Back in 2013 I travelled to Singapore for a conference and managed to take two weeks off on holiday afterwards. I love trains and decided to travel as far North as I could in two weeks. My journey took me to places that I never knew existed so read on and take part in my adventures. This article is a summary of what I did, and as I publish later articles I will link them back here.
On the first leg of my journey I travelled from Singapore to Bangkok via Johor Bahru and Kota Bahru in Malaysia, crossing into Thailand at Sungai Kolok. The train journey from Singapore to Cambodia is broken into four parts as there are no direct trains. The first leg of the train trip will be very short: you ride the overground from Singapore’s city center to the Malaysian border.
Cost of Backpacking in Southeast Asia
I spent about $600-700 during the two weeks holiday, excluding a return flight from London to Singapore via Paris for £597. During this trip I criss-crossed Malaysia, travelled up and down Thailand and went as far as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I also visited a Thai island called Koh Phayam on the west coast which was one of the most beautiful places I visited during this holiday in Asia.
- Hotel: $40-50/night
- Food: $15-20/day
- Train and Bus Tickets: $100
Crossing Into Malaysia from Singapore
Here you will cross over on foot and either spend the night in a hotel and catch the first train in the morning to Kota Bahru or hope you will catch the evening connection. Kota Bahru is the end of the line called Jungle Railway in the North of Malaysia. It will take you across some beautiful areas and I would say it is well worth the time.
I caught the early morning train so I could see the scenery on my way to Kota Bahru. I spent the next night in Kota Bahru and got up early to catch the night train out of Sungai Kolok the same afternoon. The border crossing into Sungai Kolok is very easy, you just get a taxi to the border and then walk across where they will stamp your passport on both sides.
The train ride from Sungai Kolok to Bangkok takes more than one day on a rickety train. My train was a few hours late so I had plenty of time to spare. I also found out that hotels are much cheaper in Thailand so I should have stayed in Sungai Kolok for the night instead of Kota Bahru.
The Trains in Thailand
Travelling by the train to Bangkok from Sungai Kolok was amazing and even though it was hot outside we had the aircon on all day. There was also a restaurant on board and people were very friendly so I really enjoyed the trip up to Bangkok.
I arrived in Bangkok in the late afternoon at the main railway station. It was a fascinating building with lots of electronic advertisement and the usual hustle and bustle. I booked a hotel room in a nearby cheap place, just in front of the train station as in the morning I had to catch the train to Aranyaprathet early in the morning, practically at dawn.
Crossing the border via Aranyaprathet is a bit tedious as you have to get off the train, walk to cross the border and then get on a minibus the other side to go to Siem Reap. The train journey from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet takes more than four hours through a relatively flat landscape so it is not super exciting to be honest. I bought a ticket for the cheapest class with the wooden benches and no air conditioning which was a bad choice as it was super hot. Anyway, without further ado please scroll down and read about my train trip from Singapore to the Cambodian border!
Singapore’s Diverse Neighbourhoods
Singapore is one of the most tolerant and safest cities in Asia. It is the perfect starting point for any journey if you are a novice traveller in the Far East. It is hot, humid and crowded yet clean and organized. A few days here will help you get used to the climate and the rush of the city. Much of Southeast Asia is super crowded and hot, and you will probably have a jet lag so best to book at least three days here.
Singapore is home to the Chinese, Indians, many Europeans and other regional ethnic groups. This makes for a super diverse place with cuisine from literally all over the world. The first night I ate at a local food market where everything is very cheap. I also ate in Chinatown, the Indian district and the local shopping malls.
Malaysia – Johor Bahru to Kota Bharu by Train
Along the way I saw how palm plantations are destroying the countryside as well as the destruction urbanization causes. Incredibly, there is now only a small patch of virgin rain forest left in the country! Watch the video below to see it for yourself.
