Realizing you’re never too to learn something new, Diane and I hopped on the ferry in Penang and headed to the Butterworth train station to experience a slower but more economical way to get from point A to point B. Having read countless travel essays and narratives speaking about an author’s love affair with train travel, we were anxious to see what makes it so great. Stereotyping train passengers as younger generation hippies and strange characters living on shoestring budgets, the waiting room in Butterworth seemed like a far cry from my ridiculous hypothesis of the train crowd with some Chinese families, a few backpackers of all ages and various other normal looking folks (no Malaysians were heading to Thailand, however which I find curious. Although right next door, the two countries are as a different as Christianity and Islam). Accustomed to perfect on-time service provided by KTM, Malaysia’s national train service, it surprised me when the train didn’t pull in until twelve minutes before the scheduled 2 PM departure but sure enough it lurched forward exactly on time before anyone had even settled into their seats. Keeping the rather surprisingly Malaysian efficiency record in tact (at least when it comes to trains), the two car Thai National Railway they call Train 36 sent us on our way. Headed for Hua Hin, four hours closer than Bangkok, the scheduled arrival time was 6:30 AM which usually means somewhere between 7 and whenever it gets there.
Almost too conveniently, travel from Penang to Bangkok is affordable, comfortable enough and provided daily in a collaboration between the Malaysian and Thai national rail systems. Often benefitting those who have no Thai Bhat on hand, they even let you buy the ticket up to 30 days in advance and pay in Malaysian ringgit at the little dinky KTM office on the jetty in Penang. Amazingly priced at 105 ringgit for a one way ticket (about $22 USD), we saved a few bucks since we had no Thai Bhat and Malaysian banks send you to the local Indian money changer when you need foreign currency. Much less luxurious than the Malaysian KTM express trains that travel between Penang and Kuala Lumpur, there’s only a second class sleeper option when you leave from Penang. Starting with two small Korean made trains manufactured in 1996, they add a dining car and some first class trains after the border crossing at Padang Bassar. Sporting the Purple and yellow Thai colors, the trains have 24 double seat berths that face each other and convert into lower and upper sleeping compartments. Following the advice of others, we paid a few ringgit more for the lower berths and I’ll admit that’s probably the smart option unless you’re incredibly cash strapped.
Although the train was far from sold out, many others followed suit and purchased the middle seats to avoid toilet traffic and broken sleep due to those pesky early morning stops in small Thai stations. Arriving at our seats, we met our seat-mates, two young Swedish sisters and of course I immediately engaged in long conversations designed to understand this generation that travels at will, works sporadically at best and somehow lives a life of adventure and fun while avoiding the thirty year requirement of cubicle duty that they taught all of us North Americans from the 70s and 80s. Having spent a year in Australia, the girls were on their way to Thailand and Burma, eventually returning home for the holidays where they claimed they’d “spend no money”‘ and were then heading out again to The Philippines and India. Taking an immediate liking to them, I thoroughly envied them and enjoyed listening to their already amazing life, but I didn’t really comprehend how people afford this lifestyle even if they use trains and buses for most travel. In their defense, their parents moved around a lot and I’ve learned that those educated in International schools are usually very worldly, making world travel easier than those of us taught that the USA is the only place on earth worth living in.
Joining in the conversation, the guys from the next seats down were two friendly Australians (is there such a thing as an unfriendly Aussie?). Before you knew it they were sharing their beers, cheese and crackers from New Zealand and anything else they had although it probably had more to do with attractive young girls than Canadian/American early retirees. Passing the time quickly, we began to see why train travel has its charm. Tending to be a more social environment than air travel, there’s something about being together with strangers in a more comfortable seating environment than an airplane that breeds familiarity and begs for stimulating conversation. Even the Chinese family in the next seats smiled and made small pleasantries. Observing limited space for luggage on Train 36, we all worked together until everyone’s baggage eventually squeezed either below the seats or on the very small overhead compartment. (As noted earlier, Train 36 is not luxurious and has just enough space for travelers but no luggage storage facilities in the undercarriage).
Before we knew it, the scenery began to change from rather boring Malaysian nothingness to lush agricultural fields and we knew the border crossing was approaching. Nobody knew the procedure and the Thai speaking crew was no help other than pointing us towards the small immigration office at Padnag Besar, the last stop in Malaysia, and telling us “no luggage, same train”. Exiting the train slowly, we joined a small queue on the Malaysian side, received an exit stamp in our passports and turned around to wait our turn at the one person Thai immigration office. Taking not more than 15 or 20 minutes for everyone on the train to pass through, Diane and I each received a 30 day stamp which I’d thought was standard for Americans and Canadians. Unfortunately, our Swedish friends couldn’t convince the immigration guy to allow more than 14 days despite their argument that they’d received a month last time. Leaving them two days short, they borrowed our iPhone that still had service about an hour into Thailand and made some changes to their itinerary. Ah, the travails and troubles of twenty something world travelers.
Knowing Thailand constantly changes immigration rules, after we re-boarded, another conversation started with a spunky Guatemalan born Canadian girl who told us she was kicked out of high schools in several places for being unruly. Informing us the rules changed effective today, she claimed Thailand is cracking down and is now only permitting two weeks tourist travel for all land crossings although someone obviously forgot to tell the guy burly Thai guy who gave us a 30 day stamp. Telling us they’ve now eliminated multiple entry stamps and changed the visa rules again to something I did put really pick up on, she said everyone travelling by train or car to Thailand’s borders now needs to apply for a visa and that there’s a Thai consulate office in Georgetown where it’s easy and allows you to bypass filing from your home country. Reminding myself to check this story later for future reference, we took her business card and glanced at the dinner menu they hand everyone once the train enters Thailand.
