Notes from a pilot's kid

Bangkok to Penang and Kuala Lumpur by Train

Traveling within Southeast Asia by plane is usually affordable and efficient. If you plan it right, you can find a plane ticket from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur for less than US$75. But I am terrible at planning ahead, and I find train travel charming, so when I was in Bangkok trying to find a way to visit Penang for its street food and history I discovered on Seat 61 that there’s a train that leaves every day from Bangkok to Penang and on to Kuala Lumpur.

Bangkok to Penang takes about 24 hours. You must then take either a 9 or 19-hour layover in Penang (or longer, if you want), and then Penang to Kuala Lumpur will take another 7 hours. Here’s how my trip went, including some advice for anyone considering the same itinerary.

Buying a Ticket

I went to the Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok to buy a ticket one day prior to when I wanted to depart. Tickets are sold from Bangkok to Butterworth, which is a city right on the channel between mainland Malaysia and the island of Penang and connected by ferry. The cost was around 1200 baht (US$37). My purchase was about 20 hours prior to departure on a Tuesday and there were 19 seats still available. Purchase a “lower berth” seat if possible because the bed that folds out is a bit larger than “upper berth.”

If you are staying in the north part of Bangkok, near Chatuchak, you should be able to go to the Bang Sue train station and start from there, as this train makes a short stop at Bang Sue. It would shave off the first 40 minutes of the train journey, which crawls North very slowly from Hua Lamphong station through central Bangkok to Bang Sue before finally turning West and eventually heading South.

Departing Bangkok

If you don’t have too many bags, take the MRT to Hua Lamphong station. My taxi ride from around Phrom Phong BTS area on Sukhumvit took over an hour with 40 minutes of the ride stuck at under 5km/hr.

You should also buy snacks, water, and probably lunch before heading to the train station, as there isn’t much available inside the terminal.

I arrived around 30 minutes prior to the 2:45PM departure at Hua Lamphong station. It’s old and colorful.

Hua Lamphong Train Station

There was no security and I found the train by wandering right onto the platforms.

Hua Lamphong Train 2

Hua Lamphong Train 3

On Board

The train cabins are nothing special. They’re not particularly clean, and there isn’t enough space for your luggage. For the first and last 5 hours of the 25 hour ride, your seat is one of these benches (though there was no one on the opposite bench for the first 20 hours of my trip):

Hua Lamphong Train 4

Hua Lamphong Train 5

Right as you board, someone will offer you a dinner and breakfast menu. Although it may seem to be your only food option, it is not; at each of the first 5 stops, food hawkers will board and sell packaged meals, drinks, and snacks for much cheaper (and that look much tastier) than the official train meal. The official train dinner was not bad:

Hua Lamphong Train 6

The view before the sun goes down is very green, but nothing spectacular. After spending two weeks in central Bangkok, it was quite refreshing to see farmland, quiet little towns, and grazing cows.

Hua Lamphong Train 7

After dinner, an attendant stops by to open the upper bed and convert the benches into the lower bed. I had the lower bed, and used the bed above me to stow some luggage since no one was using it. Here’s what they look like:

Hua Lamphong Train 8

Hua Lamphong Train 9

The ride is not fast. There were times when I felt like we approached 100 kilometers per hour, but there were many sections of the journey where I could tell that the train was slowing down for especially bumpy portions of the tracks.

In addition, although the bed was pretty comfortable for a train, it seemed like the bumpiest part of the tracks were between the hours of 2AM-5AM, between Surat Thani and Hat Yai. So it may be difficult to sleep.

The bathrooms are not great, but there are at least enough of them that I never had to wait to use one.

Stops between Bangkok and the Malaysian Border

The train makes several stops between Bangkok and the Malaysian border. We arrived at Hua Hin around 8PM, and stopped at Surat Thani sometime in the middle of the night (maybe 2AM) I suppose one could theoretically use this train to get to the beaches at Hua Hin or Koh Samui via Surat Thani as well, but the arrival time in Surat Thani isn’t the most convenient.

