Have a rail-y good time aboard the choo-choo!
Plane journeys are dime a dozen nowadays - it’s the de facto mode of transportation for many of us, and Changi Airport is bustling with people 24/7.
But there was a time not-so-long ago where spending days on the train was the norm for on an overland journey. They were the setting of many of my favourite mystery novels, and I’ve always longed to go on one such rail adventure.
Luckily, it’s an adventure that’s entirely possible today. While train journeys are no longer a necessity, they provide an alternative travelling experience that’s one of a kind. There are loads of rail journeys you can make all over the world, but here are 10 you can do easily in Southeast Asia.
1. Singapore to Butterworth (Penang)
Known as the food capital of Malaysia, Penang is a popular holiday destination, with plenty to see, do, and eat. Most Singaporeans visit Penang by plane, or an 8-hour drive, but if you want an alternative experience, get on a train.
First of all, there is no straight train from Singapore to Penang Island. You have to go through the town of Butterworth to get to your Char Koay Teow and Assam Laksa.
To begin the trip, you’ll need to make your way from Singapore to JB Sentral. You can take a bus, or a 5-minute train ride from Woodlands Train Checkpoint via the KTM Shuttle Tebrau.
From JB Sentral to Butterworth, your journey takes about 13 hours, but it takes you through parts of Malaysia you’d never see otherwise, such as the smaller towns and lesser-known Malaysian states. The train passes through KL and Ipoh, so you could always get off to pay a visit to those cities if you wish.
From Butterworth, you’ll need to take a quick ferry ride across to George Town, and lo and behold, you’re on Penang Island.
Tip: The ferry operates only from 5:30am - 1:00am, so it’s best to book a train that arrives while you can still get a ferry ride. Otherwise, you might end up paying for an expensive taxi across the Penang Bridge.
2. Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok
Yes, it’s possible to go all the way from the capital of Malaysia to the capital of Thailand entirely by train! A full journey from KL to Bangkok takes about 26 hours, and usually involves an overnight sleeper train that’s an experience in itself.
From KL Sentral, head on a train to Butterworth. You can opt to spend some time in Penang, but if not, catch an overnight sleeper from Butterworth to Bangkok. Alternatively, you can try taking two overnight trains in a row. First, from KL to Hat Yai, and then from Hat Yai to Bangkok.
Hat Yai is a Thai city near the Malaysian border, and has a reputation for being one of the best shopping destinations in Thailand. If you’re planning to shop till you drop in Bangkok, get a head start in Hat Yai, home to an impressive variety of malls and markets that sell everything from clothes to electrical appliances.
3. Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
If you want to experience a more historical side of Thailand, take a train down from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. While the ride is only about 3 hours, the destination is definitely worth the visit.
The name ‘Kanchanaburi’ sounds like a heck of a tongue twister, but it’s actually a scenic town in Thailand with a painful past.
Kanchanaburi is the closest town to the infamous Death Railway of World War II, where Allied prisoners-of-war and Asian forced labourers were made to build a railway connecting Thailand with Burma under appalling and inhumane conditions.
On the train to Kanchanaburi, you’ll pass over sections of the Death Railway, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (made famous by the 1957 film of the same name) and the Wampo Viaduct, which, while picturesque, was built through forced labour.
You can’t go all the way to Kanchanaburi without visiting Konyu Cutting, or Hellfire Pass. This was the site where labourers experienced the harshest conditions and the greatest loss of life, and was named as such because the sight of the emaciated labourers toiling by torchlight resembled something out of hell.
Hellfire Pass is now gazetted as memorial, and a museum was built to commemorate the suffering of those who worked on the railway. As part of the museum tour, visitors get to walk along sections of the former railway, as well truly understand the conditions under which these prisoners worked.
It’s an experience that is incredibly moving, and one that lets us reflect on the circumstances of our world today.
4. Bangkok to Vientiane
From one capital to another, it’s entirely possibly to get on a train all the way from shopping-crazy Bangkok right to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.
From Bangkok, get on an overnight sleeper train to the border town of Nongkhai, which will take about 12 hours. From Nongkhai, you can get on a shuttle train to Thanaleng, the international rail terminal located 13km from Vientiane. From Thanaleng, any local bus, taxi, or tuk-tuk will take you right into the heart of Laos.
One of the most charming things about Vientiane is the unique juxtaposition of French colonial architecture with those of Buddhist temples. It’s not a major tourist destination yet, but you can still have a good time - stuff your face with pho and satay, or explore the famous temple Wat Si Muang, which local legend says is guarded by the spirit of a local girl who sacrificed herself to appease the angry gods.
While you're there, be sure to check out Buddha Park, home to a multitude of religious-inspired statues that are as impressive as they are bizarre.
5. Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Yes, you can get to many places by rail from Bangkok, and one of them is Chiang Mai.
The most popular train route in Thailand, Bangkok to Chiang Mai via train is a 12 hour journey. If possible, opt for the overnight sleeper train - not only do you save on a hotel room for the night, you’ll also be treated to an incredibly picturesque view of the sunrise in Chiang Mai as you approach the station. If you’d rather spend the day on the train journey, that’s fine as well - you’ll have an intoxicating view of the Thai countryside as your train rumbles down the tracks.
