People always say that for travelers, an essential Indian experience is taking the train. Now that we’ve taken a train, I can understand these sentiments better, especially since we’ve taken train trips in other countries too.
There are relatively few areas of the world that are thoroughly connected by train. India happens to be one of these places. Thailand and Southeast Asia is another place with a respectable train system that’s extremely accessible and affordable for travelers. Last year, we took a train from Thailand to the Cambodian border onward to Siem Reap. Cambodia has no train system so we took taxis and buses to Siem Reap, but the Thai train that we took to the border was very similar to the Indian train that we took between Chennai and Puducherry (also known as “Pondi” or “Pondicherry”).
Both the Thai train and the Indian train offered very basic amenities. There were bench seats and overhead fans. The windows opened. Private vendors boarded the train at various spots to offer their homemade delectables. Both trains left early in the morning, an inconvenience in terms of getting up crazy-early, but sensical in terms of the heat that comes on mid-day.
The major difference between the train from Chennai to Pondicherry in India and the train between Bangkok and
Aranyaprathet toward Siem Reap in Cambodia was the number of people who boarded the train. In Chennai, the train started out relatively empty but filled to bursting halfway to our destination. Between Bangkok and Aranyaprathet (on the Thai/Cambodia border), there was room for everyone to sit relatively comfortably. Also, they checked our tickets on the Thai train, but in India, no one ever even asked to look at our ticket.
And on the train between Bangkok and Aranyaprathet in Thailand, John played peek-a-boo with a super-cute little Asian girl who kept everyone entertained. In contrast, on the train from Chennai to Puducherry, a troubled little kid sitting next to us was whining and crying for about an hour of the trip. These things definitely affected our overall experience of the journeys, but they’re case-by-case dependent. One always hopes that parents will control their kids en route between here and there, but who knows?
In both countries, train travel is so affordable as to be almost hard to believe. We traveled cross-country (all three of us) for less than $2.00 USD TOTAL in both Thailand and India.
Taking the train in both India and Thailand is one of the best ways to get a view into lots of small towns and
village life between here and there. Though the trains are not in any way “comfortable” according to the American definition of the word, if you prefer “thought-provoking” over “luxury”, take the train. There are restroom facilities on board (a hole in the floor) and if you bring water and snacks, you can sit back and just watch the countryside go by. If you travel to either India or Thailand and you have the time to fit a train trip into your itinerary, take the time to do it. Your train trip will likely turn out to be one of your favorite memories of the place.