Addictive journey of discovery

A train crosses the infamous bridge over the River Kwai in Central Thailand. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
A train crosses the infamous bridge over the River Kwai in Central Thailand. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
Bangkok to Singapore by rail: discover what makes Southeast Asia tick on this epic train trip, a tale of three thrilling countries told over 1900km of track.

The Eastern & Oriental Express

Southeast Asia’s most luxurious train whisks passengers from Singapore to Bangkok in four lavish days, but you’ll need a Gordon Gekko-sized budget to board it. Fortunately, there is also a low-cost way to zip along the Malay Peninsula by rail, and it delivers a deep dive into the region’s rich cultural melting pot as part of the package.

Choosing a seat on a Thai train.
Choosing a seat on a Thai train.
Travelling on ordinary passenger trains between Bangkok and Singapore, you’ll mingle with people from every walk of life — monks heading to monasteries, students on college breaks, city families travelling for up-country reunions — while villages zip by in a blur of temple spires and minarets. It’s a crash course in the cultures and customs of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. OK, luxuries are limited compared to the Eastern & Oriental, but you’ll appreciate every magnificent mile. In place of Champagne and silver service, you’ll be unwrapping banana-leaf packages of nasi lemak (Malay coconut rice) and drinking fizzy Kickapoo Joy Juice as a rainbow-coloured tableau of Southeast Asian life unfolds outside the windows. Expect priceless memories, for a ticket price of under $US100 ($NZ160).


The trip

Distance: 1900km. Mode of transport: Train. Difficulty: Moderate.

1 Wat Pho, Bangkok: Say goodbye to Bangkok with a relaxing rub-down at the spiritual home of Thai massage;

2 Hua Hin, Thailand: Pause the journey south for sea, sand and seafood in the country’s oldest resort;

3 George Town, Penang: An almost mandatory stop for fabulous Malaysian food, terrific temples and time-travel street scenes;

4 Ipoh Old Town: Gorge on history (and beansprout chicken) in this foodie former mining town in northwest Malaysia;

5 Kuala Lumpur: Globetrotting menus and skyscraping towers define Malaysia’s futuristic capital.


Let the journey be the destination

A train running in a tree tunnel on the railway in Bangkok.
A train running in a tree tunnel on the railway in Bangkok.
If you make the trip without stopping, it’s possible to travel from Bangkok to Singapore in just 48 hours, but it’s much more fun to break the trip repeatedly along the way, in the style of a 19th-century adventurer, filling your scrapbook with photos and ticket stubs and the pages of your journal with first-time travel experiences. Connecting trains on the Thai and Malay rail networks provide easy access to a string of historic cities, as well as junction towns for ferries to offshore islands. Spread the journey over a week, and you’ll have time to bask on tropical beaches and feast in some of Asia’s most famous foodie hubs, ticking off three fascinating capitals in the process. The easiest start point for the journey is boisterous Bangkok, where Buddhist monks meditate in gilded cloisters just yards from the 24-hour street party that is the Khao San Rd. Hit the nearest 7-Eleven for some travel essentials — drinking water, anti-bac hand gel, perhaps some Kopiko coffee candies and larb-flavoured Pocky pretzels — then it’s all aboard for adventure.

Know the peninsula through its people

A rice farmer in rural Thailand.
A rice farmer in rural Thailand.
With 17 hours of travel time between Bangkok and the Malaysian border, it’s tempting to cocoon yourself in airconditioned comfort in first or second class, but that means cutting yourself off from the country you’re travelling through. Split the journey into daytime stages in fan-cooled third class and you’ll feel Thai culture swirl around you like a wave. Sure, it’s crowded, but third-class travel comes with perks such as windows that open for easy photo opportunities and through-the-windows access to the delectable street food hawked on station platforms. You’ll also be a novelty to your fellow passengers — something highly conducive to conversation. You may find yourself chatting away the hours with hijab-wearing Malay university students heading home for the holidays, or debating world politics with gregarious Bangkok workers visiting relatives in the steamy south. In the process, you’ll start to piece together the complex cultural geography of the peninsula. As the train trundles south, there’s a tangible shift as Thai Buddhism gives way to Malay Islam. Headscarves become more common, and mosques replace the gilded Buddhist monasteries in the villages beside the tracks. At the same time, a subtle Indian and Chinese influence creeps into the cuisine and culture — look out for Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and Chinese clan houses flashing past your window.