In the morning, as the sun comes up, the food attendant stopped by to ask if I was ready for breakfast around 6AM. At least the sunrise was nice:

Hat Yai Sunrise

Shortly after, the train arrives at a third major stop: Hat Yai. If you don’t want to stop in Penang, you can also choose to have a six hour layover here instead of Penang, then pick up a train that goes from Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur. I do not know if the ticket needed for this option would be any different.

Crossing the Thailand-Malaysia Border

Around 8AM, the train will stop at the Thailand-Malaysia border. Everyone must get off with all of their luggage and enter a small facility to exit Thailand, enter Malaysia, have their bags inspected and then reboard the train. It took about 25 minutes.

After crossing the Malaysian border, more people stop by selling food on board the train and also offer currency exchange, which was not a bad rate and was really convenient for the ferry fare to get from the train station to Penang Island a few hours later.

Arriving in Penang

The train track seemed to be in better shape in Malaysia, allowing the train to maintain a higher and more consistent speed. A few hours later, the train pulled into Butterworth station around 1PM local time. To continue to Kuala Lumpur, a different train departs around 10PM. For those who are really in a hurry, you probably shouldn’t have taken the train in the first place, but you could cut down on some of this layover time by traveling the last leg of the journey by bus which leave more frequently. To get to Penang island, the train station is connected to the ferry platform, and a ferry leaves every 10 to 15 minutes for Georgetown on Penang island. ### Penang to Kuala Lumpur

Both bus and train are options for traveling from Penang on to Kuala Lumpur. The bus apparently takes half as long as the train, which is scheduled to be seven hours. There are two trains per day: the first leaves at 8AM, and the second leaves at 10:20PM. Buses leave from Butterworth station hourly, but if you choose to travel by bus you should research options and schedules online to make sure you find a non-stop bus  from a reputable company!

I did not do this, thinking I could walk up to the bus station and find an option reliably. That was a mistake. Upon arrival to the bus station, I was accosted by a dozen bus company employees trying to inquire where I was headed and offer a ticket to that destination. This is nothing unusual in Southeast Asia (at least in my experience), but the ticket booths were practically inaccessible as a result. Here’s what the bus station in Butterworth looked like:

Butterworth Station

After pacing around for ten minutes, I finally found a seemingly reputable booth with a lady offering a ticket to Kuala Lumpur for a bus leaving in ten minutes. Perfect! I was charged RM35 (US$11.25) and shown the bus that was scheduled to depart. Here’s the ticket:

Malaysia Bus Ticket

I boarded the bus, and there was only one other passenger on board. That seemed strange, considering the bus was leaving in a few minutes. I people-watched out the window as the ‘scheduled’ departure time came and went. Thirty minutes later, as new passengers trickled on board, there seemed to finally be enough people headed to KL that the bus could depart. A bus employee stopped by to check my ticket forty-five minutes after I was told it would leave, and he proceeded to rip it up and write me a new one on a different piece of paper for the current time.

The bus was comfortable, though a bit shabby:

Malaysia Bus Penang to KL

After finally departing, the bus stopped briefly at a gas station so that the driver could buy some snacks. Then, the bus made a scheduled stop in Ipoh, close to the halfway point of the trip from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. For whatever reason, the bus stayed at the station in Ipoh for forty-five minutes. Another hour later, the bus made a bathroom break stop for twenty minutes.

Finally, about thirty-five kilometers outside Kuala Lumpur, the bus made another bathroom break stop. At this stop, the driver also had a twenty-five minute conversation with another bus driver, and they somehow agreed to split up the passengers based on where they were headed. None of the other passengers seemed to know what was going on, but eventually half of the bus passengers collected their luggage and switched buses, and were replaced by new passengers. I wasn’t sure if I was on the correct bus at this point, but hoped for the best, and it worked out ok.

The bus arrived to Pudu Sentral in Kuala Lumpur six and a half hours after we departed Butterworth station in Penang, a trip not much shorter but far more confusing and frustrating than the train. Oh well, it worked.

Try this trip from Bangkok to Penang and Kuala Lumpur by train (and bus) only if you have some free time, a bit of patience, and a desire to see some scenery that can’t be seen from a quicker trip by plane. I don’t think I’d do it again, but it made for a bit of an adventure.