A firm believer that the journey is as much of the experience as the destination, I’ve always been one for overland travel whenever possible, with train travel being my preference. Not through any particular love for the locomotives, but more the overall experience. Often faster and more comfortable than busses, yet still very firmly on the ground, rail travel allows you to cover vast distances at ‘street level’ – and often meet some wonderful characters on the way. My first foray to Asia many years ago had me excited at the prospect of riding aged carriages along historic routes, and the journey we chose was from Singapore up to Bangkok, taking a little over two weeks at a comfortable pace.
Nowadays, sadly, the connections are not what they once were. With much of the Malaysian section now electrified and running modern intercity style trains, in order to make the journey by train, one must change trains more frequently. It’s hoped that the ongoing modernisation work on Malaysia’s railways will be complete by 2020, allowing the for the re-introduction of a direct north to south service. Until then, here’s how we did it…
Arriving in Singapore
How: Fly to Singapore Changi Airport; MRT into City
How to Book: Buy at station
Recommended Connection: Departures every few minutes between 6am – Midnight
Where to Stay: AMOY by Far East Hospitality
Get Around: The Singapore Tourist Pass offers Unlimited Public Transport from SG$10 per day
The vast majority of visitors to Singapore arrive by air, into the city’s glistening Changi Airport. A model of cleanliness and efficiency, you can expect a quick stroll through immigration and customs, before boarding and equally smart and efficient MRT train which will deliver you into the heart of the city in a little under an hour. Kill the time by reading some of the entertainingly excessive rules that one must adhere to onboard, and remember – Don’t even think about bringing a Durian fruit on the train with you!
Whilst in Singapore
Modern, buzzing and a veritable melting pot of cultures, Singapore has something for everyone – although be prepared to pay handsomely for it! There’s no such thing as a cheap night’s sleep in Singapore, so we opted to spend a little more and treated ourselves to a room at the boutique AMOY hotel, directly opposite Telok Ayer MRT station on the downtown line. Situated at the heart of the city and accessed through a historic temple, this gem of a hotel is a great base for exploring all that Singapore has to offer. The rooms are well furnished and the staff couldn’t be more hospitable.
Take advantage of the excellent value Singapore Tourist Pass for unlimited travel on the excellent Bus & MRT network, which will deliver you speedily to any corner of the island. Be it shopping on Orchard Road, nightlife at Clarke Quay or a stroll through the lanes of Little India or Chinatown, it’s possible to see the highlights in just two days. For the budget conscious, eating at hawker markets is another great way of keeping costs down whilst enjoying some of the most authentic food in local surroundings. A huge portion of fried pork dumplings can be found for as little as SG$6 in the markets of Chinatown.
Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
Cost: Approx. $17
How to Book: Book Online 12go.asia
1. Depart Woodlands 08.00 / Arrive JB Sentral 08.05
2. Depart JB Sentral 10.00 / Arrive Gemas 14.25
3. Depart Gemas 15.00 / Arrive KL Sentral 17.12
Where to Stay: The Reggae Mansion
Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber, or buy a Touch’n’Go card at any major station for discounted fares on all Public Transport
Sadly, Singapore’s central station has been out of use for a number of years now, meaning that all journeys off the island start at Woodlands Checkpoint station, a quick bus or taxi ride from the city. Once you’ve cleared Malaysian immigration, a 5-minute shuttle train ride will take you across the causeway that links Singapore island to mainland Malaysia, and into Johor Bahru Sentral Station. From there, you board a brand new express train for the 7-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur, with a quick half hour change at Gemas. The trains are modern, air conditioned and very comfortable, and the view from the windows is magnificent, particularly approaching Kuala Lumpur.
If you don’t fancy changing trains so often, there are direct busses linking downtown Singapore to KL although these can be prone to long delays at the border, and often fall victim to KL’s traffic. Be prepared for the journey to take just as long as the trains, if not longer – It took us nearly 9 hours on a recent trip!
