We had done our research and decided that we wanted to travel up to Chiang Mai on the night train as we thought it would be a great experience and probably more comfortable than the night bus. Everything we had read had said to book the train a couple of days in advance so when we were at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok we thought we would try to book them in advance from Ayutthaya. Unfortunately, January is prime travel season for tourists as well as it being Thai holidays until the end of February. We were told in the advance booking office that there were no second class sleeper booths available for about 6 days and that there were not even normal seats on the day trains. We ended up booking onto an 11.30pm train for just seats for the 12-hour journey. As our time went on in Ayutthaya we became very reluctant about this as 12 hours is a long time and the trains are usually more and more delayed as the day goes on. This meant that is was unlikely our train would arrive before midnight and even when we got on the train we would have to sit with all our luggage for hours. We considered trying to get our money back and booking a night bus instead. When we went to ask about the bus prices at Tour with Thais though the lovely lady there said that we should try to go to the train station about 10 am to upgrade our tickets. Apparently, a lot of tour offices and hostels book up tickets for the train and if they don’t sell them they have to have the tickets back for 10 am if they want their money back. This was invaluable advice. Before we went exploring Ayutthaya’s historical park we got the boat over to the other side of the river and walked to the train station. On speaking to the lady at the ticket office we managed to upgrade our seats to second class sleepers in the same cabin although not together and on an earlier train at 9.07pm which was a bonus.
The day of the train we took the boat back over the river at 7.45pm (it stops at 8pm) and was much cheaper than us getting a tuk-tuk closer to our train time.
We waited in the train station for a few hours which was fine as there were lots of other people waiting still for the 7.30pm train as well as ours. The train station has toilets and drinks available and is well lit so it was fine despite the time of night. We had to keep checking the ‘late trains’ board to see if ours was delayed. When the 7.30pm train finally showed up at about 8.30pm they put ours up on the board as being delayed until 9.40pm which was not too bad from what we were expecting. Just before the train arrived the guards announced the train number and then encouraged people to show them their tickets so that they could direct them to where they needed to be on the platform.
It was remarkably easy to find where we needed to be on the train as the tickets contained the train number, cabin number and seat (booth) number in English as well as Thai. When boarding the cabin which was the long train car length with top and bottom bunks along each side all you had to do was locate the number of the booth which was on the curtain. Dave and I both had top bunks which are usually cheaper as you have a little less room. The bunk itself was very comfortable with a thin mattress and was a good size so that we could lay down fully. Each bunk has its own curtain and you are provided with a pillow and a blanket. It did get very cold on the train throughout the night as the fans stay on as well as the lights so if travelling on the train you need to layer up and have an eye mask.
We both slept reasonably well with the carriage being very quiet and the only noise being the sound of the train against the tracks which I found quite soothing. In the morning when people start to stir there are vendors coming around with menus if you want something to eat or drink and the bottom bunks are converted into seats and a small table. When we were close to arriving the train guards announced when Chiang Mai was coming up so we had time to grab our luggage and prepare to leave the train. We arrived about an hour and a half late due to the delay at the beginning.
Outside of the train station were lots of tuk-tuks and red trucks (songthaews) which act as taxis in Chiang Mai. We joined one after bartering a price to 100 baht for both me and Dave. Then the truck made several different stops at people’s hostels before dropping us off at ours.
We booked one night at AOI hostel so we could see how it was just on the outskirts of the Old Town. When we arrived we had to wait a while before someone showed up and told us we would not be able to check in at all until 12. Leaving our large luggage there we wandered to find a coffee and some breakfast at a coffee shop called Vigie Sist Cafe. This became a quick favourite for breakfast in Chiang Mai as they did lovely coffee, shakes and homemade croissants for 35 baht.
We were sceptical about the hostel from our first impressions of it but it was fine, the room had air con and lockers and the beds were comfortable. The bathroom was a bit grimey and filled with mosquitos but it had a hot water shower. It was also in a great location.
We spent our first day exploring the main temples and sights in Chiang Mai. We visited a small temple before making our way to Wat Phan Tao which is a gorgeous wooden temple with ornate detailing inside and out. After this we visited one of the most impressive temples in Chiang Mai old town- Wat Chedi Luang. It cost us 40 baht per person to enter but it was well worth it. This site holds the city pillar which is ornately decorated on the outside and I am told also on the inside as women are forbidden to enter this section. There is also a very grand temple which had an amazing atmosphere. We went at about 5pm so we got to witness the monks practising their chanting within the temple.
Also at Wat Chedi they have a program called ‘Monk Chat’ where foreigners are encouraged to chat to the monks to help others learn about their lifestyle as well as let the monks practise their English. This was very interesting and we met a monk who was 21 and had been practising since the age of 14. He explained that he went to buddhist school which meant he would not be able to do the job he wanted to do now of being a doctor as there was not a focus on science within the school. We also discussed many other things and it was very interesting. The highlight of Wat Chedi though is the huge stone Chedi which was beautiful particularly when we went at sunset. You can see on it where it used to be decorated with huge stone elephants all the way around it. It is also surrounded by several other beautiful temples.
We went out for dinner that evening at a great little Japanese restaurant called Gohanya before venturing to the backpacker bar area and having a drink at Zoe in Yellow. Bars in Thailand close at midnight so it was amazing to see how quickly people drank to the point they were drunk on buckets or Chang by half 9 for their evening to then end at midnight. We had a couple of beers and spent the evening talking to an Austrian’s girl who was travelling on her own. She, unfortunately, was not able to understand my accent though and Dave spent the night translating for me! On returning to our hostel we discovered that it had a bit more atmosphere and life than we expected. We spent the rest of the evening talking to people, particularly three guys that were on holiday from teaching in Korea, and drinking beers.