Nowadays, the internet is the source of instant information and this is especially true for travel news.  I forget how I found www.seat61.com but in no time, I was intrigued by the very detailed account of how to get from Bangkok to Butterworth, which is the railway station to get to Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia.  Mr. Mark Smith, a British career railywayman, has set up this site about trains worldwide in such an easily accessible manner, that I was instantly convinced.  Why not, it is only 24 hours from point A to point B?  And this is not any fancy Orient Express Nostalgic Luxury train.  This is the real thing, second class and all.

 

In Bangkok, I had therefore purposely taken a hotel in Chinatown, nearby the Hualamphong Station.  Basic and clean is the simplest description I will use for the “Hotel Chinatown”, but then, it was also only 30 Euro/night.  And it had air-conditioning, essential in 34 Celsius humid heat.  Walking to the station in the morning to get my ticket, I passed through the recycled car parts district – if ever you wonder where the nuts, bolts and other small scrap metal ends up, well, here it is, neatly piled up in umpteen corners of little shops – and was soon standing in the large domed hall of the main train station.  The benign portrait of the King of Thailand gazed upon the leisurely activity of travellers getting their provisions in the twenty or so little shops.  This must be one of the few train stations where there are real orchid plants adding a touch of class to the otherwise very functional architecture of such places.

After getting the information from the internet confirmed by a pretty Thai employee speaking quite good English and told to get my ticket at the foreigner’s booth nr. 1, I happily paid 1210 Baht (about 25 Euro) for a lower berth, second class (the only direct wagons)  on the International Express Train Nr. 35, leaving at 14:45 on track 5.

Punctually, the 10 wagons slowly made their way through the suburbs of Bangkok for a good hour.  New, glittering skyscrapers could be seen in the distance, but we pass vast expanses of semi-industrial, half-finished constructions.

My wagon was very clean but seemed easily 30 years old. Every two seats facing each other converted into two berths – upper and lower – with space for luggage in a metal contraption on the aisle.  Let us just say that the name of  the designer of this layout will be lost to us in history and we will not miss him, alas.

A train steward came around, checked the ticket and proceeded to refund 20 Baht to each passenger in this wagon:  We had no air-conditioning, only old-fashioned but efficient fans.  In good Chinese train tradition, vendors came along selling drinks and various kinds of prepared foods. Slowly, conversations started up between the travellers – a group of three English young women finding much to share, coming from northern Thailand and going to Kuala Lumpur, a Spanish couple on their way to Borneo, a Chinese man talking endlessly on his cell phone, quiet Thais – and we all settled down.

Eventually, the train gathered speed and we start to travel through open but fairly populated countryside.  Not much is cultivated yet, just tropical greenery accented by various types of palm and banana trees and, unfortunately, small waterways largely full of refuse.  About two hours out of Bangkok the rice fields start and will be dominating the scenery, along with banana and palm tree plantations throughout the journey. Often I also see wild bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus.  The houses – many huts – reflect a very modest lifestyle, poor even in parts, shanty town structures that often occur close to rail tracks everywhere in the world.

Darkness comes soon and with it, delivered to my seat, a dinner which I had ordered from the steward earlier:  Chicken curry on rice, a vegetable dish and miso soup, a slice of fresh pineapple for dessert, all for 170 Baht (3.50 Euro).  Freshly prepared and quite tasty.  After dinner, the steward makes the berths with sheets, a pillow and a coverlet – all fresh.  Blue curtains are hooked in and give a high degree of privacy and definitely a “Some like it hot” feeling.  I expect Marilyn Monroe as Sugar and Tony Curtis to pop out of a top berth any minute…

By 9 p.m., the wagon is absolutely still.  I am comfortably ensconced in my berth and can give myself over to the swaying clickety-clack, clackety-click as the train speeds over the surely still British-built tracks.  Every now and again I peek out into the darkness and see astonishingly many lights of small villages and towns. As this train is an International Express, it has limited stops and speeds through most empty stations.  The moon shows the silhouettes of palm trees and the dim lights from the train throw a ghostly shadow on the tropical countryside.

