Border crossings have become decidedly uninteresting without the car, and it’s taken me days to write this stupid post. But this is our first crossing by train, and trains are awesome, so here’s a report for anyone interested in taking the antiquated Bangkok-to-Butterworth sleeper instead of flying (which is for pussies) or taking the bus.
Why take the train?
We had only a few days left on our visa, and with no intention of visiting any of southern Thailand, we just wanted to shoot from Bangkok all the way across the Malaysian border in one go. Buses are cool, and Thailand has some pretty top-notch services, but to make the 1,000km journey by road would mean endless stops, switching buses, and probably a pretty sleepless night.
The train, however, is easy. The route uses old Korean sleeper trains, classified as second-class sleepers in Thailand. Each passenger gets his or her own comfy bed, there’s a dining car, and the train essentially wheels straight up to the border, then straight out into Malaysia. Plus, trains are just awesome. Who doesn’t love riding a train??
The journey: 23 hours on the rails
As you do in Thailand, we headed to the main station near Hua Lamphong two days before departure to purchase our tickets. The smaller upper berth was 1,120 baht (€30), while the larger lower berth was 1,210 baht (€32.50).
The train is relatively plush for such an old-fashioned beast, and during the day each passenger gets a wide bench seat to himself. Come night time, the two facing seats get pulled out into the wider lower bunk, while the narrow upper bunk gets pulled down from the ceiling. There’s both Western and squat toilets, wash basins, and even electrical outlets (!!), two in the middle of the train and two at the end by the toilets. On our train, a Thai family had brought along their own extension lead and strung it along the ceiling to bring a copious flow of electricity into their cabin. GENIUS.
When you first get on the train, a dude from the catering company comes around with paper menus for dinner and breakfast, off of which you can order and he’ll bring it to your seat at mealtime. They looked ok but were a bit expensive at 180 baht-200 baht each.
We’d read online not to worry about food as hawkers hop on the train at every stop with delights ranging from the ubiquitous pineapple to big cartons of fried rice and plates of chicken. They were right: every few hours hawkers boarded the train with some extremely cheap food. We quickly lost our appetites at one of the first few stops, however, after watching a woman with a basket full of nasi goreng sit down in one of the empty booths and stuff her chubby finger up both nostrils, digging for gold. When nothing came out she grabbed the curtain and gave a big honking blow… Nice. We opted to forego the hawkers and check out the dining car.
Things thankfully looked a little cleaner in the dining car, which is open from 5:30am to 10pm and sells pretty much the exact same meal sets that were in the paper menus. While 200 baht ain’t cheap for food in Thailand (and who needs a four-course meal on a train?) the dishes were decently sized (for Thailand). Mook’s vegetarian set was cooked-to-order and pretty delicious, though actual veggies should be warned that there was a nice big chicken bone in his soup.
Alcohol is banned on all trains and at train stations in Thailand because of a 2014 incident where a 13-year-old girl was raped and killed on a sleeper train by a railway employee who was drunk and on drugs. There is questionable reasoning behind banning alcohol for passengers because a staff member committed a heinous crime while drunk, but there you go.
The fact that the train is dry was a big bummer; isn’t drinking beer on a train one of life’s simple joys? A drinks hawker at one of the earlier stops leaned over and whispered, “You want beer?” but we didn’t end up buying any because we had brought our own. Dinner in the meal car way sadly beer free. After dinner we whipped our our stash of Hong Thong Whiskey and drank it in bed, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else onboard who did the same. It was a quiet ride.
After a few hours of bad sleep (thanks to the obnoxious tourists who got on in the middle of the night near Koh Samui) we were awoken by loud banging and commotion in the corridor. It was only 7am but time to wake up according to the train staff, and they passive-aggressively let everyone know by slamming the doors and yelling things to each other and the stream of grumpy hawkers they’d let inside. We figured we were close to the border and they wanted everyone up, fed, and the beds packed up, but we actually wouldn’t hit the border for another three hours.
The border itself was easy. The only people going through were those on our train, and both Thai and Malaysian immigration are in the same building, so it was relatively quick. On the Malaysian side there’s no X-ray, but there is a bag inspection. They seemed uninterested in our small bags but made us open up our big backpacks and had a cursory poke around.
After the train hits Malaysian soil it’s no longer a plush, exclusive affair. We got back on to find that a bunch of locals had boarded in the meantime, and that our precious seats were no longer ours. For the remainder of the two-hour journey the train is pretty crowded, but the Malaysians are friendly and it’s easy to make friends.
Between the border and Butterworth, money changers will come through a couple times and offer to sell some ringgit. The exchange rate here is actually pretty good, but even if it wasn’t we recommend getting some ringgit before you get off at Butterworth. There are no ATMs between the Butterworth train station and the ferry terminal to Penang. We got caught out, but the cashier at the ferry terminal begrudgingly sold us 3 ringgit for 20 baht, which is enough for two people to ride the ferry.