December 14, 2023

Bukit Timah to Bangkok

Bukit Timah station Singapore

In the 1920s the southern line in Thailand connected to Malaya and travel was popular by train between Bangkok and Singapore. In the days before sleeper carriages, passengers would stop in local guesthouses, later replaced by railway hotels. International travel by train from Thailand has become quite disjointed lately, so I decided to try the journey from Singapore to Bangkok – not by the Eastern & Oriental Express, but using everyday trains.

I have to confess to flying down to Singapore, and after an interesting night in Chinatown I met up with my travel partner for this adventure, Richard Barrow. Richard was an indispensable part of the trip as he managed to get nearly all the tickets in advance.

In a strange feature of international relations, Singapore did not own or operate its own railway. The two stations on the island were operated by KTM, the Malaysian railway until 2011. Today the two historic stations of Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar are preserved, but no longer operational. The challenge at the start of this journey is leaving Singapore. Today there is no direct train service, you have to get a five minute shuttle train from Woodlands across the causeway to JB Town (Johor Bahru). This isn’t as easy as might be, as it is busy and gets sold out, so you have to buy tickets well in advance.

Downtown JB is a bit of a building site at the moment as a new MRT is being built in the city, and one day a line extension will run over to Singapore. Alongside the new station we found the old one and a few interesting trains on the platform.

A few cold beers, another early start and we were off. A train first to sleepy Gemas and a connection two hours later to Kuala Lumpur where we overnighted. A chance to meet local train author David Bowden here as well.

The next morning a platinum service train took us to Butterworth where we took the ferry over to Penang for a relaxing day. Georgetown is home to one of the original grand hotels, the E&O, set up by the legendary Sarkies brothers. It was declared the best hotel east of Suez in the 1920’s.

Here I met with local travel blogger Ian Pash, and we spent a fun evening visiting some local watering holes, not all paying tax on their beer..

Back at Butterworth the following day we took a local train up to the border at Pedang Besar and waited for the crossing to open. Things are slowly getting back to some normality after COVID, and it is now possible to get onto a sleeper carriage here – one that is connected onto another train at Hat Yai. The sleeper was one of the older Korean carriages, now a little past its best, but once the air con was fixed we settled down to a reasonably cozy night heading north, albeit one without any cold beer, but lots of famous local fried chicken.

After a spectacular sunrise around Hua Hin (80 minutes late here) we arrived at Bangkok’s KTW station on time the next day at just after noon. This journey will be getting several hours faster in just a couple of weeks time as the new double tracked line will open from Bangkok most of the way to Hat Yai.

The journey with stops overnight in JB, KL and Penang took four days and nights. It’s a cheap and relatively comfortable way of connecting overland between Singapore and Bangkok, as long as you are not in a hurry.


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