It is barely dawn at 6 a.m.. when the steward comes around with the one-choice breakfast (also ordered the evening before and delivered to the berth): two eggs sunnyside up, a small sausage, one each tomato and pineapple slice, two pieces of toast, butter and pineapple jam, a non-descript yellow juice and tea or coffee (120 Baht, approx. 2.50 Euro).   It is time for a cat’s wash-up, meaning a quick moist wipe will have to do the trick this morning.  By the way, the toilet facilities are well, yes, clean-ish, and there are two sinks with running water for the entire wagon.

The time between 7:30 and 9 a.m. is spent at the Hat Yia Junction station with Thailand-Malaysian border formalities, meaning that everyone has to debark with all their belongings and exit Thailand and enter Malaysia.  Don’t complain, just do it.

Eight wagons go off in other directions and we continue with two wagons and a different, smoke belching locomotive.  The stewards have taken the berths away and cleaned up of sorts and left.  There is a new Malaysian crew and no service.  Even the water supply of the wash basins is gone.  There are more stops, locals disembark, others get on.

The countryside seems more cultivated:  Papaya plantations and tree forestations alternate with the rice paddies. Even the palm trees are mostly in orderly rows.  The green seems even more intense – we are, after all, in the wet tropics.

And then, suddenly, the end of the journey approaches:  We arrive in Butterworth only 30 minutes later than scheduled.  This train station is totally charmless and functional.  The best thing that can be said about it is that is connected by covered track to the ferry terminal to cross over to Georgetown.

Would I have given up this journey for the comfort and speed of a flight?  Never!  After all the way is as much the mean as the end….

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17 Comments

  1. liebe zenaida,
    ob du wohl noch mal nach münchen kommen wirst?
    ich würde wahnsinnig gern deine berichte noch mal persönlich hören.

    liebe grüße
    Dagmar

  2. Lasst mich bitte dabei sein wenn Du wieder zurück in München bist
    und von Deiner Reise berichtest!
    Das möchte ich unbedingt “first hand” erleben und erlauschen!

    K n u t, der weiterhin eine gute Reise wünscht!

  3. It definitely took me back to my trip to Thailand in the 80’s – hearing you describe the poverty and the heat and humidity. Good for you – enduring these hardships at this age. Not sure I could manage so well. We do get used to our creature comforts.
    Diane

  4. I have planned to travel on this route on 5th Feb.10. Your report is quite informative and will definitely useful for me. All my doubts are cleared, except one –
    I am trying to book bangkok to butterworth online, but when I go to search seat, the train station”butterworth” is not in the list. What do I do? I want to book online so as to travel without worry of getting ticket.
    Anjali

  5. Hello Anjali, have you gone to the website http://www.seat61.com ? It is really most informative and gives all the details, that is where I got a lot of my information from. Be sure to insist on a lower bunk, then you get the window and a much larger head-space. I also suggest to bring some drinking water along and some snacks. Otherwise, the meals that are offered are prepared fresh in the kitchen carriage and are quite tasty. Have Fun! Oh, and if you go to Penang and like to stay in historic places, check out the Chen Fatt Tze Blue Mansion. Quite lovely! It was also used for the movie “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve. I will be writing about it soon….Happy Holidays and greetings from Wilderness in Western Cape Province, SA

  6. Dear Zen-Aida

    I read your “Bangkok to Penang: 24 hour International Express Train” congratulation : interesting report (personal and emotional) and really nice photos.

    I look forward to your next travel report !

    Hans (Switzerland)

  7. Hello Zen,
    Thank you for a very informative and factual account of the Bangkok-Butterworth train ride.
    I myself am 55, hardly a youngster and am planning a train journey the other way round, ie from Butterworth to Bangkok in May “10. I am rather baffled that anyone should hint that people our age were not suitable for such a journey !

