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Travel: making tracks across South-East Asia

Explore Thailand and Malaysia by train, watching the landscape change as you converse with fellow travellers

A train crossing Tha Chomphu Bridge in Lamphun Province, in Thailand.
A train crossing Tha Chomphu Bridge in Lamphun Province, in Thailand. (Istockphoto)

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It was a sultry afternoon outside, with clouds closing in from the south. I was cosily watching the world go by in my air-conditioned train compartment, occasionally exchanging smiles with the passenger on the seat opposite. It was only a couple of hours after the train had pulled out from Bangkok that we felt comfortable enough to speak: I found out that Laura, like me, was headed to Chiang Mai, in the mountains of northern Thailand.

There’s a certain romance about train travel, and, as the journey progressed and Laura, who was from Japan, and I chatted on, ate a sparse dinner and split a beer, my love for it was reaffirmed. Trains aren’t fast but their promise of slow travel allows you to meet people and see places in a way no other mode of travel can match.

Rail tracks run right from northern Thailand all the way down to Malaysia, and that was reason enough for me to undertake an overland trip from Chiang Mai to Singapore. The advantage of taking the train is that you can rest, catch up on your reading, enjoy a meal or two, and just generally slow down. I love to watch cities, towns, landscapes, stations whiz by; I love it when I doze off and find out on waking that the landscape has changed completely. And no matter how much I fight it, the rocking motion and rhythmic beat of a train never fails to cajole me to sleep.

As with all travel from India to Thailand, my first stop was the bustling megacity of Bangkok. Despite its merited notoriety as the Sin City of Asia, it remains one of the best food, drinks, shopping and cultural destinations in the region. Of all the possible experiences there, my favourite two were an evening at the Iron Balls Distillery & Bar in Sukhumvit, which makes its own engineered gin, and a sunset cruise on the Chao Phraya river.

Traditional food from northern Thailand.
Traditional food from northern Thailand. (Istockphoto)

The trains to Chiang Mai depart from Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s main train station, which is well connected by the local Metro network. Between 8.30am-10pm, there are about five trains to Chiang Mai. The fastest takes 11 hours and the slowest, about 14 hours. I took the latter. The train passes through Bangkok’s busy markets before heading out into a countryside of green paddy. Along the way, it skirts past Lopburi, where macaques roam the ancient temple ruins. Once the sun set, Laura and I chatted late into the evening over beers from the train pantry. In the darkness, it was impossible to see the mountains outside but I realised we were climbing as the train had slowed significantly.

It deposited us in Chiang Mai just before 5am and Laura and I waited at the station for dawn to break before taking a taxi into town. Once she left for Myanmar that evening after a few farewell drinks, I began exploring Chiang Mai over the next few days. The biggest draw is the old city and its numerous temples, and the night markets. The biggest is just outside the old city wall but there are some smaller ones inside as well.

The night market is crowded, bubbling with energy and happiness. Losing your friends is a real possibility here, and I lost a couple of people I had gone to the market with, only meeting them back at the hotel the next morning. The night market not only sells clothes, trinkets and artwork, it also offers an excellent selection of local cuisine: from delicious fruits to ice creams and desserts.

Since it’s a mountainous region, Chiang Mai is perfect for hikes and mountain biking. I chose mountain biking but given the number of times I had to dismount from my bike because of the steep trails, it’s best to stick to beginner routes unless you have prior training.

The Wat Mahathat temple at the Sukhothai Historical Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, in Thailand.
The Wat Mahathat temple at the Sukhothai Historical Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, in Thailand. (Istockphoto)

After five days spent exploring Chiang Mai, I took a faster train back to Bangkok, before boarding another overnight train to Surat Thani, in southern Thailand. A second AC sleeper, like my first ride, this is a faster train that leaves Hua Lamphong at 7.30pm and reaches Surat Thani around 7am. Surat Thani is an excellent place to go island-hopping; you could also pick between Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. I didn’t make it to Koh Samui but I did visit Koh Phangan, which is famous for its monthly Full Moon Parties. There are also “secret” parties every weekend as well as a Half Moon Party every half moon, so no matter when you get there, you probably won’t miss out on one. It is a big island with excellent beaches, popular with digital nomads owing to the good internet, great food and cafés, and plenty of options to let one’s hair down.