Whilst in Kuala Lumpur:
Described by many as Singapore without the polish (and excessive rules – chewing gum is perfectly legal!), Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s thriving capital city, and a model of diversity. The sprawling markets of Chinatown are just minutes away from world-class mega malls, whilst the twin Petronas Towers dominate the skyline of the city’s financial district. Whilst it’s possible to ascend the famous towers, there is often a long wait for a slot and the tickets don’t come cheap. Another option is to ascend the KL TV Tower which is far less visited and considerably cheaper. Best off all, the view from the top features the full KL skyline – including the twin towers – something you wouldn’t get if you were standing inside them!
Thanks to the excellent network of subways, light railways and even a monorail, getting around is a breeze. Clean, bright and modern, the Reggae Mansion offers reasonably priced private or dorm rooms with breakfast included and an amazing rooftop bar. It’s within walking distance of the famous Petaling night market and directly opposite Masjid Jemak MRT station, and as such is a great base for two or three nights in the city. For a local dining experience, head for Jalan Alor and choose from one of the dozens of restaurants that line the streets!
Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth
Cost: Approx. $18
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
Recommended Connection: Depart KL Sentral 09.00 / Arrive Butterworth 12.53
You’re back onboard one of Malaysia’s brand new ETS Platinum trains for the four-hour ride up to Butterworth. With an onboard Bistro car serving fair value snacks, and often overly powerful air conditioning, you can expect a comfortable ride with lovely views of the Malaysian countryside as you head north at over 100mph – an experience in itself in SE Asia!
Whilst in Butterworth:
Butterworth itself probably doesn’t warrant a visit in it’s own right. It’s a perfectly pleasant town in which to grab a bite of lunch before the connecting train north later in the afternoon. However, if you have time, we strongly recommend breaking your journey here for two or three nights, and making the short trip to Georgetown, on the island of Penang.
Optional Side Trip: Georgetown, Penang
Cost: Approx. $0.30 Outbound; Return Journey Free
How to Book: Buy Onboard
Recommended Connection: Every 30 minutes from 5am to Midnight
Where to Stay: Numerous Guest Houses & Hotels on Love Lane
Get Around: By Foot
Having jumped off the train at Butterworth, follow the signs for the short walk to the ferry which makes the 15-minute crossing to Georgetown every 20 minutes or so, between 5am-1am. The outbound fare is around $0.30, and the return journey is free making this an incredibly affordable stopover. Georgetown itself is small enough to easily explore by foot, or you can hire 4-wheeled pedal cars from a number of locations around Armenian Street!
Whilst in Penang
Famed for its ubiquitous street art and incredible food scene, Georgetown is a haven for any budding culture-junkie. Exceptional Chinese, Indian and Malay can be found on every street corner and in food markets dotted across the city – all at bargain prices. Assam Laksa is one of the most famous dishes, and is prepared with a thinner soup than other Malaysian Laksas, resulting in an amazing balance of sour and spicy.
The ‘Little India’ district transports you to downtown Delhi, whilst the area around Armenian Street is a hub of Colonial architecture and vibrant street art. Hours can be spent wandering the back streets in search of lesser known pieces, whilst the most famous works of art will often have large crowds of people waiting to pose alongside them. Be sure to visit the Kapitan Kling mosque for a free and incredibly interested tour of a working mosque, guided by a local volunteer.
For accommodation, the area around Love Lane has a number of good value guest houses, where it is advisable to simply turn up and negotiate a rate directly with the hotel. In the evening, a number of small bars pop up in the backstreets around here, serving cold beers on plastic tables at the side of the road!
Butterworth to Surat Thani
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
1.Depart Butterworth 14.25 / Arrive Padang Besar 16.16
2. Depart Padang Besar 18.00 / Arrive Surat Thani 23.28
Having taken the ferry back to the mainland, it’s time to continue north and leave Malaysia behind as you cross into Southern Thailand. Once again, a shiny new Malaysian train will deliver you to the frontier station of Padang Besar where you will officially exit Malaysia, and enter Thailand. Both border posts are within the station building, and are both usually very efficient meaning there is little risk of a hold up. Once across the frontier, you board an older but perfectly comfortable Thai overnight express train bound for Bangkok. Whilst it would be possible to book an sleeper berth to deliver you straight to the capital overnight, you’d be missing some of the very best of Thailand. Instead, we recommend booking yourself a second class seat and jumping off at the town of Surat Thani just before midnight.