If you happen to make this journey during the Thai winter, check out our guide to all the fun things you can do in Chiang Mai when things get a little chilly.
6. Bangkok to Hua Hin
If you want to unwind by the beach after a hectic shopping spree in Bangkok, Hua Hin is probably the best to do it.
Get on a train from Bangkok, and you can be in Hua Hin in under 5 hours.
Hua Hin is a great place for beach getaways - whether you’re the kind who likes lounging by the beach, or the sort who gets massive kick out of watersports like kite-boarding, you’ll definitely find loads to do while you’re there. You could even take a boat trip out to the Gulf of Thailand, and feed some monkeys on the neighbouring Monkey Island.
7. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh
A journey that takes a whopping 34 hours, travelling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (also referred to as Saigon on most railway maps) is an experience unto itself. You’ll be sitting on a line known as the “Reunification Railway”, a symbol of the country being connected once again after it was split in two during the Vietnam War.
Taking the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh is worth it, if only for the sheer beauty you encounter along the way. You see an incredible array of sights - think rice paddy fields, farms, and water buffalo, as well as beautiful beaches and valleys.
It’s the kind of picturesque, postcard-perfect sight that takes your breath away, something that makes the long train journey into a magical experience.
8. Jakarta to Yogyakarta
Hop on a train, and you’ll find yourself leaving the bustling, busy streets of Jakarta for the quiet serenity of Yogyakarta. The 7 hour train ride is scenic, and upon arrival in Yogyakarta - pronounced "JOHG-jah-kah-ta" - you’re in for a treat.
Regarded as the cultural capital of Indonesia, Yogyakarta is home to incredibly beautiful temples, is right beside the magnificent Mount Merapi. The most active volcano in the world, it last erupted in 2010 and you get a certain thrill at knowing that there’s plenty of action going on right beneath your feet.
Temples and volcanoes aside, you could also tuck into delicious street food for less than a dollar, or find time to go stargazing and see a sight we can’t get here in busy, brightly-lit Singapore.
Find out what else you can get up to in Yogyakarta with our guide to this gorgeous city!
9. Singapore to Bangkok
For an epic journey that will make you feel like you’re reliving the train travels of times long past, get on a train from Singapore to Bangkok.
This journey involves numerous train journeys and transfers, but it takes you through parts of Malaysia and Thailand you would never get to see otherwise. This journey takes about 38 hours, but it’s an experience of a lifetime.
There are two ways to go about this journey. Head to JB Sentral from Singapore, and then take a train up to Butterworth. From Butterworth, just get on an overnight sleeper to Bangkok.
Alternatively, from JB Sentral, you can head to KL and take a train to Bangkok via Hat Yai.
No matter which route you take, it’s an opportunity to look at the lesser-known states and cities of our neighbouring countries, as well as a chance to interact with the locals and find out more about their culture.
Alternatively, if you want a direct train ride and don’t mind spending some major cash, splurge on a luxury train trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express to travel like the wealthy folk of olden times. Think luxury cabins and top-notch service - it’s practically a high-class hotel on wheels, complete with a beautiful view.
Stepping into the train transports you back to the past - it calls to mind images of old mystery novels and fine gentlemen in the dining cars, and is definitely a way to travel in style.
10. Johor Bahru to Hat Yai
Just 18 hours away from JB lies the most underrated weekend getaway spot in Thailand - Hat Yai.
Many flock to Bangkok for cheap food and shopping, but Hat Yai is just as great. It’s home to a whole slew of shopping complexes and markets, and food is ridiculously cheap - one plate of dimsum costs less than 80 cents!
There’s even a night market that’s pretty much a mini version of the famous Chatuchak, and because it’s held at night, you get to beat the heat. You could also pay a visit to a floating market for a unique shopping experience.
Hotel rooms are also affordable - you can get pretty decent lodging for just SGD$8 per night!
Communicating with the locals is also significantly easier - because Hat Yai is located on the border with Malaysia, most of the service staff can speak Mandarin. That makes trying to haggle for discounts 100x more effective.
Aside from eating and shopping, there’s also a cultural side to Hat Yai. Take the time to visit the Hat Yai Nai Temple, home to the third-largest reclining statue of Buddha in the world.
Check out our guide to Hat Yai!
The wheels on the train go round and around
Train travel may be an utter waste of time to some, but there's a certain charm that you can’t get from flying. It’s a great experience with a heck of a view, as well as an opportunity to interact with the locals in their environment.
A rail journey definitely takes a lot of planning, but it is well worth the effort. It’s also a lot cheaper than flying, and the chances are, you’ll never have to deal with a train that’s fill to the brim.
If you want to get on a train journey, Seat 61 is a great place to start. Run by an avid train traveller, it provides information on train networks and journeys in many countries, as diverse as Latvia and the United States. The site also tells you where to book tickets and the best train timings to get for the most efficient journey, so it’s a great place to start planning.
The next time you want something different for your vacation, try travelling by rail. It’s a way to make your journey not just a means to an end, but an integral part of your entire experience.