In these modern times of cheap airfares, where boarding a plane is as easy as boarding a bus, it’s easy to overlook the plus points of overland travel. This is a real shame however, as one of the best ways to get a real feel of the country you’re travelling in is to go by road or rail, passing through small villages and seeing scenery you would have missed out on otherwise.
Travelling overland – particularly when you’re crossing a border – can be quite intimidating for new travellers. When you go by plane, you know what to expect – immigration and customs is pretty much the same in any airport in the world. But crossing a land border can be quite an adventure in itself.
If you like the idea of overland travel but the idea of it scares you a little, the trip from Bangkok to Penang in Malaysia is a pleasant one that will give you a taste of overland border crossings without the hassle.
How to get to Malaysia from Thailand by train
Thailand has a pretty decent rail system and you can travel extensively in the country using only the rail network. One of the most popular train routes is the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train but you can even explore neighbouring Malaysia by taking the overnight train over the border to Butterworth, where you can continue south or visit the island of Penang.
Once you’ve reached Penang, you have the option of staying and exploring the island for a few days before heading back, travelling through Malaysia by bus, or continuing your journey by train, all the way down to Singapore. You may be surprised to know that the full Bangkok to Singapore trip costs only around $60, although as it takes a full 48 hours, you probably want to break it up a little!
Any travel agent in Bangkok will sell you a train ticket to wherever you want to go, with their own fee tacked on (but be careful, the first time I did this I nearly ended up with a ticket to Koh Pha Ngan instead of Penang!). It’s really easy, however, to buy your own ticket direct from the Hualamphong train station and cheaper too.
Bangkok Hualamphong train station
It’s easy to reach Hualamphong train station, located in the centre of the city. You can take a taxi from anywhere or get there on the MRT (subway) from most parts of the city.
At the entrance to the station there are English-speaking staff who can give you general information, help you understand timetables and direct you to the ticket windows to explain which ticket you need to buy. Beware of unofficial touts who may hang around looking for confused-looking tourists – they will help you buy your ticket but add their own fee on top. Official staff wear lanyards with their ID.
It’s best to buy your ticket a few days in advance in order to get the best seats. The Bangkok to Butterworth train is a 2nd class sleeper train and the lower bunks get booked up first. The upper bunks are narrower and less comfortable for not much of a cost saving, so get a lower bunk if you can.
The train station includes the usual facilities such as fast food restaurants, coffee shops, mini-marts, left luggage and toilets. One very useful facility is the showers, which can be used for a small fee – handy if you want to freshen up before a long journey.
Travelling on the overnight train to Penang – what to expect
The Bangkok to Butterworth train leaves Bangkok at 14.45pm each day and arrives in Butterworth at 13.51 the following day, in time to take the short ferry ride over to Penang island.
The seats on the train are arranged in pairs of facing seats, which are quite comfortable and a lot wider than most train seats. You’ll be sitting opposite your seat partner for a long time so if you’re travelling alone, this is a good opportunity to make conversation and make a new friend. There may be air conditioning, or only fans, depending on the kind of ticket you bought.
There is food and drink served on the train but it’s always a good idea to stock up on a few snacks before you board to keep you going for the long trip. After the train has departed and your ticket has been checked, a steward will come through the train with a menu, taking meal orders. These meals are quite good value and consist mainly of the usual curries and rice-based fare you find all over Asia. You can also order breakfast, in advance. There is also a dining car you can visit, which can be a nice change of scenery to help break up the journey.
The train travels south through the coastal resort of Hua Hin, the southern province of Surat Thani and the city of Hat Yai, before crossing the Malaysian border early in the morning of the following day. There is the opportunity to see some amazing scenery from the train and some great sunset shots as the sun goes down.
Shortly after sunset, train staff will come and convert the seats into bunk beds with fresh bedding and privacy curtains around each bunk. The beds are fairly comfortable and very clean compared to other overnight train experiences I’ve had in Asia.
Crossing the border into Malaysia
Shortly after sunrise the bunks will be converted back into seats and staff will come around serving breakfast. The Thailand-Malaysia border is located at Padang Besar and when the train arrives here, everyone needs to disembark the train with all their belongings for passport control and customs.
You may be in Padang Besar for a while and there is a café and money changer available. Also keep an eye out for the hilarious sign warning ‘hippies’ away from crossing the border into Thailand.
After clearing customs and immigration, you’re free to get back on the train. You may find that your seat has been taken by locals who embarked at Padang Besar but your ticket books your seat for the whole journey, so politely ask them to move if this is the case.
From here, it’s just a short trip through the plantations and rice paddies of Northern Malaysia, before arriving in Butterworth. Here you’ll see plenty of signs directing you to the pier and it’s just a few minutes walk to catch the ferry over to Georgetown, Penang.
Read this article if you want some ideas of things to do in Penang.
If you’d like more information about travelling by rail in Thailand, including the Bangkok – Malaysia route, The Man in Seat 61 has timetables and some very useful information.