Whilst in Surat Thani
Much like Butterworth, Surat Thani is generally just a staging post for travellers transferring between trains, busses and ferries on their way to or from the gulf islands. Given your late arrival, it may be best to book a hotel online and simple take a Grab taxi straight there from the hotel. Town itself is pretty small and run down, so you won’t be missing much by taking an early departure to Koh Samui the next morning!
Surat Thani to Koh Samui
How: Bus & Ferry (Lomprayah)
Cost: $18 (Incl. Hotel Transfer on Koh Samui)
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
Recommended Connection: Depart Surat Thani Town 09.00 / Arrive Na Thon Pier, Koh Samui 12.35
Where to Stay: Ananas Hostel Samui
Get Around: By Foot, Motorbike or Shared Jeep
There are numerous operators and agents selling cut-price combination tickets from Surat Thani to destinations all over Thailand. Generally speaking, if you book through one of the numerous touts, you will likely get to your destination eventually. However, for well-maintained ferries, great organisation and an overall lack of hassle, I wholeheartedly recommend spending a couple of dollars more and travelling with Lomprayah ferries, booked through 12go.asia. They provide collection from the town centre, a fast catamaran connection between the islands and the mainland, and a free minibus shuttle from the ferry pier to your hotel door on one combined ticket. It’s unlikely that you would save much, if anything, by arranging each leg yourself and the through ticket makes the whole journey fast and pain-free!
Whilst in Koh Samui
As the most developed of the gulf island, Koh Samui has everything from basic backpackers digs to ultra-luxurious 5-star resorts. The beaches are undoubtedly the main attraction, although pretty much anything else you could hope for will be available somewhere on the island and can be arranged at any of the numerous travel agents across the island. The largest and most famous beach can be found at Chaweng (Samui’s answer to Sin City), along with a number of bargain bucket accommodation options, and a hardcore nightlife scene. Whilst the cheap drinks and fast relationships 8for want of a better phrase) on offer in the bars of Chaweng are a draw for many of the islands visitors, we prefer to stay away from the craziness and explore the less developed side of the island.
Ananas Hostel is set in a beautiful local part of the island, with picture-perfect beaches within walking distance. It’s possible to hire 50cc scooter here, too, which make a great way to explore the island and discover your own secret beaches far away from the tourist throngs!
Koh Samui to Koh Phangan
How: Minivan & Ferry (Lomprayah)
Cost: $14 (Incl. Hotel Pickup on Koh Samui)
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Samui 09.45 / Arrive Koh Phangan 11.45
Where to Stay: Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort
Get Around: By Foot / Jeep Taxi
If you once again book through Lomprayah, a minivan will pick you up from your accommodation around an hour before sailing time and deliver you to the pier, where you will re-board one of the company’s catamarans for the short ride over to Koh Phangan. If you’ve pre-booked your hotel, they may well offer a pickup from the port – otherwise it’s down to you to negotiate a price with one of the many jeep taxis that meet each sailing.
Whilst in Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is home to the world famous Full Moon parties, where thousands of revellers descend on the idyllic Haad Rin beach to spend the night consuming questionable substances and dance the night away to deep house and trance music. If you can’t make it for Full Moon, but still want a slice of the action, the Half Moon parties give you a taste of what it’s all about. Either way, if you visit during either of these events, be sure to book your accommodation and transport well in advance as the sudden influx of thousands of visitors means that things sell out quick. The Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort offers reasonable quality accommodation at fair prices, right at the heart of the action.
The day after the party sees a coordinated clean-up effort by many of the revellers, and taking part is a great way of giving something back to the community and environment.
If wild parties are not your thing, head for one of the smaller communities on the island where the traditional fishing lifestyle is still at the heart of the community. Heading inland from the coast, there is endless opportunity for hiking through the stunning green hills that make up the island’s backbone, with plenty of hidden waterfalls thrown in for good measure.
