Tag Archives: train travel

Detour Ahead: Penang to Bangkok by train

Always enjoying TV series’ that combine travel and cooking in Southeast Asia, Diane and I recently watched an episode of Gordon’s Great Escape, a show featuring famed chef and TV star Gordon Ramsay. Specifically, the episode traveling through Malaysia caught our eye. Compared to the other ASEAN nations he visits in the series, it’s obvious from his comments that Malaysia’s lack of “developing world atmosphere” surprised and even disappointed him. Relative to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it’s true that Malaysia ranks higher in the economic scale and modern western conveniences are more likely to be spotted than small villages still using traditional fishing or farming methods. One of the primary reasons we chose Malaysia, this sometimes creates a good news/bad news situation like the other day when we traveled an hour on the bus intending to buy train tickets to Bangkok for our upcoming Hari Raya Escape Trip.

The "old" Train # 36

The “old” Train # 36

Having traveled on one of Asia’s most convenient overnight sleeper trains that departed Butterworth at 2 PM and arrived in Hua HIn, Thailand at 7 AM the next morning, we looked forward to an inexpensive and not so uncomfortable journey. (Butterworth is across the channel from Penang Island on the mainland). Unfortunately, Malaysia’s economic advantage changed our plans unexpectedly. Bringing the nation closer to Europe’s modern and fast train network, they’ve been upgrading the tracks of Malaysia’s rail system to facilitate new high-speed trains. Originally constructed by colonialists decades ago, all of Southeast Asia’s railway tracks are different from those used for high-speed trains in Europe, China and Japan. Having just completed the last stretch of tracks, KTM (Malaysia’s national rail system) announced revisions to the national trains system last month and began using all high-speed trains throughout the network. While this is great news for commuters, budget minded travelers and Malaysian families visiting relatives during Hari Raya, it also means the end of the one train direct connection to Bangkok that combined the services of the Malaysian Network with the Thai National Railway utilizing a quick 30 minute border stop with no transfers. Crap. On to Plan B.

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Long Train Runnin’

Recently, I commented how Anthony Bourdain’s premier episode of Parts Unknown featuring Myanmar was almost obsolete despite being filmed only three years ago. Luckily (or maybe unluckily depending on your viewpoint), there’s still one thing that not only remains stuck in yesteryear but probably isn’t changing anytime soon. Unlike most Southeast Asian trains, traveling by rail anywhere in Myanmar hasn’t advanced much since prisoners of war built the extensive network way back when. Although not recommended for long distance travel, there’s two great three-hour day trip options giving visitors a sense of the real “developing nation” feel. Commuters, merchants and vendors ride Yangon’s only version of urban rail transport as it meanders its way through rather poor looking subdivisions, garbage strewn decaying brick structures passing as train stations and some agricultural districts lining the area near the airport. Further north, we found mostly backpackers on “The Slow Train from Thazi” which offers a long but scenic option for traveling to the Inle Lake area or simply day tripping from Kalaw like we did. Arriving in Yangon first, we enjoyed the first option as part of our second day’s itinerary.

Ynagon's Central Railway Station

Yangon’s Central Railway Station

Dubbed “The Circular Train“, the 24 mile commuter rail line through Yangon’s suburban districts improved a bit since most guide-book descriptions and now features relatively comfortable trains with fans, (slightly) cushioned seats and fans to ease the heat. Slowly dragging its way from the city’s beautifully classic and antiquated central rail station north to the airport and then back again, it’s an opportunity to see the area, meet some locals and best of all, visit the city’s classic Central Railway Station. Taking a taxi from The Merchant Hotel, our first boutique option that came recommended from the proprietor of a not so luxurious lodge in Kin Pun Village, we paid about 3000 Kyat and arrived at the large dirt parking area that houses the grand colonial Central Railway Station. Like most tourist destinations in Yangon, they charge the taxi a fee to drop off passengers despite the low non-metered fares. Relying on Lonely Planet explanations, we made our way up and over the foot bridge to the ticket counter at platform seven.

