Bangkok To Penang By Train

Published on 3rd December 2013 by Stickboy BKK

The time had come when I had to go renew my visa. In the past ten years I’ve pretty much been everywhere and seen everything in all the usual neighbouring countries that are home to Thai embassies and consulates.

Nowhere jumped out at me for another visit and the idea of 2 nights in KL was becoming the pick of a bad bunch. That was until I spotted Bangkok > Langkawi > Penang > Kuala Lumpur > Singapore by train.

The timetable on the official State Railway Of Thailand website informs me of a 22 hour trip that will set me back 1200 baht. This option really needed some consideration but me being me jumped right in and headed straight over to Hualamphong Station to book my tickets.

All is fine until the morning of departure day when the reality of sitting on a train for almost an entire day hits home. The train leaves Bangkok at 2.45pm and up until 1.30pm I seriously considered an alternative.

Hualamphong Station Bangkok To Butterworth Train

From my part of town to the train station takes about 20 minutes and I head over around 2ish giving me enough time to grab some snacks and buy a book. The ten carriage train surprisingly leaves bang on time with a lot of whistle blowing and heavy jerking.

As we slowly make our way out of the sprawling suburbs of Bangkok I notice that many of my fellow travelers are not what I expected. Up until Hua Hin there were more Thais than tourists heading south. The majority were single men who had been up in the big smoke to take part in the protests. The flags, wristbands and conversations amongst themselves the giveaways.

bangkok to betterworth train seating

I settle down with my book after becoming bored of looking at the dirt and filth along the track-side. A few chapters in the onboard staff come round with menus for dinner. Some chicken and rice is ordered with an agreed feeding time of 8pm. The charming lady suggests ice cold beers would be good and before you know it there are four long neck Chang’s by my feet in a big bucket of ice. The first bottle gets popped and poured and off she goes leaving me the bottle opener. Am I that easy to read?

Chang beer ice bucket

The trip is pretty quiet until we fill up with a bunch of sun burnt holidaymakers at Hua Hin who all want to strike up conversations. I pass politely and keep my nose in my book as I have zero interest in listening to them tell me how they found the real Thailand and all the wonderful people they met.

Around 6.30pm some of the male stewards working on the train come around and begin transforming the seating into beds. I know it’s dark outside but I’m thinking it’s a little early for sleep. Turns out only a handful of my fellow passengers are ready for some shut eye. My food arrives around 7.30pm and was surprisingly tasty although it was lukewarm at best. There was even a dish of curry that I hadn’t ordered but that was scoffed after I polished off the sweet and sour chicken. Done and dusted.

My bucket of beer is down to the last bottle. I decide I will drink that then get my head down for the night. Around 9pm I ask the steward to work his magic and in a flash my seats are now bunk beds.

I’m on the bottom bunk and it is more spacious than I thought it would be. Sleep is patchy due to the train being so jerky. A few toilet breaks throughout the night and all is quiet until daybreak when the early sleepers start to shuffle around. The onboard staff appear and I’m offered coffee by the friendly woman who brought me the beer. Timecheck: 6.50am. I find a steward and ask him to turn the beds back into seats and 20 minutes later half the carriage is awake and ready for the day ahead.

At Hat Yai the train empties of all the remaining Thais that I could see with only one or two boarding as we say goodbye to a few of the carriages at the back end of the train. On the next leg of the journey an older man came around offering money exchange to those crazy enough to use his services. The same guy made his way up and down the train handing out Departure Cards for crossing the border. I half expected him to ask for money but he didn’t.

Around 8.40am we arrive at Padang Besar station and we are informed that this is the border checkpoint. Off we all go to get stamped out of Thailand and into Malaysia which takes place inside the station. As luck would have it my carriage door stopped directly opposite the door into the immigration area so I was fourth in line and was stamped out of Thailand in under 60 seconds. At this point you turn left, pass a set of stairs up to some sort of cafe, and straight ahead to the Malaysian checkpoint. No waiting this time. Passport stamped and fingerprints scanned then back on to the platform.

Padang Besar station

The scheduled stop is for 40 minutes to allow time for all the passengers to go through customs, eat, stretch their legs and also for the train to be downsized to three carriages. At 9.15am the station guards start ushering everyone standing around back on to the train and 5 minutes later we are off on our way to Butterworth.

As the train picks up speed outside Padang Besar station you suddenly notice something different. The train is no longer wobbly or jerky. It actually feels very smooth and reminds me of how trains are back home. The journey from Bangkok down to the border was verging on scary at times and made me realise why so many trains have derailed on the northern line up to Chiang Mai. Now that we are running on tracks maintained by the Malays there are no more thoughts of the train bouncing off the tracks or toppling over and landing in a paddy field.

The rest of the journey is pretty uneventful and we arrive at Butterworth at around 1.20pm which is ten minutes ahead of schedule.

My plan was to take the 5 minute walk to the jetty and jump the 12 baht ferry over to George Town but as I exited the station the gate was padlocked. I figured there must be a way to walk around so over the other side to where all the taxi drivers are touting for business. I decline their offers of a cheap ride over to the island via the bridge. I walk off in the direction of the road that looked like it would lead to the pier when a group of backpackers shouted the gate was now open. U-turn and pass the taxi touts for a second time who offer to show me a map. In my head I think “oh, f**k off and give me peace”, on the outside I smile and say no thanks and head back over the bridge to the gate leading to the jetty.

It isn’t even a five minute walk from the all new Butterworth train station to the ferry and everything is clearly signed. I already had a few hundred baht worth of Ringgit on me so I swapped my notes for coins at the kiosk to pass through the automatic turnstiles. It is very much like the BTS except you use coins and not a card. (FYI – the journey is free for the return trip.) The ferry left within five minutes of my arrival and was a smooth crossing over to George Town.

butterworth to george town ferry

I’d arrived in Penang some 25 hours after leaving my home in Bangkok. Happy days. On the whole the journey wasn’t anything special and if you have the time, or like me are bored of flying to the usual haunts, then take your teerak for something a little bit different. Yes, it eats up an entire day but it really wasn’t that bad apart from the train feeling a bit unsafe at times on the Thai stretch of the trip.

My return journey was just a cheap Air Asia flight back to Don Muang. Door to door in around 5 hours. The train trip was a once only affair and there was no way I was making the return journey over land.

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