Not too long ago, I travelled from Malaysia to Thailand by train, as part of my epic journey overland from Singapore to Vietnam. It was an incredible experience – and one that can easily be repeated. So if you’re travelling through SE Asia overland, this is the post for you!
I took the Penang to Bangkok train, travelling overnight. Waking up on board a moving train in time to watch the sunrise flickering through the palm trees, its light shimmering across on glassy lakes dotted with snowy white egrets and colourful water lilies… the experience is one I won’t forget in a hurry!
That’s not to say it wasn’t without its difficulties. Taking a sleeper train in Thailand is certainly not the most comfortable affair. And organising it was a little challenging. To help, I’ve put together this post containing everything you need to know about taking the train from Malaysia to Thailand. If you have any questions that I don’t cover in this blog post, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try to help out!
1. Malaysia to Bangkok by Train: The Route
1.1 Penang to Padang Pesar
1.2 Penang to Bangkok Train Border Crossing
1.3 Padang Besar to Bangkok Sleeper Train
2. How to Book
3. What is the Malaysia to Thailand Train Like?
4. Sleeper Train Thailand – Tips and Advice
5. Things to Pack
6. Do You Need a Visa
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. I’ll make a small commission if you book anything through one of my trusted partners, without affecting the price you pay at all.
Travelling from Malaysia to Thailand by train is fairly straightforward. But it’s unlikely you’ll be starting from anywhere near the border, so you’ll have to get there first.
If you want to head from Kuala Lumpur or Penang to Bangkok by train, you actually need to take two trains. First, a train to the border, and then the overnight sleeper train across Thailand to Bangkok.
Step One – Head to Butterworth Station in Penang. If you’re coming from Penang Island, you can take the ferry from Georgetown to Butterworth. From the ferry terminal, there’s a free shuttle bus which will take you directly to Butterworth Station (about a five minute drive away).
Step Two – Take the Train from Butterworth Station to Padang Besar. This is right on the border with Thailand and about 2 hours from Butterworth.
If you’re starting from Kuala Lumpur and skipping Penang (which I do not recommend, as the island is lovely), then you simply hop on a direct train from KL Sentral to Padang Besar. It takes 5.5 – 6 hours.
Step Three – Cross the border within Padang Besar station.
Step Four – Take the sleeper train from Padang Besar to Bangkok. It takes 17 hours and arrives into Hua Lamphong station in central Bangkok at 10am.
If you’re starting out from Georgetown on Penang Island, like me, then you’ll need to take the ferry back across to Butterworth and take the free shuttle bus back to the station.
Aim to take the 2:25pm train from Butterworth to Padang Besar, which is about two hours north on the border with Thailand. That should get you to the border station with plenty of time to spare for customs etc before the evening overnight train.
Of course, train times in Malaysia might vary – and you can’t book the Butterworth to Padang Besar train in advance. So be sure to take note of the schedule when you arrive in Butterworth, BEFORE heading off to the island.
The train from Butterworth to Padang Besar takes around two hours and is a commuter train, so it looks more like a metro. Be warned: there are no toilets on board!
1.1 Alternative – Kuala Lumpur to Padang Besar
If you’re skipping Penang (don’t – it’s lovely!) you can go straight to the border from Kuala Lumpur.
Head to KL Sentral Station and board the direct train to Padang Besar. There’s one that leaves at 10:01 and arrives at 15:55, which should be plenty of time to catch the sleeper train, assuming there are no delays.
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There’s not really a physical border in Padang Besar station so it’s easy to slip up here. But if you enter Thailand without your passport stamp and visa, it will cause problems when you try to leave. You could even get a hefty fine. So be sure to pass through customs correctly.
You have to go through the Malaysia exit customs first, which are towards the southern end of the platform. They are signposted, but it’s not super clear – ask someone if you get lost. Pass through and get your exit stamp, then walk up the platform and join the queue for the Thai immigration to get your entry stamp. Then it’s just a case of waiting for the sleeper train to Bangkok to arrive!
If you slip up, don’t worry. I’d heard that the border staff were all super strict, and would close down bang on 4:30pm regardless if there was still a queue or not. In my experience, this was not true. They stayed open until all passengers were through immigration.
I accidentally went to the Thai entry immigration queue first, and when they realised my mistake they were very nice about it. Although the official who stamped me in also felt the need to staple my immigration form into my passport, as he clearly didn’t trust me!
There’s a daily overnight train from Malaysia to Thailand, which departs Pedang Besar at 5pm local time. Your tickets will say 6pm, but that’s Thai time. If you’re in Malaysia you need to arrive at Padang Besar station in time for a 5pm departure. Super confusing!
The Padang Besar to Bangkok train takes 17 hours, and arrives into Hua Lamphong station in the centre of Bangkok at around 10am.
It’s a good idea to book the trains in South East Asia as far in advance as you can. Popular routes and times can get booked up pretty far in advance. In fact, one week before my trip, some of the journeys I was trying to book were already sold out. Then again, if you can be flexible on dates and timings, you’ll probably be OK booking a few days before.
The easiest way to book your the Penang to Bangkok train is online. I used the following two websites to book all my journeys and found them to be incredibly reliable, and easy to use:
Baolau – easy to use, and often the slightly cheaper option.
12-Go Asia – usually more options in the results – but the prices were sometimes a fraction higher.
Butterworth to Padang Besar – you can’t book this train online or in advance, so arrive with plenty of time to buy a ticket at Butterworth Station.