You could head straight back to Surat Thani and take a midnight train to Malaysia or stop at Koh Tao, which is probably my favourite spot in Thailand. It is much more relaxed, though it has enough beaches and activities, and there’s more to life there than raves and parties. I spotted monitor lizards and small, slim grass snakes on my walks around the hotel and the fact that the staff weren’t surprised by these sightings was proof that they coexisted happily with the local wildlife. I loved the vibe, even though it is a lot smaller and a tad bit more expensive than Koh Phangan. There was also a café serving “happy” smoothies and “happy” brownies. I would rather let you guess what was so “happy” about them.

Instead of the two days I had initially planned to spend at Koh Tao, I ended up staying a full week, until my visa had nearly run out. Then I quickly hopped on to a boat and a bus that took me back to the Surat Thani train station, where I boarded a train to Padang Besar in Malaysia. The Padang Besar train station was where I crossed a land border for the first time: There was a customs checkpoint right in the middle of the station.

Koh Tao, Thailand.
Koh Tao, Thailand. (Istockphoto)

The queues were much shorter than at any airport, though, and the best part was that the connecting trains to Kuala Lumpur could be boarded on the other side of the platform, just beyond the customs office. It should have been a straightforward process but I guess the officials weren’t used to Indian travellers using the land border. They took their time to verify my visa, stamping my passport and waving me through after a few questions.

It’s a straightforward journey from Padang Besar to Kuala Lumpur. There are five trains that run through the day; the journey takes about six hours. But I decided to take a detour to Georgetown, in Penang, and the Cameron Highlands before making my way to Kuala Lumpur. I exchanged the last of my Thai money for the Malaysian rupiah at one of the money-changers at the station and bought a train ticket to Butterworth (and, from there, a ferry to Georgetown) from the counter, which only accepts the local currency.

While Kuala Lumpur is a big city with terrible rush-hour traffic jams, it has some great destinations, like the Batu Caves nearby. It is also a decent shopping destination and has a really unique old town which is full of great eateries, bars and street markets.

I wanted to take a train all the way to Singapore but there isn’t one. I had to make do with a bus since I was really adamant about overlanding it all the way to the southern-most state of the South-East Asian peninsula. The drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore took seven hours. Although it should take just about four hours on paper, the bus had to negotiate city traffic before picking up passengers at various places, including Johor Bahru, the town bordering Singapore, where many of the people who work in Singapore live because the cost of living is lower.

The Koh Nang Yuan island at sunset, in Thailand.
The Koh Nang Yuan island at sunset, in Thailand. (Istockphoto)

The Malaysia-Singapore border crossing took a little over an hour, since Singapore customs officials stamp your passport and check your baggage, as they would at an airport. The queues can be rather long, depending on the time of day, because many daily commuters, buses and containers pass through. Again, the Singapore land border customs didn’t seem to have too much experience of Indian travellers using the land border. I had to open my bags to satisfy them. Once on the other side, it was smooth sailing to the bus stop in Singapore.

After a month in Thailand and Malaysia, Singapore felt like a whole new world. But it literally came at a price, given that it’s an expensive city. Once I was done being a good tourist and visiting Sentosa, Universal Studios, the Singapore Flyer, and getting a drink at the Marina Bay Sands, I turned to the hawker centres, where the locals eat. I also went for a run, and tried my hand at water sports at the East Coast Park. After gawking at Jewel, that astounding indoor garden Singapore has created in the heart of a gigantic shopping mall across the airport, I boarded the flight for home. I wished I could have taken a train back to India.

HOW TO GO: There are plenty of direct flights to Bangkok from every major Indian city. Several airlines, including Thai Airways, Vistara, Indigo, Air Asia, Go First and SpiceJet, service this route.

AN OVERLAND TRAIN ITINERARY: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Surat Thani (by boat to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao), Padang Besar (cross the Malaysian border), take a train to Butterworth. From there, take a ferry to Georgetown in Penang. Bus to the Cameron Highlands. Bus to Kuala Lumpur. Bus to Singapore.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and an editor and the co-author of  The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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