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.