The sleeper train in Thailand was a pretty old, clanky affair. A hulking diesel train that juddered and vibrated constantly. It felt like the stuff of proper adventures! The interior was basic, but perfectly comfortable.
During the day, the train has seats arranged in groups of four on either side of the aisle. The seats themselves are straight-backed benches with leather padding, so they’re quite roomy and you can have your stuff on the seat next to you. Each seat faces another one, and the two across the aisle face each other as well, creating a group of four. Seats are preassigned so you have to find the right number in your carriage, but it’s easy enough.
There’s room to store luggage under the seats, although some people with really big cases couldn’t fit theirs and had to leave them in the aisle.
There are a couple of plug sockets in each carriage, so if you need to charge a phone you could do so. These were all full for most of the journey though.
There was A/C as well as a couple of fans. The temperature on board was a bit chilly but not freezing – come prepared with layers just in case.
At night, the train staff will convert the seats into bunk beds, with curtains for privacy. Unlike the overnight trains I’ve taken in some other countries, the beds on the sleeper train in Thailand lie along the train instead of across it. Sleeping in the direction of travel felt more comfortable and seemed to rock less.
The lights don’t switch off at night, and the curtains don’t block out much light. So bring an eye mask1 You get given clean bedding that comes in sealed plastic bags, but I popped my scarf over the pillow anyway, just to be sure.
Upper bunks are slightly skinnier and you can’t sit up in them. But I didn’t mind my upper berth too much – and it was nice to feel like I was up above the foot traffic going up and down the aisle. The uppers also have no window, which might be better for sleeping. Although it’s a shame to miss the sunrise.
A trolley service sold food on board – 160 bhat for a set meal. If you buy one they pop up a little wooden table between the seats so you can dine!
Hawkers get on at the stations with food too including chicken and rice, and bags of fruit.
So what are the toilets like on a sleeper train in Thailand? An important question, since in the 17 hours that you’ll be on board you’re probably going to have to use them at least once!
I’m happy to report that the loo situation on board the Malaysia to Thailand train was pretty OK. Not the most luxurious bathroom experience I’ve had in my life, but far from being the worst! The cubicle was small and kind of smelly, but it was OK as long as you tried not to touch anything.
It was a standard Western toilet (not a squat). There was toilet roll which – surprisingly – lasted the whole journey. Of course, being SE Asia there was also a standard “bum gun” spray as well!! I ALWAYS recommend carrying tissue, wet wipes, and antibacterial hand gel for any overland journey in SE Asia – it pays to be prepared.
The sinks were separate, which meant you could also use them to brush your teeth etc without having to go inside the cubicle. Train staff kept the bathrooms reasonably clean, but not amazingly so – I wouldn’t recommend sitting on the seat if you can avoid it!
Try to pick up some Thai Bhat cash before crossing the border, because the trolley service on board only took Thai money when I asked. If you don’t have any Thai cash, eat something filling at the station while you’re waiting for the overnight train, and stock up on snacks. Luckily there are several shops and food stalls upstairs in Padang Besar station.
Book early if you want to secure a bottom bunk! Upper berths on the Thailand sleeper train were a bit narrower than the lower ones, and you can’t sit up in them properly. However, they felt a bit more private.
FYI – if you’re sitting on the right-hand side of the train, you’ll be able to see the sunrise in the morning.
As I mentioned above, the luggage space is limited. The smaller your case, the better. I had my 60L Osprey backpack and it was fine, but people with massive suitcases had to leave them in the aisle.
Keep Your Valuables on You
It probably goes without saying, but try to keep your valuables out of sight, and definitely keep them on you at all times. If you’re travelling solo, keep things in your daypack so you can easily take them to the loo with you. And if you charge your phone using one of the plug sockets, make sure it’s somewhere you can see it!
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Eye Mask – the lights don’t turn off so you’ll need one to sleep!
Pillowcase or scarf to cover your pillow – the pillows were sealed in plastic, but I’m still wary of anything I didn’t wash myself.
Earplugs – you can pick up a pack of 10 earplugs from around £3 on Amazon.
Lots of tissue – or just a whole toilet roll. Just in case!
Anti-bacterial hand gel – always use it, even after washing your hands, and especially before eating!
Bottled water – or use a filter bottle and you can fill up from the bathroom tap without worrying! I LOVE my Water-to-Go bottle (read the review here and use my discount code, EMLUX15, for 15% off).
Multi-socket plug adapter – there aren’t too many plug sockets on board, so a multi-socket plug adapter is handy if you need to charge a few things at once. Or if you want to share with fellow passengers and make friends!
Jumper / clothing layers – it can be a little chilly on board so bring a few layers.
British citizens can enter Thailand for up to 30 days without a visa. This also applies to citizens of 50 other countries; check the full list here.
When you’re in Thailand it’s possible to extend the stay by a further 30 days at a Thai Immigration Office. If you want to stay longer you’ll need to apply in advance, so check the Government’s website for the most up to date info.
There are reports of border officials asking to see proof of onward travel – ie your ticket for travel out of Thailand. If you plan on doing this overland, you can explain this and it should be fine. I didn’t encounter any issues – but if you’re worried you could always prebook a cheap bus ticket and print it out to show as proof of onward travel.
And watch the video of my full journey, including footage from the Thailand sleeper train, so you can check out exactly what it’s like!