The time my train derailed en route to Chiang Mai

A Thai rescue team finally evacuates us after our train derailed en route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lugging my backpack in near pitch black conditions, I moved one foot after another traipsing along decaying tracks that reeked of feces and urine as I emerged from a desolate tunnel. This probably sounds awful. 99.9% of the time I don’t think I’d enjoy this situation; however, I felt relieved to have finally escaped from our train that had several hours ago derailed en route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

On our way from Suvarnabhumi airport to Don Muang Airport via shuttle bus, I debated with Audrey whether or not we should take a train, bus or plane. “The plane will certainly cost more,” she said. “Well, if we take the bus it’s certainly the cheapest option,” I murmured: “Hmmmm, how about taking the train?”

The tunnel where our train derailed in Northern Thailand.

Taking the train had been by far our preferred method of transportation anywhere we’ve traveled together. While in Vietnam, the incessant honking, sudden swerving and wanton sounding of the horn ensured we rarely (if ever) got a decent night’s sleep when we took overnight long haul sleeper buses from Nha Trang to Hoi An and from Hoi An to Hanoi. When we traveled in the posh ET Pumpkin carriage from Hanoi to Sapa, the soothing swaying reliable motion of the train ‘baaaa-thump….baaaa-thump’ rocked us to sleep. We both marveled how refreshed we felt after sleeping the entire night on the train as opposed to the bus.

We arrived at Don Muang station looking like a couple of greasy thugs profusely sweating and knackered from the combination of two consecutive flights from Europe combined with our bodies in shock at going from the moderate summer temperatures of Helsinki to the sweltering heat and humidity of typical day in Bangkok.

Desperately wanting to return to our home in Chiang Mai, we quickly snapped up the last tickets available on the train – a pair of first class sleeper booths. I looked over at Audrey and rolled my eyes: “We never pay for first class; second class sleeper is a splurge for us.”

As we boarded the train we quickly settled into the lower and upper bunks of our private air conditioned room. Soon after relaxing for a few minutes we ordered a Thai curry that we shared together. The rich spicy red curry duck and assorted vegetables with rice reminded us how much we loved being back in Thailand. Feeling the effects of jet-lag, we soon retired to our respective bunks. The familiar gentle back and forth motion of the train quavered us to sleep; suddenly, the gentle motion of the train turned to a screeching halt as it careened off the tracks.

Thump. Bang. Crash. Thump. Bang. Crash.

Frantic, I reached for the sidebars of my upper booth and grabbed a hold of them – with a white knuckle death grip – fearing I’d suddenly be propelled off of my bed like a slingshot.

Thump. Bang. Crash. Thump. Bang. Crash.

The train finally came to a grinding halt.

Certain we had jumped off the tracks!  I looked down at Audrey who appeared much calmer: “No, we just stopped abruptly by a station”

I jumped out of the upper booth and started exploring around the rest of the cabin. Other passengers looked shell shocked and confused. None of us had any idea what had just happened. As I peered out the window it was pitch black outside.

Suddenly a Thai lady attendant chased down another farang who had just sauntered out of his room: “You pay for beer. Pay for beer now.” This was all a bit too surreal for me to handle.

As more passengers came out of their private booths information and rumours started to spread like wildfire.

Are we trapped? Is this a tunnel? Did we actually derail? A rescue train is coming to pick us up? What? Buses?

Finally, another Thai attendant came to calm us down coercing us to go back into our private rooms and sleep for a while; apparently, a train would be arriving in roughly 3 hours.

Not really knowing how grave the situation was at the time, we both drifted back to sleep for several hours only awakening to a loud thumping noise: “Get off of the train.”

Evacuating and leaving the train in pitch black conditions from the tunnel.

As we climbed out of the train a series of flashlights guided us down the tunnel to a trolley that was evacuating both passengers and luggage.

Audrey grabbed her point and shoot camera and fired off a few exposures.

After a short distance was covered I looked back at the train; it was clear to me at this point, it had in fact derailed.

Rescue vehicles arriving to the scene of the train derailment.

The aftermath of all of this was that we eventually were all evacuated from the tunnel and transported to Sila-at railway station where a fleet of double-decker buses awaited us – eventually transporting all 415 passengers to Chiang Mai not a single one of us was injured.

The bus we ended up boarding to finish our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On the bus, a Thai man responsible for coordinating the rescue efforts started to crack jokes: “You so lucky. You pay for train and you get a bus too. We’ll arrive 5 hours later – no extra charge.”

Skittishly, I, along with most of the other passengers, laugh at his attempt to inject a little humour into what was several hours ago a life and death threatening scenario.

(Previous Chiang Mai to Bangkok train journey)

Thai Train Derailments

Apparently our situation was not a select or freak accident. Thai trains, especially on this particular Chiang Mai – Bangkok route, have been derailing frequently. Antiquated carriages and archaic tracks are the chief culprit as opposed to driver error or recklessness. After doing a bit of research, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. An accident mere weeks before our crash – another one shortly after. I’m the type of person who is safety cautious; how could I have not realized this?