Offering three set menus, a vegetarian meal and tom yum soup, Diane opted for the chicken with jasmine rice and I went for the soup. Although it’s possible to eat in the dining car, the trains are narrow and it’s easier for them bring you the meal. Setting up a wooden table that’s stored underneath the seat, it looks more like you’re ready for a game of poker than dinner but it works well enough and we enjoyed the average but decent dinner that didn’t cost very much. Bringing an enormous economic watermelon to everyone, the Aussies offered theirs to our Swedish friends who chose not to pay for dinner. Diane and I finished our meals and went back to conversation while enjoying the scenery that starts to look more like Thailand once you leave the immigration office and cross the border.
Not long after leaving Malaysia, an elderly and chubby Indian guy that was in the seats across from the Aussies wanted to sleep already so he called over the Thai train attendant who began transforming two seats into an upper and lower sleeping bunk. Equally fascinated, it seems we weren’t the only ones who’d never seen this done on a train before and we all watched while he put sheets across the seat cushions, hung curtains for privacy and tossed pillows and a blanket on the upper and lower berths. With no rhyme or reason he then began transforming other seats up and down our train, skipping the side that I’d sleep on because the girls apparently didn’t look ready to sleep yet. Mind you it was only about 8:30 PM but everyone seemed OK with transforming the seats into sleeping compartments. By 9 PM, the train attendant transformed every seat on our train and most conversations ended. Clearly not a party train, it’s a great way to travel for our us because my bar hopping activity these days usually means beer or two and sleep by 11 most nights.
Once converted, the girls hopped on their top bunks and Diane and I each settled into our lower berths. With enough space to stretch out for most average size Asian men (and me), I was able to sleep in a fully reclined position with normal pillows that were reasonably comfortable. The curtains give plenty of warmth from the air conditioning when pulled closed and there’s a small light suitable for reading inside. Before I realized it I was snoozing and thought I heard the girls get up around midnight but I was apparently too tired to react. Learning the next morning they got off at a stop somewhere far from our destination, I was sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye but of course Diane was still awake anyway and managed to get their names so we can friend them and follow their lives in Facebook (and vice versa of course).
As for “amenities” there are two bathrooms, one squat and one western style that are much older and dirtier than the Malaysian trains but they do have toilet paper and they’re good enough for me to pee and perhaps poop, although I can’t speak for women. For brushing your teeth, there’s two sinks at the back with soap but no towels. Feeling like an old clunky train, your body shifts as they make sharp turns all night and they often travel over sections that feel like the train is jumping the tracks continuously but the time slips away fast enough and I’d say I probably slept an hour or two more than trains-continental overnight airline flights.
After about eight hours, our Chinese neighbors awoke and typical of most Chinese people, began folding things neatly, even converting the beds back to seat coaches voluntarily. Gaining an hour, my iPhone knew the time difference and it seemed strange to see daylight peeking in at 6 AM, an hour earlier than Malaysian sunrises. Carefully putting in a new pair of contacts and quickly freshening up, I realized Hua hin was less than an hour away although I had no idea if they’d be on time or not so I woke Diane and we passed away the last hour on Train 36 enjoying the lush greenery of the most northern section of the Thai peninsula. Passing lots of modern housing developments, it looked like an upscale section of the country and sure enough the train attendant came through and told us all that Hua Hin was coming up shortly. Gathering your belongings quickly is essential when traveling anywhere that’s not the last stop as they rarely announce anything and don’t tell you how or where to get off the train. Exiting the narrow little doorway, we stepped off and admired the beautifully antique but quaint rain station at Hua Hin and easily found our driver from the Anantasila Villas by the Sea waiting to pick us up.
Arriving in Hua Hin at 7:05 local time, the train was less than an hour late, apparently a good day according to Thai railway standards but totally contrary to the Malaysian on-time obsession, usually within two minutes of the announced schedule. Noticing the first difference between Penang and Hua Hin, the streets were already packed full of locals with most food stalls already open for business and people mulling around all over the place despite the ungodly hour (by Malaysian standards). Having lived in Penang for four months, both of us marveled at the larger and more luxurious scooters and motorcycles that actually obey traffic rules (at least in this town anyway). Stopping at the 7 Eleven to look for a SIM card, however, reminded us that many Thai people not engaged in tourism don’t speak English very well so we decided to visit the phone store in a few days.
Arriving at one of the nicest and most accommodating hotels we’ve stayed at in 15 years, I can’t speak highly enough about the staff at the Anantasila Villas in the southern part of Hua Hin who made us feel very welcome and even assigned us a temporary room while until check in time. Using this as our first “vacation” since early retirement for a few days of pampering, we’ve enjoyed this town so much we added it to the list of possibilities for our next address after our two-year lease in Penang expires. Summarizing our experience, we both highly endorse traveling from Penang to Southern Thailand by train and will absolutely do it again especially at the rock bottom price of less than one piece of checked baggage on any airline. Four stars out of five for Train 36.
Next: the best undiscovered elephant experience in Thailand (it doesn’t involve riding, bathing or feeding the; rather, it’s viewing them in the wild as they should be)