooming about with locals in, they charge about 20 baht regardless of how far you travel (as long as they are going your way). With tuk tuks always ask a local (shopkeeper or something) how much the journey should cost. The driver will quote at least 4x as much.