    I am a Malaysian and actually, will be boarding the train at Alor Setar (first major stop from Butterworth) and getting off at Ratchaburi (last major statin before Bangkok).

    I usually take a flight to Bangkok but am opting for the train on this occasion because I know it will be fun and I am accompanying a friend out from the UK who has never been to these parts and would like to soak up as much Asian experience as possible (after a few days in Bangkok, we catch a local train to Aranyaprathet on the Kampuchean border and onto Siem Reap and its famous world heritage site, Angkhor Wat).

    I used to travel to Bangkok by train very frequently as a child and this will afford me a truly sentimental journey and a dip into my past.

    By the way, we are getting off at Ratchaburi because from there, it should be a short hop to get to the world reknown Floating Market of Damnoen Saduak before proceeding to Bangkok proper.

    I would like to add to your article by saying that 14 or so carriages on this international Express belong to Royal Siam Railways(RSR) and 1 belongs to Malaysian Railways(KTM). I have not travelled by train to Bangkok for close to 40 years and I remember we used to prefer the Thai coaches because as they were non airconditioned, the windows can be opened and you can buy things at station platforms from hawkers through the windows. On the other hand, if you were in the Malaysian airconditioned coach, you have to make a mad dash in order to buy something and not be left behind !

    The first class compartments were individual booths and you get more privacy.
    We preferred to go over to the dining coach rather than have the food brought over to the cabin to avoid having to put up with dirty dishes,bottles and what not. cluttering our cramp cabin and alleyway.

    Just one criticism though and that is the toilets may not be what you would expect from an International Express. My advise is try to avoid having to use it. Taking a shower (as is doing all other toilet functions) also poses a real challenge with all the rocking and swaying !

    In spite of this, I would recommkend this form of travel for all.

    btw,are you sure all the Immigration/Customs formalities are carried out at Hatyai Junction?
    I remember it was at the border of Padang Besar.

    All the best and happy travelling.

  8. Hello and thank you for your insights! I would love to hear how the trip was for you. Enjoy Angkor – such a magical place!

  9. Hello Zen,
    Will do.
    My forthcoming trip should be very interesting and experimental because I (or anyone else for that matter) have never gone to the Floating Market getting off a train coming straight from the Malaysian border !
    Strangely enough, in my net searches for The Floating Market, I have not come across ‘How to get there’.
    So here goes my little adventure !
    Cheers

  10. Hi Zen! My friend and I actually did this journey in September this year (2010). Your insights helped us to know what to expect during the journey. We even saw the Eastern Oriental at the Thai-Malay border Padang Besar. The train journey was excellent… far more interesting than a sterile flight!

  11. Hi Zen,

    Thankyou so much for your information it has been invaluable for us as we are planning to travel to Bangkok from butterworth in December 2010. will post onto your site as soon as we have completed the journey! By the wat awesome pictures!

  12. Dear Zenaida, thanks so much for this interesting and fine report.
    As during many travels and stays in Asia since 1967 quite often I used this train your report brought back many memories :-).
    Last time I was on this train in September 2012 when visiting Penang from Bangkok. For the way back I too took this train.
    Going back from Butterworth to Bangkok sometimes may be some problem if the train is delayed too much and then doesn’t run up to Butterworth but only to the boarder or even to Haad Yai only. So it’s wise better to ask first at the railway ticket counter at the jetty on the Penang side about the conditon of train departure from Butterworth to Bangkok. If the train not coming it’s still enough time to get a bus from Butterworth bus station to Haad Yai and catch the train from there to Bangkok. Refund is possible before travel in Penang or after still in Bangkok as they will know there what happened with the train.
    Now me 75 years young and still surely will use this train again when I come to Thailand and Penang again next time.
    I like to encourage also elderly independent people for this kind .of travel. A flight is short but you miss all the fun of meeting interesting people and to soak up the sights of the countryside leisurely passing by :-).

  13. Hello and thank you very much for this constructive comment about the train situation.
    And I agree with you entirely in encouraging elderly independent persons to travel as much as possible, especially by train!

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