Muse away the miles to the border

A diver swims off Koh Tao island in the Gulf of Thailand.
A diver swims off Koh Tao island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Deciding where to break the journey south is a matter of personal taste. You could jump out at Hua Hin after four and a-half hours for a seafood supper and a day on the sand. You could pause at Chumphon for a scuba-diving detour to Ko Tao. You could leap out at Surat Thani and kick back on the party beaches of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan. Alternatively, you could push straight on through to Padang Besar and settle in for some serious thinking time. With 1900km to cover, you’ll have ample opportunity to mull over where you are on the map, where you came from, and where you are going on life’s winding path. Put down the smartphone and tune into your inner monologue. As the palms and rice paddies slide by, you may find yourself wondering where life is heading, and how you feel about the ultimate destination. If you’re at one of life’s junctions, don’t be surprised if you end up changing your onward flight at the end of the trip — this kind of thoughtful travel can be addictively moreish.

Follow your tastebuds through Malaysia

At Padang Besar, you’ll complete customs formalities and change over to the Malaysian rail network, starting with the Komuter train to Butterworth. Over the next few hours, there’ll be several chances to hop off the train and buzz over to the gorgeous, sand-circled island of Langkawi. Alternatively, save the island-hopping for Penang. Fast passenger ferries zip from Butterworth to George Town, where you can gorge on bowls of laksa (spicy noodle soup), penny-priced roti canai (buttery flatbread with spicy dipping sauces) and kari kapitan, Malaysia’s signature Indian-influenced curry. If you can tear yourself away from Penang’s treats and temples, more culinary education awaits two hours south in languid Ipoh, a former hub for tin miners and 18th-century gangsters, with a historic Old Town. Here, Chinese flavours dominate — head to the junction of Jalan Dato Tahwil Azar and Jalan Yau Tet Shin to sample the town’s best tauge ayam, steamed chicken and rice with seasoned beansprouts. Electrified ETS trains roll on to the historic train station in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, where you can chow down on claypot chicken in Chinatown, graze on Malay curries with a view of the skyscrapers in Kampung Baru, or take a tasting tour around the Indian subcontinent in Brickfields. By the end of your trip, your mental map of Malaysia will be marked with main courses rather than monuments. The final leg to Singapore is more complicated than it should be. First comes a seven-hour train ride to the border town of Johor Bahru, with an inconvenient change in Gemas. Then you can finally cross the causeway to Singapore — a convoluted process by train, but an easy hop by taxi or bus via the Woodlands Mass Rapid Transit station. Phew! After a journey of ample thinking time, cultural immersion and fabulous food, bookend the trip with a slap-up dinner at Michelin-starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Kallang, or feast on treats from across the peninsula in the teeming Chinatown Complex. If you didn’t know the Malay Peninsula before you started, you certainly do now.

Satay, Malaysian and Indonesian street food.
Satay, Malaysian and Indonesian street food.

Tastes of the peninsula

The Malay Peninsula is one of the world’s great culinary melting pots, but this festival of flavours didn’t come about overnight. Early traders from India, China and the Middle East brought in most of the spices used in Thai and Malay cooking, but the Portuguese provided the humble chilli, pushing every dish sharply up the Scoville scale. Before European colonialism, the peppercorn was king, imported from India along with the word curry, a corruption of the Tamil word kari, meaning spiced sauce. The British had a more circuitous impact. To serve the empire’s insatiable appetite for trade, labourers, tea-pickers and mine workers were brought in from India and southern China, adding new layers of complexity to the local cuisine and cementing teh tarik (pulled tea) as the national drink. Dining out on the peninsula today is a sampling menu of flavours from across Asia. Bring an appetite!


Region: Thailand/Malaysia/Singapore

Start: Bangkok, Thailand

Finish: Singapore

Getting there and back: Many airlines linking Europe and Australia fly to Bangkok and Singapore, so you can book an open-jaw ticket and cover the distance between these two megacities by rail. For a greener alternative, trains and buses connect Bangkok to cities across Southeast Asia; ferries fan out from Singapore to Indonesia’s islands.

When to go: The optimum time to travel varies, depending on where you plan to break the journey. For stops on the Andaman Coast, the driest months are from November to February. For destinations on the Gulf Coast, the dry months are from February to April.

What to take: As for any long-distance rail journey, youll benefit from a travel pillow, ear plugs and, for instant privacy, a music player with earphones.

Where to stay: If you’re riding straight through from Bangkok to Padang Besar, consider a sleeper berth (you’ll get less cultural immersion but more comfort). Otherwise, ride the rails by day and sleep in hostels, beach cabins or hotels wherever you stop for the night. Bookings are recommended during the busier dry months.

Where to eat and drink: Thai and Malaysian trains have dining cars for sleeper-class passengers; in third class, hawkers wander the carriages and station platforms selling portable meals such as fried chicken with sticky rice.

Essential things to know: Book train tickets through 12GoAsia (, State Railway of Thailand ( or Malaysian operator KTM ( Reserve ahead for sleepers; for short third-class trips, buy tickets at the station on the day. Keep your passport handy for border checks at Padang Besar and on the Singapore causeway.

The book

Your Trip Starts Here by Lonely Planet, RRP $44.99.