Aftermath

Prior to our derailment, train travel was by far my preferred method of transportation. When I fly, the slightest amount of turbulence can send my mind down a slimy rabbit hole where I start thinking the most morbid of thoughts. I’ve experienced far too many bus rides with a kamikaze driver – seemingly hell bent on risky the lives of all of the passengers on board – playing chicken with oncoming traffic to shave a few minutes off our journey. Until our crash, I had never once felt nervous on a train; that’s now changed.

(Previous Bangkok to Chiang Mai train adventure)

Would I ever want to take a train again?

Yes, it’s still my preferred method of getting from point A to B. Having taken the train several times since our accident, I don’t feel quite as relaxed as I once did. When the train suddenly changes tracks or there is an unexpected thump, I now react with the same tension and anxiety I experience while on a turbulent flight or a swerving bus; however, it’s not a dis-empowering fear that leaves me incapable of hopping on board. I just no longer feel invincible on a train.

Accidents and illness are often a reminder that we’re mere mortals. I found myself feeling an extreme sense of gratitude that our train derailed where it did (inside of a tunnel) as opposed to several kilometres behind us where unforgiving terrain would have sent us plummeting vertically downward. It’s these kind of events that make you realize life is a game of inches.

 

Have you ever been on a train that derailed? A car crash? A scary plane ride? Please share your stories below.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria September 26, 2013 at 10:23 pm

it’s fabulous that you survived (for you and us, your readers/followers) but WHOA! That would have scared me into a new pair of undies.

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Samuel Jeffery September 27, 2013 at 12:22 am

Thanks Maria!

It was definitely one of the scariest travel moments I’ve ever experienced.

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Nancie September 26, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Good to “hear” that you survived, and that nobody was hurt. I didn’t realize that route had so many derailments. I’ve taken it several times, in both directions, and thankfully made it without any drama. These days, I usually fly. I like to get into CM quickly. :)

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Samuel Jeffery September 27, 2013 at 12:21 am

Thanks Nancie,

We’ve also taken that route many times before! Aside from it being slow (and frequently delayed) it was our favorite way of getting from Chiang Mai to Bangkok or vice versa. I have a feeling we’ll be flying a lot more now as well!

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Stuart Edwards @ Am I Nearly There Yet? September 27, 2013 at 12:06 am

Shhhhhiiiiiitttttt!!!!! Glad you guys are safe and sound. What a nightmare!

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Samuel Jeffery September 27, 2013 at 12:20 am

Thanks Stuart!

We were lucky to escape that incident unscathed ;)

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Tim M September 27, 2013 at 1:08 am

That’s such a crazy story. It’s disconcerting that they haven’t fixed the train car that caused the problem. Hopefully things turn around soon. I’m glad you two made it out ok with only a cool story.

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Samuel Jeffery September 27, 2013 at 2:19 am

Thanks Tim,

I’m equally as baffled why they haven’t taken the time to properly repair and maintain the route.

I’m afraid it might take a serious accident – with significant injuries and/or casualties – for something to finally be done.

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K.T. @TheLifescape September 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I too am a safety conscious traveler!

Didn’t used to be- but after our bus crashed in Vietnam, our INSANE turbulence on an Air Asia flight and our car crash in Egypt- I decided it was time to research safe methods of transport in each country we went to. The results were un-nerving. Plane crashes here, bus crashes there. Pretty scary.

Yet, somehow these incidents never make it on the news back in the West.

Since then my preferred method of travel — trains whenever possible! Looks like that is out the window now too! Looks like I’ll be walking!

Glad you guys are okay- I would have pooped myself!

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Samuel Jeffery September 28, 2013 at 3:25 am

That’s a very good point K.T.!

These crashes and accidents never do make it on the news. It’s really only when you search that you begin to unravel just how bad it is at times.

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Kristin Addis September 28, 2013 at 8:10 am

Believe it or not, I had a similar issue going from BKK to Chaing Mai. I ended up taking the daytime train because the rest were sold out, and sat in that seat for the next 18 hours while the train kept breaking down and tilting. It was NOT a good experience!

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Samuel Jeffery September 29, 2013 at 2:30 am

Yikes! It’s shocking how many people we now know of who have had similar issues on this route. 99.9% of the time I’d take the train over a bus or flying but not in this case!

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Karisa September 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Great coverage of an unfortunate situation. I live in Bangkok and I feel like I’m ALWAYS reading about a train derailment or a fatal bus or minivan crash. It happens WAY too often. Luckily for me, the worst transportation problems I’ve encountered are just traffic jams!

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Samuel Jeffery September 29, 2013 at 2:33 am

Thanks Karisa,

I think flying may be the safest option. Nok Air will be getting more of my business in the future :)

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Cathy Sweeney October 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm

No, I’ve never experienced a train derailment and hopefully never will. I must give Audrey some credit for being calm and not immediately expecting something terrible (as I might!). Wonderful that there was nobody injured. It certainly gave you a good story to tell.

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Samuel Jeffery October 12, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Thanks Cathy,

Audrey did handle it more calmly ;)

We just felt lucky to have escaped without injury.