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Train 36: The Overnight Express to Thailand

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.

imageAlmost 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.

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Life After Haze

Almost like it never happened, the horrible annual event known as The Haze feels like a distant memory as the skies returned to normal in Penang. Almost magically, the air quality went from crappy to acceptable to excellent in a matter of days. Seemingly like a two month bad dream, monsoon rains in Indonesia finally arrived and doused the memories of stinky disgusting smoke almost as fast as it arrived. Unfortunately, that puts an end to the story for another year and one of the planet’s biggest environmental issues the quietly fades into another statistical anomaly. Knowing nothing will ever change, I was almost hoping it might stay until Christmas and ruin the Westerners annual Christmas vacations in Phuket which would surely garner massive attention in the Western media. Instead, Indonesia apologizes for nothing, remains one of the fastest growing economies on earth, continues to poison 80 million of its citizens and neighbors annually and everyone in the developed world enjoys millions of inexpensive products made from Indonesian sourced palm oil. Oblivious to the problems that seem like third world issues, the effects will surely be felt by future generations that will look back and wonder how their ancestors chose complacency and profits over sustainable agricultural policies. Having suffered through this insanity, I’ve done my small part to share what I can with anyone interested and I offer one last article that’s really worth reading entitled “Indonesia is Burning: So why is the World Looking Away?”. 

Ironically and perhaps even a result of the smoke particles trapped in the air, the skies over Batu Ferringhi for the last two weeks are producing spectacular cloud shows rivaling the best sunsets one could imagine in places like Hawaii or The Caribbean. Seasonal October rain comes almost daily since the haze dissipated but often its overnight, leaving the mornings fresh and clean. Remembering why we chose our condo for its beautiful views despite the level of crappy internet service that recalls the days of dial-up services (look it up, people; it wasn’t that long ago), it’s nice to see the horizon again.

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The Stuff Arrives

Writing my first post from a PC since leaving California six months ago, our 29 boxes of goods finally arrived (barely) about a week ago after a long and arduous journey that began in Walnut Creek, California eight weeks prior. Having been transferred from one container to another and changing vessels in Shanghai and Singapore, our cheaply made U-Haul boxes were so tattered, ripped and moist they practically fell apart when I lifted into them into the elevator. Typical of most things in the USA, good quality has disappeared from moving boxes and has deteriorated to a point where you might as well keep your personal stuff at a relative’s house or storage locker because the flimsy excuse what passes as cardboard is ill-equipped for longshoremen, ocean journeys and tropical environments. Should you want to ship a “less than container load” (LCL) overseas, allow about two months from door to door and perhaps look beyond the local U-Haul store for your boxes.

imageFinancially speaking, it wasn’t all that bad but be aware you pay one fee to the shipping company in your home country and then pay a series of extra fees to local logistics agencies once your shipment arrives. Varying by country, it’s best to research the fees ahead of time to avoid surprises. We used a California-based shipping company that offered pick up service at the storage locker for a few hundred dollars. Charging a minimum fee of $490 for 4 cubic meters and adding on miscellaneous dock, customs and logistics fees, we paid $1,080.00 USD in early September and forgot all about it for the next eight weeks. For those unfamiliar, 4 cubic meters is about 45 standard medium size boxes. Utilizing only about 60% of that with 29 different sized boxes including six mirror/art boxes and the original computer and printer boxes, we suggest documenting the contents of each box carefully on a spreadsheet to ensure compliance with customs regulations. Like everything in Malaysia, they have lots of rules and regulations but your “forwarding agent” always finds a way to bypass everything and get you your stuff quickly. (Ours wanted an extra 50 ringgit on top of his fee claiming he had to buy the customs guy lunch and cigarettes in exchange for only opening one or two boxes for physical inspection).

