THE RAIL ITINERARY OF THE MONTH – This long journey of two days is possible for less than 100 €. An excellent way to discover the diversity of the three countries, between mountains, beaches, jungles and futuristic cities.
From the mountains of Chiang Mai to the futuristic city-state of Singapore, passing through the paradisiacal beaches of the Thai coasts and the Malaysian jungle… To explore the diversity of Southeast Asia, let’s forget the plane and prefer the train. While the abundance of low-cost airlines can connect Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore for a handful of baht, nothing beats the scenic experience of Thailand’s aging but utterly comfortable overnight trains.
To make this journey of 3000 km through three countries, no need to break the bank: you have to pay between 80 and 150 €, depending on the comfort chosen. Count 45 hours of cumulative journeys on board five different trains, including two at night. Those who like it slow will be served: here, the railway has not yet yielded to the sirens of high speed, even if TGV lines should be built in the next decade. With its geographical position, the Land of Smiles is the main rail hub of Southeast Asia: by rail, it is possible to travel to Malaysia and Laos and then, from the end of 2023, to Cambodia.
For those who want to travel in royal conditions, the luxury train Eastern & Oriental Express from Belmond (which also operates the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express) has made this same journey several times a year since 1993. Interrupted for three years at Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, traffic should resume at the end of 2023. But at €4,000 per cruise (at least), such a trip is not within everyone’s reach.
Which route to take?
The rail journey begins in northern Thailand, in the mountainous province of Chiang Mai. 751 km separate the second city from the capital of the kingdom. Count around 12 hours of journey on board one of the five trains (including three at night) which make the connection daily. We prefer the Special Express CNR n°10, provided by the most modern and comfortable trains which have nothing to envy to its European equivalents. It leaves Chiang Mai at 6 p.m. and arrives at the new Bangkok station (Krung Thep Aphiwat) at 6:50 a.m. There is a restaurant car: allow less than €5 for a meal tray with bottle of water and €3 for breakfast.
Our advices. The Bangkok-Chiang Mai line is particularly popular with tourists. The individual cabins (only 12 of two beds per departure) sell out very quickly, especially during the high season (November to March). To increase your chances of getting one, it is best to do your research on the official website when sales open, which takes place 30 days before departure at 8:30 a.m. local time (i.e. 2:30 a.m. Paris time). If you are traveling in a berth, choose the lower one: they are more spacious, have a socket and a window. Another piece of advice: with the air conditioning running constantly and at its maximum, bring a little woolen jacket so as not to catch a cold.
- Bangkok – Surat Thani – Padang Besar
After a few days in the bustling Thai capital, the journey south continues aboard Special Express n°45. This is the only train that directly connects Bangkok to the Malaysian border. The 1,000 km journey takes 19 hours, with a daily departure from Bangkok at 3:35 p.m. and arrival at the Malaysian border at 9:50 a.m. It may be interesting to cut this trip in two, especially if you plan to make a detour to the islands of Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui. In this case, stop in Surat Thani, two thirds of the way. Phantip Travel is one of the agencies that organizes bus and ferry transfers to the islands on the east and west coasts.
If there is no catering service on board, it is possible to buy food from street vendors during stops at the station. In addition, the train number 45 only has sleeping berths. If you value the privacy of a private cabin, the solution is to take train No. 31 to Hat Yai. From there, take another to complete the journey (only one hour) to the Malaysian border. Good to know: when crossing the border, you change time zones. Advance your watch one hour. So when you get off at the terminus, it’s 9:50 am in Thailand but 10:50 am in Malaysia.
Our advices. If possible, exchange your baht for Malaysian ringgits before crossing the border. Padang Besar station does not have an ATM or exchange office. There is a restaurant, which is also a mini-market, which does not take credit cards but exceptionally accepts bahts. There is absolutely nothing to do in the immediate vicinity. To explore the surrounding area during the connection, taxis are available outside the station.
- Padang Besar – Kuala Lumpur
After just under three hours of correspondence at the border, it is time to reach the Malaysian capital. The journey to Kuala Lumpur is made on board the ETS high-speed train, which was put into circulation in 2010. Capable of traveling up to 140 km/h, it contrasts sharply with the aging and non-electrified Thai trains. From Padang Besar, take the ETS Platinium n°9277 which leaves at 1:40 p.m. After approximately 5.5 hours of driving through jungle landscapes, you arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 7:14 p.m. We recommend that you put your suitcases there for at least two nights in order to better appreciate this rapidly changing capital.
Our advices. Again, it is better to have a minimum of Malaysian ringgits on you. The train bar only accepts cash. Advantage if you are traveling in Business: a hot meal, a snack and drinks are included in the ticket and served instead. When searching on the KTMB website, type in “KL Sentral” to arrive at Kuala Lumpur Central Station.
Last leg of our journey. It still takes 7.5 hours to connect Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, two destinations that are only 350 km apart. A high-speed line is being studied to reduce this journey time to only 1h30, but this project is perpetually postponed because of its cost. In the meantime, the trip is done in two stages and requires booking two separate tickets: Kuala Lumpur-Gemas, then Gemas-JBSentral. As the railway line is not yet fully electrified, you must first take the ETS to Gemas. After a short connection of about thirty minutes, we then take a diesel train to Johor Bahru, the last Malaysian city before Singapore.
Our advices. Once in Johor Bahru, you almost reach the goal! But it remains to cross the bridge that marks the border between Malaysia and Singapore. By train, it is possible but complicated: the KTS Shuttle, infrequent, is always full at peak times because it is used by cross-border workers. The most practical way to cross this bridge is to take the bus. Favor those of the Malaysian operator Causeway Link, cheaper than Singaporean buses. The trip to Kranji metro station costs RM2.60 (€0.50).
What budget should you plan?
From Thailand to Singapore by train: our trip in pictures
To complete the entire journey from Chiang Mai to Singapore, count between 80 and 150 € depending on the chosen comfort. In Thailand and Malaysia, ticket prices are fixed regardless of the departure date and when you book. No nasty surprises! In Thailand, the price of night trains varies by a few euros depending on the rolling stock used, the most modern trainsets (bearing the mention “CNR”) being the most expensive.
- Chiang Mai-Bangkok: €26 in a berth, €42 per person in a private cabin, €65 per cabin for a single person;
- Bangkok-Padang Besar: €24 in a berth;
- Padang Besar-Kuala Lumpur: €20 in Standard class, €35 in Business class (with meal and snack included);
- Kuala Lumpur-Gemas-Johor Bahru: €10 in Standard class.
How to book tickets?
In Thailand, on the official website of the SRT company (tickets available 30 days in advance). In Malaysia, on that of the KTMB company (90 days in advance). Another solution: go through the online agency 12Go Asia which allows, in addition to train tickets, to book journeys by coach, boat or minivan in a large part of Asia.
AT Singapore, no need to buy a ticket to take the bus or the metro (MRT). Your credit card serves as a ticket for the gates. In the buses, don’t forget to also validate it on the way down so as not to be overcharged. For unlimited travel, opt for the SG Tourist Pass (€20 for three days), on sale in a large number of supermarkets. More information on transport in Singapore on the SBSTransit website.