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Robert Kamau October 8, 2013 at 5:58 am

Wow, Sounds like the route if fraught with derailments. No matter how attractive a train ride is, Ive learnt to do serious research on its safety before i buy that ticket. Thats not to say that all of their trains get off the tracks…but wouldn’t want to be in your position either.

Robert recently posted: Amboseli National Park Day Tour

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Samuel Jeffery October 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Robert,

That’s a very wise thing to do. I’ve really learned my lesson in terms of doing that as well.

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Heather October 8, 2013 at 11:34 am

This must have been so scary! Don’t think I’d be quick to get on a train again. Glad you guys were okay!

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Samuel Jeffery October 12, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Thanks Heather :)

We felt really lucky to walk away without injuries.

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Sista Voyage October 9, 2013 at 1:29 am

Sam, I am so thankful that this train accident wasn’t worst than what it could’ve been.

I HATE flying, but you could never tell while I am booking the flight and boarding the plane. The main time you can sense I hate flying is when the plane ascends into the clouds which increases turbulence. I know many people say that automobile accidents occur more than plane accidents, the simple fact that I am IN CONTROL while driving puts me more at ease. Thirty thousand feet in the air and the only way to go is down freaks me out.

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Samuel Jeffery October 12, 2013 at 5:33 pm

I totally agree with you! Today we took a flight that landed really roughly after some turbulence. I was completely terrified.

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Sista Voyage October 16, 2013 at 1:32 am

I admire your honesty about being terrified! Whenever I am on the plane with other passengers, they are either so knocked out from sleep despite the turbulence or they seem like it doesn’t bother them! I am always looking around like, ‘ don’t you all FEE that. OH EM GEE! Is this it for me?’ LOL!

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Cam October 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Oh Thailand… glad it was nothing too serious.

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Escaping Abroad October 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm

What an experience! Thankfully you are OK.. that’s always the most important part! I just had a car accident in Guatemala recently.. makes you remember the real danger of traveling.. transportation!

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VistorPA November 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I went to Budapest beginning of October and when i was coming back to London i had the worse by far experience in a plane, it was really windy in London and we where fliying in one of those small Boeing 737-800 to make it even worse.
At the moment of landing the plane was swinging really badly and the view from the window was, few seconds of dark grey sky, and few seconds of really close landing strip…

Resume: terrifying, but still alive and with no evidence of fear to fly again.

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jacqueline November 13, 2013 at 11:48 am

quick question for you, i’m actually considering taking that train and doing my research. I’m 6 months pregnant and traveling by myself. is it something you’d avoid?

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Paul Rainer December 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

You always take your chances on any kind of transportation, but it is really the fear of each individual that makes the decision on which you will pick. Of course on the ground you have more choices, but in foreign countries they drive way crazier than in the U.S. and you hear of buses going over the sides of cliffs a lot. I love to ride trains, but unfortunately in poor countries the tracks are a real concern. Unlike the U.S. where the real concern lies with the conductor texting or not while driving:)

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Frank December 16, 2013 at 3:45 am

I should find it disconcerting that when I was searching for train information from Chiang Mai to Bangkok this was what came up!

I’m currently debating the best method of getting back to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and heard great things about the train. The tracks were closed for a month for repairs and maintenance recently so I’m hoping that I don’t end up with a story like yours.

That must have been both frightening, surreal and kind of exciting all at once. Have you still got the fear or has safe travel on trains since set your mind at ease? Thanks for sharing your story!

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Ross February 20, 2014 at 3:25 pm

That sounds like some wake up call. I never got a train in Thailand (luckily for me) and had no idea that they derailed so often. If I ever go back I definitely wont be taking one.

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Suzanne Fluhr March 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

We flew from BKK to Chiang Mai in January — $72 USD on Thai Airways International (checked luggage and taxes included). Flight under an hour and they even fed us. I’m not sure what it was, but we appreciated the gesture. The pilot spoke better English than I do.

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Samuel Jeffery March 13, 2014 at 11:37 am

That’s fantastic value! On discount flights (and special deals) it can sometimes be cheaper to take a flight than to take the train!

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Mike March 18, 2014 at 12:07 am

Geez, derailing the train is a heckuv a way to get people to pay their beer tab, Samuel! All kidding aside that would have scared the bejeezus out of me. I’m so glad you two were safe and please always be so in your travels. A huge fan here that looks forward to hearing from you. I mean that :)

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Samuel Jeffery March 18, 2014 at 2:04 am

Thanks Mike!

Hopefully we won’t be crawling out of tunnels again soon ;)

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Todd May 18, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Sounds like an adventure in itself. I am glad you weren’t hurt and came out ok. I would have been scared to death. At least you made it in the end to your destination.

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Samuel Jeffery May 19, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Thanks Todd, we were admittedly very lucky.

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Epic Gap Year July 12, 2014 at 11:26 am

Oh my gosh, this would’ve scared the crap out of me! I am so glad I decided to fly in CM, opposed to taking the train or bus.

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Jennifer December 15, 2014 at 3:59 pm

This post does make flying to CM sound like a much better option. Yikes! Glad you weren’t hurt

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