I had a dilemma.
From my cheap hostel room in Georgetown/Penang, I needed to find a route to the island of Ko Tao, in another country. I was to take a SCUBA class on the aforementioned island, but the transport options were proving a bit difficult. It didn't help that my thoughts were clouded by the smell of a recent electrical fire and the subsequent death of my AC.
There were three main routes:
1. Take a bus Surat Thani, then take a ferry to Ko Tao.
2. Fly from Penang to the Island of Samui, then take a ferry to Ko Tao.
3. Take the Number 36 Sleeper train to Chumphon, then take a ferry to Ko Tao.
(Smart readers may notice a pattern.)
I am ambivalent about all but the best long bus rides, and the word on the street was that this route was often done in a 'minibus'. This is SE Asian code for 'scary, tiny van', often driven close to the speed of sound. So I wanted to avoid that if possible. The flying option, while fast, was expensive and didn't run on all days. It probably had horrible carry-on fees too, even for an lightweight packers like myself.
This left the train. Now you may be asking yourself, "Why would you ever even consider passing up a train ride in the first place?" Well you see, I may have left out a few details about the train. The train doesn't actually start or stop in convenient places, which left me with some trepidation.
You first must walk to the ferry from your hostel, which you will then take you from Georgetown to Butterworth, across the the water. I'm not sure if I was supposed to pay for this or not, but nobody bothered me. From there, you hope that there are tickets left to buy at the station, as the Thai rail service has mysteriously disabled online booking. I suspect this is related to the political troubles in Bangkok.
Assuming you get a ticket, you wait in the sparse, air conditioned lobby for a few hours until the train shows up, at which point you board and do the whole train thing. We'll come back to that later. You get off the train at 0235 in Chumphon, where you sit on your ass or sleep on the floor until 0430. Maybe 0500 if the ferry ticket lady is feeling lazy.
Which, of course, she is.
You then buy your ticket to the ferry. But naturally, it's not that easy. The train station is an hour away from the ferry pier. So you are told to buy a bus ticket to the ferry as well, from the same lady.
"Well...fine." you think, silently wondering if you just got scammed.
Eventually the mythical bus shows its purple face, despite several decoy buses and a false alarm that scatters those waiting like perturbed roaches. After your nicely cooled bus ride, you arrive at the pier with things looking brighter. Or maybe that's just the sun finally arriving. Regardless, another gate appears and you pray that you aren't screwed by this final of Fischer-Price bureaucracy.
But it works out. Free at last, you enjoy the brisk boat ride to Ko Tao- fearfully avoiding the unshielded upper deck like everyone else. It's a bit windy up there. About an hour or two later, the boat arrives in Ko Tao, where you are hounded by "Taxi" drivers. With genetic travel knowledge simmering behind your eyes, you blaze past them and deliver yourself proudly to your Dive Center.
Let's go back to the train.
If you can get over the fact that you will be getting up at in the middle of the night for some stops, the sleepers pods are actually quite nice! Decently furnished, with a totally acceptable wash station to boot.
But it's not all bed all the time! The berths are in fact fold-down, which is good, as the train departs Butterworth at 1430ish. Until bedtime, the cars are classic four-seater pods, with optional fold up tables.
We played cards before being served a decent dinner. The train people hook up a galley car along the way and serve some food from there. Not bad, although the curry gave me a few loose stools. The price you pay I suppose. After dinner, a conductor bring around a cooler with beer for sale as well. I was smitten.
In the end, the train proved a good decision. If you are amiable the odd hours and multiple transport changes, I recommend it. I plan on taking it farther north after I leave Ko Tao.