Thailand – Sungai Kolok to Bangkok
I slept in Kota Bharu for one night and in the morning I took a taxi to Sungai Kolok. The railway tracks cross the border but there are no international trains, so I had to cross on foot. The train arrived in Kota Bharu in the evening and my train to Bangkok was in the afternoon the next day. Crossing the border was relatively straight forward but it still took almost an hour.
Sungai Kolok is not exactly a tourist draw, but I went for a long walk anyhow. I first bought my train ticket and then went to the market. You can see on the video below what it was like.
The train arrived late so I had time to record how they assembled another one. I booked a sleeping ticket for a 27 hour journey. It turned out that overnight there was an accident and we were further delayed by another four hours. Not that I was in a rush!
Bangkok to Aranyaprathet
I had to change in Bangkok and stayed at a railway hotel overnight. I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me around town, which was quite a lot of fun. The train to the Cambodian border was at the crack of dawn again so I went to bed around 10pm.
I booked the only class that was available: wood seats in a 1960s carriage. It was quite fascinating although very hot and took nearly 6 hours to the border. The tracks again disappeared here so I had to cross to Cambodia on foot. Back in colonial time this was the railway line that went from Singapore all the way to China and they are trying to rebuild it now. On the video you can see some of the newly laid tracks in Malaysia.
Aranyaprathet to Siem Reap
Once I crossed the border into Cambodia I took a minibus to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is where most tourists stay while visiting Angkor Wat. I had an amazing time there, staying in a five star hotel for the first night and then two nights in a B&B run by an English couple.
Siem Reap to Ranong, Thailand
On my way back I booked a minibus ticket to Bangkok direct. Thailand has a very extensive motorway network so it was much faster than by train. I got off at the outskirts of Bangkok and got on the metro train to skip the traffic jams. Even with my little trick I nearly missed the last bus to Ranong.
I got off the Metro in the city centre and paid a motorcycle taxi to shoot me across town to the bus terminal. This I will probably never forget, he criss-crossed between cars, onto the pavement and even into the oncoming traffic – and we made it! Even at breakneck speed and jumping reds it took more than half an hour to get there!
I rushed across the terminal (luckily I researched the layout beforehand) and bought myself a ticket then onto the bus to Ranong!
The Island of Ko Phayam
I got to know an old chap on the bus and he drove me around Ranong as my personal tour guide the next day. The ferry to Ko Phayam only left at 4pm so it was just perfect. Watch this video below to see more of Ranong and Ko Phayam.
Ko Phayam is another tourist trap but luckily only during the peak season and I was there off-peak. That meant that I basically had the island for myself! It was spectacular with nobody else there except for a handful of locals. I rented a motorbike and just enjoyed myself for the next three days.
Khao Sok National Park
When I got back to Ranong on the last ferry of the day it was already raining heavily. I spent the afternoon watching the monsoon and contemplating where next. In no way was I going to Phuket so I just got on the first bus down south towards Krabi. Problem is, the bus broke down just round the corner! They took us back and by then I was so fed up I booked myself into a room instead of going anywhere.
The next morning I got on a bus to Khura Buri, thinking I would change there. I got off and went for a walk around town. It was still pouring down so I went and bought a rain coat and waited by the roadside. Suddenly, out of nowhere a German missionary appeared and we started talking about what to do next. He came up to me because he thought I was someone else but when he figured I was a crazy tourist he invited me for lunch.
During lunch he told me I will be best off going to the Khao Sok National Park which I did after the meal. I stayed with Pitty Pom who is the most amazing host at the most amazing rain forest lodge in the world.
Khao Sok National Park to Kuala Lumpur
After nearly three days in the rain forest I made my way back to Singapore. I got to Kuala Lumpur in the morning at 4am, so I slept on a bench until sunrise. Once the sun came up I spent the day in the city wondering around. In the evening I caught the night train to Johor Bahru where I arrived in the morning. I spent the last day in Singapore and flew back to Europe in the evening.
If you want a different perspective on travelling from Sungai Kolok, read this buddy’s blog post about his trip to Thailand.