Thai trains are one of the remaining functional (and necessary) relics of Thailand’s past, making them a regular part of public discourse about the country’s rate of modernization. The rustic look of the train cars pairs well with the experience that riding the rails in Thailand delivers, making them something of a cult classic and a significant draw of tourists to the country.
While the BTS (The Bangkok Mass Transit System) Sky Train and MRT (The Metropolitan Rapid Transit) commuter train systems in Bangkok have fleets of polished “western style” train cars in daily use, the long-distance, interprovincial trains weaving through the rest of the country are symbolic of eras past; they are also something that many people don’t want to let go of, valuing them as a symbol of Thai culture that deserves preservation.
Social media has made it easy for train fans to find each other through hashtags like “#รถไฟไทย” (#ThaiTrain) on Instagram and Twitter. Organizations are dedicated to preserving the history of the trains and some of the most notable sites in Thai Train history, such as Hua Lampong Station. One such organization is the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand, which hosts an annual photography contest to preserve the history of Hua Lampong Station through photographs, drawing thousands of submissions from photographers- all taken at one train station. There are also special events throughout the year, such as commemorative trips on World War II Era steam trains.
The SRT (State Railway of Thailand – การรถไฟแห่งประเทศไทย) staff are amongst the happiest Thai government employees I’ve ever met. The pride they take in their trains shines bright. In all my years riding trains throughout the country–from farthest north to farthest south–I’ve only experienced joyful train conductors excited to be on the journey.
One amongst the hundreds of routes on the 5 lines of the SRT railway system is the Special Express 14 (รถด่วนพิเศษขบวน 14), the sleeper train from Chaing Mai to Bangkok. Every December, I fly to Chiang Mai and return to Hua Lampong Station (in Bangkok) on this overnight train route just because I love it.
In late 2021, it was (again) rumored that Hua Lampong Station would close for good, with a complete shift of all train traffic to the new Bang Sue Grand Station. So, I made a documentary photo series of what I believed to be the final journey of Special Express 14 with Hua Lampong Station as the last stop. On this trip, I visited the Chiang Mai Railway Station in the days before the trip. I was given access to all the train’s cars, mechanical and otherwise.
The following photographs were taken in December 2021 as the deadliest impact of the Delta variant of COVID-19 had begun to subside. International tourism was still on hold for Thailand; the train moved along, mostly empty of people and full of cargo. This was not the last trip it made.
Matt Hunt is a documentary photographer connecting with people, sharing moments, and telling stories in Southeast Asia. Currently based in Bangkok, Thailand.