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.