“Please don’t leave yet.”
Those were the words I kept muttering while running as fast as I could to the train platform. Hauling my 15kg backpack and more than 7kg shoulder bag, while trying to maintain some dignity was definitely a feat for me. It was again one of those hot and humid days, a normal day in Southeast Asia.
I was two weeks into my solo backpacking journey and my on my last day in Malaysia. My newfound friend Cindy, thru CS Penang, has just dropped me off at the train station. We ran into some traffic coming in from Butterworth and made it to the station at 1356H. The train was due to leave at exactly 1400H. I couldn’t afford to miss my train.
Leaving Butterworth, Penang
The International Express Train 36 runs daily from Butterworth to Bangkok with a stop at the border at Padang Besar. This route was first introduced in 1922. It is a second-class sleeper train provided by the State Railways of Thailand. Coming from Georgetown, Penang, one can board the train at the newly renovated Butterworth KTM station.
Riding a sleeper train was always on my to-do list. I planned to do it before in the Philippines, but sadly, the sleeper train to Bicol was unavailable. I could have bought a cheap plane ticket to Bangkok, to save me a lot of time. But where would be the fun in that?
By the fates, I managed to settle myself into the designated seat. It was also the last seat available when I booked a few days ago. I wasn’t aware that it was a holiday weekend for the Malaysians so the seats were almost booked full. I was left with no choice but to book the last seat and upper berth at that.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to deal with any long check-in or security lines. One advantage that train travel has over flying.
Cindy, a Butterworth local, took me to lunch at one of the popular restaurants in Butterworth. Seven Village Noodle House, a family restaurant that started in 1956, became popular because of their Koay Teow Soup.
She also brought me to see Tow Boo Kong temple, one of the most beautiful Taoist temples I’ve ever seen. I listened to tales about the Nine Emperor Gods festival while we went inside the temple. From her stories, it became clear to me that it’s another festival that I should add to my list to witness.
I couldn’t thank Cindy enough for her hospitality. As I’ve met her only the night before at the CS Penang meetup.
A little shortly before the train was due to leave, my “seatmate” showed up. He was the lucky guy who got the lower berth. He looked like a solo traveler too. And doesn’t seem to be the chatty type.
Winding down from the earlier adrenaline rush, my sweat came trickling down. The AC wasn’t that cool yet to help. We heard the whistle and the train slowly moved until it reached its momentum. This is it. In 20 plus hours, I will be back in one of my favorite cities.
The train was almost exactly how it was described by The Man In Seat 61. Comfortable, but showing its age. Cleanliness isn’t top notch. But who am I to complain? This isn’t a luxury train. Soon enough, I knew why this was the last seat to be booked. It’s one of the seats closest to the toilets. Lucky me… not!
With no Wi-Fi since I left my hostel in Georgetown, I revisited my travel plans. I read through all my research on Myanmar and my friend’s advice and finally came up with my 2 week itinerary. Satisfied with my plans, and with my eyes needing a break from reading, I indulged in two of my favorite things to do while on a train: people watching and sightseeing.
Most of the people aboard the train are locals, with only a few foreigners mixed in. My seatmate, who is pretty quiet and also busy with his journal and music, seemed to be Japanese based on his handwriting. The family across us were quite restless, distracting me from the peacefulness of the countryside whizzing past us outside the window.
The allure of train travel
Train rides have that old world charm that always brings out nostalgia and melancholy. It makes you think and feel while watching slices of life from outside the window. Trains are all about the journey and not just the destination.
I was always fascinated with trains that is why I always make it a point to ride it whenever I’m in a new country. I definitely love it more than riding buses. So far, I have tried 3 countries’ train system, all proved to be infinitely better than any train we have back home. High on my list are the Trans-Siberian railway, Old Patagonian Express, and the Eurail.
Unlike plane rides, where the usual vista from the window is the amazing albeit repetitive views of the sky, train rides give you a different view of a certain place or country. An unpolished image that one rarely sees when arriving at the airport.
Stopping at the border
From farmers working in the fields, the scenery changed to various rock formations along the way to Padang Besar. The rattling of the carriage along the tracks lulled me to a light nap and was awoken by the whistle and the stopping of the train.