Koh Phangan to Koh Tao
How: Ferry (Lomprayah)
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Phangan 13.00 / Arrive Koh Tao 14.00
Where to Stay: Koh Tao Coral Grand Resort
Get Around: By Foot / Motorcycle
Talk to your hotel’s reception to organise transport back to the ferry pier at the end of your stay. They will be able to arrange a fair price for you, as well as advise what time you should leave to make your ferry connection. The ride across to Koh Tao is the longest crossing of your trip so far, so it’s worth taking some drinks and snacks with you, particularly if you’re suffering the aftermath of a big night! Once again, transport from the pier on Koh Tao is best arranged through your hotel if you have pre-booked.
Whilst in Koh Tao
The smallest of the three main gulf islands, Koh Tao has a long and well-deserved reputation as being the most chilled out island, and is a favourite amongst those looking to get away from it all. The diving is world class, and a number of 5 Star PADI Dive Centres are based on this tiny island, making it a go to destination for qualified divers and beginners alike. Prices are pretty comparable across all of the schools, with most offering dive and accommodation packages for those seeking to complete their Open Water certification.
Getting around the island is best done on foot, or with a rented scooter. To access some of the more remote coves on the far side of the island, it’s best to hire a jeep Taxi which can cope with the rough, unmade roads that cross the island’s spine. Alternatively, longtail boats can be hired directly from the beach to take you anywhere around the island.
The small island of Koh Nang Yuan lies less than a kilometre away and makes a great excursion by long tail boat, and offers excellent swimming and snorkelling oppurtunities. In the evening, head back to Koh Tao and garb a drink in one of the beach bars to see the sunset behind Koh Nang Yuan.
Ko Tao to Bangkok
How: Ferry, Bus & Overnight Sleeper Train (Lomprayah)
Cost: $51 (Second Class Sleeper Train)
How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia
1. Depart Koh Tao 14.45 / Arrive Chumphon Pier 17.15
2. Transfer to Chumphon Station by Bus (Included with Lomprayah)
3. Depart Chumphon Station 21.10 / Arrive Bangkok Hua Lamphong Station 06.30 (+1)
Where to Stay: Sri Suvan @ Rambuttri Guest House
Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber; Public Transport
The final leg of the journey takes you back onboard a Lomprayah catamaran for the crossing back to the mainland town of Chumphon, several hundred kilometres north of Surat Thani. If you book a through ticket, a bus from the ferry port to the train station will be included in the price – just follow the instructions of the staff onboard.
The sleeper train to Bangkok is a great experience in its own right, and second class is generally perfectly comfortable enough for most travellers. The sleeper berths are made up by the onboard attendants, are well padded and come with a pillow, blanket and curtain for privacy. Although reliable, the trains can be prone to delays of an hour or more, so be sure to leave enough time if you have a flight to catch!
Whilst in Bangkok
Bangkok is a vast city and deserves at least three days to really do it justice. The modern part of the city, centred around Siam Square and Sukhumvit, is full of high rise office blocks and designer malls. For a cheap bite to eat, do as the locals do and head to the food court at the top of the terminal 21 shopping mall, where a full meal can cost as little as $2.
Bangkok’s old town, with its hundreds of temples and vast Royal Palace, is just a few kilometres from the modern city, but is sadly not served by the Skytrain or Metro system. The busses are cheap and frequent, although using the Uber or Grab taxis apps is a great way of getting around very cheaply. Just be aware of flagging down a taxi or Tuk-Tuk as overcharging is rife!
If you have limited time, a visit to the Grand Palace is essential, followed by a visit to the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho before jumping on one of the taxi boats that ply the Chao Phraya river. A quick stop at Wat Arun is the perfect place to catch the sunset, before continuing on the river boat to Phra Arthit and the backpacker district of Khao Sanh.
Famous the world over, the Khao Sanh road is Bangkok’s original backpacker’s street with a thriving night market, cheap accommodation and boisterous nightlife. Just a few minutes’ walk from the main strip, the Sri Suvan guesthouse offers simple yet immaculate rooms at bargain prices, with a number of great restaurants just on the doorstep.
If you’re leaving Bangkok by plane, Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is on the city’s excellent Skytrain system, whilst Don Mueang airport (DMK) requires a metro journey as far as Bang Sue station, before taking a connecting Bus.