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For the benefit of anyone interested in shipping personal goods to Malaysia, here’s what to expect. Tracking the last vessel and knowing its estimated arrival date will save time and effort. Receiving very little information, this was difficult due to the trans-shipment changes at each port but basic marine traffic schedules are available online if you know the original vessel. Our “bill of lading” was a minor document with only basic information about the logistics company in Penang and we found out the address and phone number they gave us was two years outdated so check this ahead of time.

Dealing with both a logistics company and a “forwarding agent”, the first agent is responsible for off loading your boxes into a storage locker and ours allowed only four days of free storage before incurring extra fees. Known as Vanguard Logistics Company, the fee was 420 ringgit (about $100 USD). The second and more complicated stage involves the forwarding agent, whose job is to facilitate customs clearance and delivery from the warehouse to your door. (His fee was 1,350 ringgit, about $450 USD). Although ultimately friendly and easy to deal with, they’re almost all of Indian descent and often hard to understand so its best to know the process going in. Although you can use any agent, Malaysia is a country where “knowing a guy” is the norm so the logistics company will probably already assign your shipment to their favorite contact. But they’re more than happy to change to someone else if you’re unhappy with the service or fees. Making much ado about nothing is typical Malaysian business practice so naturally, our forwarding agent insisted on meeting us at the condo to “inspect what’s involved” (meaning gauging how much money we’d be willing to part with for extra services like hauling the stuff upstairs). Learning our condo only allows deliveries until 5 PM, he spent a half hour running through the difficulties of “getting customs to clear this” by the fourth day after off-loading but ultimately the stuff showed up on one of those Malaysian lorries that look like Nicaraguan military junta vehicles. Ask if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to answer if I can.

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Malaysian rules are relatively simple regarding imported personal effects. Claiming they physically inspect every individual CD, video and any other media based artifacts to make sure it complies with local censorship rules, we didn’t include any so it was irrelevant. For all electronics items, you need to note the make, model, serial number, place of manufacture and voltage/wattage. Only computers, printers and peripherals made for sale in the USA are sold with an option for 220 volt usage anyway so this list will probably be short. Finally, items purchased within the last six months are subject to duty fees so we suggest not using any original boxes that look like they might fall in this category. The biggest issue was the flimsy boxes that fell apart and are now thoroughly useless. Realizing that buildings in developing nations use all concrete and no drywall, it’s almost impossible to hang anything without ruining the walls with electric drills so most of our art went into the storage room. Although they do sell ridiculous little hooks with four small nails to pound into concrete, they usually bend into oblivion rendering them useless. Another fun Malaysian issue is how they claim to need “electricians” to upgrade the crappy lighting that most owners install when renting. Usually unskilled workers from neighboring countries, they wanted lots of extra cash to give us ample lighting in our bedrooms so we decided to set up the PC next to the balcony which makes typing more fun than sitting in a dimly lit “computer room”.

So Experimental Expat life continues after the worst two months of haze since 1997. Having wasted almost two months mostly indoors, it’s time to get outta here anyway. Utilizing Airbnb for the first time, we’re off to Thailand next weekend. Splurging for five nights at the Anantaslia, a mid range hotel in the beach town of Hua HIn, we’re travelling by overnight sleeper train on the express voyage known as Train 36 that originates across the strait in Butterworth and hopping off three stops before the train’s destination in Bangkok. Priced at RM 105.90 one way (about $24), it’s a good bargain and we’ve never done that before so it should be fun. Following five nights in Hua Hin, we’re off on a 10 1/2 hour bus ride to Chiang Mai where we’ll stay one week at a suburban three bedroom house and one week near the old city in a one bedroom condo that has a pool and gym. Hopefully the sunshine follows and we’ll be checking out Chiang Mai to see if that’s the next place to live once the inevitable haze season returns. Thanks for following.

Please keep the haze issue alive and share the article above or better yet, boycott a company that carries Indonesian sourced palm oil. 