The stop at the immigration was quick and uneventful. We didn’t even need to have our bags checked. One disadvantage of arriving by land though, is only getting 15 days instead of the usual 30 days when arriving by air. (I’m visa-free btw, thanks, ASEAN)
After a toilet break upstairs, I decided to check out the food sold in the few shops available. Nothing interested my stomach so I went back to the train to wait for my set meal which I purchased earlier from the waiter. I got rice, chicken, vegetables, coffee and a slice of watermelon. Not bad.
It was already dark when we left Padang Besar. Full from the early dinner, I tried my best not to use my phone. This was supposed to be a digital detox. Nowadays, I rarely go off the grid so any chance of doing so, I grab it with both hands. I tried to read some more until the steward started to transform our seats into beds. It was amusing to watch until I have to climb up to my bunk. The lower berth definitely gets more space and it has a window, so get it if you can.
It was only 2030H, too early for sleep and I’m already bored. Without a scenery to watch and people to observe, my self-control slipped. I made use of the time putting my phone to good use. I managed to delete not so good photos and videos, read on my Kindle, and listened to some music until I fell asleep. The music was necessary as my local neighbors still had a lot of energy to talk loudly to each other.
Good morning, Thailand!
Next thing I know, I was woken up by the sound of the family’s grandma berating her grandchild. It seemed like it but I wasn’t sure so I finally opened my curtain. The only semblance of privacy separating my bunk from the rest of the world, oops I mean train.
True enough, the local family was already up and about and have their bunks converted to seats again. They were eating breakfast and I was envious. I forgot to buy at the station and only had biscuits with me. I was craving for something more filling but it would have to wait until Bangkok. It was only 0830, 2 hours before our scheduled arrival in Hua Lamphong station.
Back in the lower berth, I distracted myself by staring off again at the countryside. Leaning into curtains that smelled and looked like they weren’t washed for a long time, I listened to the train’s rhythmic hum on the railroad tracks along with Granny’s incessant yapping. Slowly, the view changed from the rural landscape to the outskirts of Southern Thailand. The train ride was also noticeably bumpier. The rows and rows of slum houses also definitely proved that we were entering through the back door of Thailand.
Unfortunately the train seemed to have slowed down along southern Thailand. By 1030H, we were only in Phetchaburi. Still a long way to go, and my stomach was already staging a revolution. Sometime around noon, we arrive in Hat Yai, where the train seemed to stop for hours (according to my stomach of course).
After 17 stations, we finally arrive in Hua Lamphong around 1345H. Almost 24 hours since Train 36 left for Butterworth.
Also known as Bangkok Railway Station and Krungthep, Hua Lamphong (as it is informally known) is the main railway station of the capital of Thailand. Opened in 1916, it has a high domed ceiling and 14 platforms. The Eastern and Oriental Express, the luxury train that runs from Singapore to Bangkok (with stops in Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth, and Kanchanaburi) also stops here. It is also connected to the underground station (Hua Lamphong) of the MRT. Which then connects to the BTS. And that is exactly how I got to my hostel in Bangkok.
3 trains in one day.
QUICK GUIDE TO TAKING THE INTERNATIONAL EXPRESS 36 (Butterworth – Bangkok)
How to book tickets:
If you’re in Penang Island, you only have to go to the Penang-Butterworth ferry terminal and look for the small KTM office near the jetty. You can book up to 30 days advance.
For other ways to book the tickets and updates, check out seat61’s comprehensive guide.
How to go to Butterworth KTM station:
Take the ferry from Georgetown to Butterworth. It’s always free from this side.
103.90 MYR for the upper berth
111.90 MYR for the lower berth
ETD from Butterworth: 1400H
ETA at Hualamphong Station: 1030H
I recommend staying away from seats 1 – 4 because these are the ones nearest to the toilet, and seats 37 – 40 for they are nearest to the doors.
Food on board:
You can choose to bring all of your own food or buy from the vendors who will come on board especially in Padang Besar station. A restaurant car is attached to the train in Hat Yai and you can choose to eat your meals there. You can also have the option to buy food from the train steward and have it delivered on your seat.
You can check out the variety of set dinner menu here.