For those who like a slower journey watching rolling landscapes pass by, the train between Bankgok and Singapore can be a treat. It is also easy to tack it onto a trip from Hong Kong to Bangkok by train so that you travel all the way from Hong Kong to Singapore on track (with the exception of a section in Cambodia, underserved by railways).
Timetables and Planning
The best resource to use for planning long-distance rail journeys like this one is usually the website Man in Seat 61. It is possible to travel overnight from Bangkok to the Malaysian border and thence onwards to Singapore, arriving the day after departure. However, part of the benefit of doing this journey by train is its flexibility which allows one to stop over at places en route, for a stay or even just for a few hours to get a feel of the place and have some food. For example, going south from Bangkok, it is easy to stop at Huahin for beach and seafood, Surat Thani to connect to islands such as Samui, Penang for its famed colonial centre and seafood, and KL for a look around. In fact, there are a host of options all the way along the route, some directly on the railway route and some requiring a side trip, such as the Thai islands or Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
Malaysia has been modernising its trains in the past few years, so the Malaysian side of this trip is now a daytime affair. The train no longer terminates at the old station over the Singapore border, but sadly and a bit inconveniently stops at the Malay-Singapore border, from where there is a bus into town. That’s right, if you want to travel from (say) Clapham to Singapore overland you can do it all by train except for a small section in Cambodia and the journey from the border to central Singapore, which touts its infrastructure so much.
Ticket price and service vary by class of service. In general, the tickets are relatively cheaply priced. The classes are not the only thing to look at, but also the type of train as some are much more comfortable for this trip than others. Air conditioning is pleasant although non-air conditioned trains usually have openable windows and fans so are actually fine, although at evening sometimes insects fly in. Personally I would avoid the shorter, two-carriage diesel trains as they are so noisy and uncomfortably equipped.
In Thailand I wouldn’t see a need to book in advance for this route (unlike, say, the train north to Chiang Mai which does get pretty busy). In Malaysia I would previously have said the same, but last Summer arriving at the border station there was a printed sign at the ticket office on the Malaysian side (Padang Besar) that all trains to KL all day were sold out. There was a train on the platform with only a handful of passengers onboard but staff said that it was “booked from the next station” and refused to sell tickets for any train to KL that day. Instead, with a similarly stranded passenger, I took a train to Butterworth thence coach to KL, which added a good five or so hours to the journey. Based on this, I would be more circumspect in future about being able to buy tickets for immediate departure upon arrival in Malaysia. Actually, as I am not a huge fan of Malaysia or KL, I would likely just end the journey there in future, but that is just my personal preference.
Bedding and Meals
In Thailand some trains include free meals, while others sell meals for consumption at seat.
As far as I can make out, the free meals are on two-car sprinter style trains which plow south of Bangkok. These are very noisy with highly uncomfortable, bright seats for sleeping – if you want a proper night’s sleep, plan to get one of the several sorts of sleeper trains. The newer ones are bit more luxurious but all basically have seats which convert into beds. Train staff supply sheets and pillows, and on the higher class over night trains these are sufficiently comfortable that it is possible to get a great night’s sleep.
It is possible to jump off at some station stops for food and drinks, and vendors come on at many stations. However, generally what is on offer is a range of snacks rather than a proper hot meal. On the Malaysian side, hot microwaved meals are served on some trains and can be quite tasty.
I’d definitely keep an eye on one’s luggage on the overnight train. I haven’t had bad experiences, but there are a lot of stops with people getting on and off. There are usually railway police on the trains, especially in Thailand – if you have any problems like theft you could contact them immediately.
There is a full-scale civil insurgency, largely unreported, in certain parts of southern Thailand close to the border areas. This does not typically have any effect on trains, although if you decide to get off the train there (mostly Hat Yai, although in fact Hat Yai itself is pretty well protected, compared to Yala and the likes), do some research first to know what you are getting into.
There is the odd derailment on Thai railways, although usually on the Northern line to Chiang Mai, not the Southern line to Malaysia and all points south, and they tend to happen at low speed so fortunately are often not fatal.
Once in Malaysia, although the hijab is commonly worn, there seems to be no exception taken to female travellers who do not wear it. That said, a headscarve isn’t a bad practical option anyway, so wearing one may also help if you want to make friends with local passengers.
The Luxury Option
For those willing to splash out, the Eastern and Oriental Express offers a luxurious scheduled train service in both directions between Bangkok and Singapore. You may see it en route, in sidings or parked at Hualamphong station in Bangkok and immediately you will see the elegant style of the setup.