A Flashpacking Train Journey
Train travel is always our preferred method of transport. So we booked ourselves onto the 14:45 from Bangkok to Butterworth, a 24hour train journey taking us south through Thailand, across the border at Padang Besar, and then into Malaysia for the final three to four hours of our journey.
We have used Thai trains on earlier trips so we pretty much knew what to expect. The last time we travelled by train in Thailand, we were on holiday and chose the 1st class private cabin for two. As we are now flashpackers, we roughed it in second class this time, although it was not a great deal different.
The trains here are clean, reasonably well maintained and come with a good food menu at sensible prices, all served at your seat by the train stewards. The journey was pretty uneventful on the whole, with the exception of the Thai lady opposite me who was quite happy letting off incredibly noisy rasping farts throughout the journey, with not a care in the world. She threw in the odd burp and belch too, just to balance the gas emissions.
Sleeper Train to Butterworth
After dinner the train guard comes and makes up all the beds, which you can tell he has been doing for years, as he whips up the carriage, dropping the upper bunks and transforming the lower seats into near the size of a double bed. We had booked late so we had the two upper bunks, which are not as roomy, but perfectly adequate for a reasonable night’s sleep on the move.
We hit the border at about 10am the next morning (it should have been 9am, but we were running an hour late by the time we got there) and you are offloaded from the train to go through the Thai exit and Malaysian entry immigration rituals. We thought you could leave your main luggage on the train (as we did at the Vietnam Cambodian bus crossing) but when we returned with our Malaysian stamp in our passport we found my rucksack missing. A moment of mild panic and a question to the guard assured me that they offload some luggage for customs inspection, and there it was waiting at the customs gate – phew.
There is no great scenery to behold on this trip, the best bits are when you arrive into Malaysia. You pass down through the rubber and palm oil plantations that line the fields by the tracks before finally arriving at Butterworth station in the early afternoon (2.30pm Malaysian time - they are an hour ahead here from Thailand). It was just a five minute walk from Butterworth (temporary) train station to the ferry terminal after a quick stop at the licensed money-changer to rid ourselves of the last few Thai Baht in exchange for Ringgit. The temporary train station, is part of works that are taking place right down the line from Bangkok. The majority of the upgrades, to train stations and tracks along the route, are on the Malaysian side of the border.
The Ferry from Butterworth to Penang
The ferry takes just 15 minutes, across the Straits of Malacca, and costs a mere US 35cents each to get from the mainland to the island (the return part of the journey is free). The ferries run very frequently, so no need to book in advance, for this short ferry trip across the harbour. On arrival on Penang Island we decided to walk to our hotel, as it was a beautiful day. Although there are plenty of buses (one is free) and taxis at the terminal to take you wherever you want.
We stayed at the New Asia Heritage Hotel, in the heart of Georgetown on Kimberly Street/Jalan Pintal Tali (it has two entrances). The staff here were great, and the location is perfect for the shopping malls and main bus station at Komtar, and getting about the heritage sites in old Georgetown. The best thing about our hotel’s location was the great value restaurants and food hawker stalls that surround it. But more about those in our next post.
Some Train Tips for the Butterworth Journey
Smoking – Smoking is ‘permitted’ on these trains in the toilets or by the doors in between the carriages
Plug Sockets – There are no sockets in the 2nd class berths, you may find one near the guard’s stations at the end of some of the carriages, but the ones I tried were not working, so make sure your kit is fully charged before the journey. If you travel 1st class you get a socket in the carriage but no guarantee that it will work.
Air con – The temperature was set at a sensible level and you get a blanket to cover yourself in the evening so a warm nights sleep is guaranteed.
Backpack Storage – these go under the seats, but if you get the berths near the doors the emergency ladders are stored there so you have a bit of a tussle for storage with your neighbours.
Don’t worry about disappearing carriages – as the train gets near the border the twelve carriages reduce down to two or three for the final leg into Malaysia - food service stops here too so make sure you have what you need for the final few hours.
No First Class – There are some first class carriages on his train, but they never make it all the way to Butterworth, so if you want to book the through ticket from Bangkok you will have to go second class.
Sleeper Train Costs – Total costs were US$34 per person, you will pay a few more dollars for the extra wide bottom bunk, but best book in advance if you want one of these.