 

An Indoor Enthusiats Mecca

Revisiting Kuala Lumpur seven weeks after arriving as “fresh off the plane” North American newbies, our perspective was a lot different the second time around. First impressions aside, although we loved the modern flair, food and luxurious five-star hotels at cut-rate prices (by Western standards), the first three-day stay was really just a quick glimpse and a chance to deposit some cash and meet our banking relationship manager. Impressed with how modern the city centre was, second thoughts set in about Penang when we first viewed its rustic environment compared to “the big city”. Fortunately it only took six weeks of island living to realize that KL is the place to be for working expats, especially those with spouses looking for social activities, big city amenities and nightlife. For the rest of us, it’s a smaller version of Singapore where shopping centres and massive office towers dominate the landscape, construction never stops and traffic rivals any big Southeast Asian city (in fact, it almost rivals San Francisco). Basically, it’s where you go when you need some pampering and a few goods unavailable in the laid back island up north.

imageEnjoying the beautiful view of Malaysia’s most iconic landmark from our luxurious room in the Traders Hotel, we settled in and had visions of hitting all the local places we didn’t have time to see the first time. As outdoor lovers, we chose the KL Bird Park as a day trip last time and decided to soak in the big city culture this time. Flipping through the local brochures describing the city’s top ten attractions, it takes minutes to realize the city’s biggest draw is the unspoken national sport: Mall hopping. Notice I didn’t say shopping because Singapore still owns that title. Patronized by a multi-cultural combination of locals and tourists, most of the cash seems to be doled out in the unbelievable multitude of food outlets that come in every size, taste and ethic flavor. Visiting the upper floors of the high-end malls offers a chance to shop prcatically distraction free since nobody seems to be interested in shelling out three month’s salary for a Kate Spade handbag. Mesmerized by the sheer size and volume of retail shopping space crammed into one square mile, Diane and I spent about an hour negotiating the air-conditioned indoor walkways and finally meandered our way to the Pavillion, KL’s answer to Orchard Road. Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue.

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Truckin’ by Train

Proving all good things are worth waiting for, our return to the big city culminated with a full-page color stamp in our passports. Exactly 660 days after the Japanese owned and California based bank “eliminated my position” and then mysteriously hired two less experienced people six months later, Diane and I are officially MM2H visa holders. Bypassing all traditional and secure methods of early retirement, we filed the paperwork from overseas as soon as my 50th birthday arrived. Six short weeks after that we sold our overpriced but very comfortable suburban San Francisco Bay Area house, thereby rendering us homeless. Spending six weeks in Canada and probably overstaying our welcome with friends and relatives, we figured we’d take a chance and get a head start, knowing the visa would take about 10 to 12 weeks until we received our “conditional letter of approval”. Defying conventional wisdom according to dozens of forum posters and even our MM2H agent’s advice, we successfully opened a foreign bank account from overseas, bought a one way plane ticket to Malaysia and headed out the door with two suitcases, an Ipad, an Ipad mini and two old Iphone 4S phones that we’d need to replace and bid farewell to our old life in North America.

imageFast forwarding six weeks later, we’d already been settling in to our awesome condo unit in the beachfront town of Batu Ferrenghi when our agent informed us the approval letter came through less than 10 weeks after filing. Allowing applicants six months to complete the rather tedious process of fees, medical check-up, buying medical insurance and placing two fixed deposits (MYR 100,000 and MYR 50,000), we needed to travel to Kuala Lumpur and ultimately to Putrajaya, the Malaysian government centre before our 90 day tourist visa expired or risk having to re-enter so we hit the road last week. Deciding to use the Malaysian train system instead of flying, we packed a week’s worth of light clothes into a newly purchased medium-sized suitcase, ensuring it would fit in the small overhead compartment of the train and contacted our Uber buddy for an early morning pickup. Penang’s airport is rather far from our house and KLIA, in the nation’s capital, is almost an hour away from the downtown core whereas getting to the train only takes a 20 minute drive to the ferry terminal and a 10 minute ride on Southeast Asia’s oldest continuously operating ferry. Conveniently located right at the other side, Butterworth’s train station allows easy access to trains that journey as far south as Singapore and as far north as Bangkok for about the same price or less than Air Asia.

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