In my head this seemed like a great idea: take the overnight 1st class express sleeper train to Phuket, and wake up to a relaxing coffee ready to start the day in Phuket refreshed. In my head a lot of things seem like a good idea.
To get from Bangkok to Phuket Island by train, means traveling to Surat Thani then taking a short bus journey across the bridge to Phuket town, which is on the East side of the island. A few days earlier, a train had derailed on the northern route to Chiang Mai, so I knew I'd be taking my life in my hands, but never mind, an experience is an experience and so the train it would be!
I set off at 5pm from Hua Lamphong train station and immediately had my doubts. Half the floor of the carriage was soft, and springy. Like the wooden floor under the plastic was rotten, some of the floor was firm, some of it bouncy. No meal is included in the price, so I took along a bargain bucket of KFC, but that only attracted a couple of cockroaches. I hate roaches, did I really think this through?
The railway, it's mostly single track, and the train stops regularly to let other trains pass. Progress is painfully slow, after an hour and a half I spotted Bayoke Tower. We hadn't even gotten out of Bangkok, the train snakes around north before even heading south.
Sleeping was difficult, the train would periodically hit a bad joint in the rails and a loud bang would wake you up in a panic. When the train derails and people are hurt or die, the drivers are blamed, or sabotage, or vandalism. But when you actually travel on the trains, its clear the problem is old age and disinvestment. You can hear the state of the iron rails below.
(Picture is of 2009 derailment near Hua Hin, I couldn't find the 2012 Chiang Mai one)
I was told it would arrive at 5am, but arrived at 8:30am, the connecting bus had already gone and I would have to wait for the next one. Across the rails and through a gap in the fence is a market, and I wanted to see what special things they had there. Crossing the rails I could see why the banging, rotten sleepers and missing nails, what a mess. This rail systems needs massive investment, it's clearly been neglected for years.
The bus journey from Surat Thani to Phuket town also takes 4 hours too, not the short journey I was expecting at all. When I arrived at my hotel I'd traveled almost 24 hours, the day had gone and I was exhausted.
On the way back from Phuket, I took the coach, it took 12 hours, there were meals on the way, including a break in a restaurant with free food. It was smooth, it was comfortable, there was a movie shown, and even a blanket to help you sleep.
If you book far enough ahead, the flights are cheap too. There's simply no reason to take the train here. It's an experience, but not one you want to remember.