Notes & Essays

Singapore to Bangkok By Railway: A 48-Hour Adventure

Would I do it again? Probably not.
ILLUSTRATOR MARIO ALVARO LIMOS

In 2005, I went to Singapore for the first time. I’ve since lost count how many times I’ve been to the so-called Lion City, but that first trip will always be memorable because that was also the first time I visited Malaysia and Thailand. 

Instead of flying, my preferred mode of transport back then was trains. From Singapore, I passed through Kuala Lumpur, then to a town called Hat Yai in northern Thailand, before finally reaching Bangkok. That entire trip took me two days. I probably wouldn’t do it again, but at the time, and even until now, I’ve always considered it the adventure of a lifetime. 

But why do it in the first place? Why spend two days on the road when I could’ve easily flown to those places in a fraction of the time? 

I put the blame squarely on the movie Before Sunrise. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly what I mean, but if you haven’t, here’s the gist: two strangers meet on a train and spend the day walking around Vienna, Austria. There are no aliens or superheroes, no antagonist they need to overcome, and no major conflict that needs a resolution. Instead, we get two characters—Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine—just walking and talking and developing a deep and lasting connection. That’s pretty much the whole movie. 

I could write an entire piece on the impact the movie (and its sequels) have had on me, but what’s relevant to this story is how much I wanted to do what they did and travel by train, perhaps meet a stranger I could spend the day with and connect. It was a fantasy, I know, but what can I say except that I was young and impressionable. Europe was out of the question as I wasn’t exactly heir to a vast fortune, and so I thought a train ride from Singapore to Bangkok was the next best thing.

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A first-time tourist in Singapore

In Singapore, I did all the touristy things—I rode the cable car to Sentosa Island; I ate at the hawker center near the Esplanade (or what people called the Durian); I walked around Orchard Road and had one of those ice cream sandwiches they sold for SG$1. I even visited that enormous fountain at Suntec City. A friend based in Singapore took me around that evening and brought me to an “ice bar,” where you had to wear thick coats as the temperature inside was below freezing, and passed by the local Hooters (we didn’t go in).

The next day I began my railway journey. Back then, when you wanted to go to Malaysia, you went to the old Tanjong Pagar train station, a grand terminal that ceased operations in 2011 and has since been converted to a railway museum. A quirk of the ticketing system at the time was that you paid the same amount whether you were in Singapore going to Kuala Lumpur or vice versa, but in different currencies. So, for example, if you’re in Singapore and a one-way ticket cost SG$20, a ticket from KL to Singapore would cost the same but in Malaysian ringgit, which was a bit cheaper because of the exchange rate. 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but the seat was comfortable and the views of the lush jungles of Malaysia outside my window were unbeatable. I found time to read a book, buy some snacks from the dining car, and nap throughout the six-hour-plus journey. I didn’t get to talk to anyone, but that was okay. I enjoyed my own company.

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The old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in Singapore is now a museum

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Singapore in 2005. This view is a lot different today

Photo by PJ Cana.

An unexpected invitation in KL

In Kuala Lumpur, I deposited my bags at the prepaid lockers at the KL Sentral Station and found time to explore the city for a few hours before my next train ride. While at the train station buying my ticket, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Filipino woman who was with her son and another friend. The woman was wearing a hijab and I wouldn’t have known she was Filipino if I hadn’t overheard her and her friend talking excitedly in Tagalog. They asked me where I was going and I told them of my plan of taking the train all the way to Bangkok. They thought it was a crazy thing to do and a waste of time. I just smiled.

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The woman invited me to come with her to her flat, where I met her Malaysian husband and her other son. They fed me snacks and we chatted for a bit about life in the city. Eventually I politely excused myself. I had some sightseeing to do.

Since it was my first time, I did the usual: check out the Petronas Towers, go up the Menara (the city’s telecoms tower that offers pretty amazing views of the city), and sample some of the city’s street food. My impression of Kuala Lumpur back then was that it was a lot like Manila, except we don’t have anything like the Petronas Towers.

An uncomfortable evening

I deliberately got a ticket for a train that departed late so I could spend the night en route and not have to pay for a hotel room. There were no direct routes from KL all the way to Bangkok, so I had to get one to Hat Yai, one of the largest cities in Southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia. The train wasn’t as comfortable as the one from Singapore; I kept waking up with a neck or leg cramp and kept making sure my backpack on the overhead bin was still there and hadn’t been stolen. I also made friends with a bunch of loud Malaysian guys. At first I thought they were a bit sketchy, but it turned out they were actually quite friendly and kept asking me about what life was like in Manila.

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The trip took nearly 10 hours, with a brief stopover at the border where we were asked to get off and walk to the checkpoint to get our passport stamped. At the border, I chatted with a Caucasian guy who could’ve been American or Australian. When I told him about my train trip, he was incredulous. “Why didn’t you just fly?” he asked me. “This seemed more fun,” I answered, to which he just shook his head and gave me a patronizing, pitying look.

When we finally arrived, I remember feeling extremely exhausted (because I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep), and a bit sticky (I also hadn’t showered). But I was also feeling exhilarated at stepping foot on a new city.

A view of central Hat Yai

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Hat Yai high 

I remember Hat Yai as a typical provincial town, quiet and laidback. After exchanging my money at the train station, I stumbled on a market with a row of street food stalls. No one spoke any English, so I just pointed at something that someone else was having that I thought I liked. It turned out to be some kind of minced meat that was extremely spicy, and a version of pad thai that was mixed with unfamiliar but tasty spices. I washed it all down with a bottle of ice-cold Coke and immediately proclaimed it the best meal I’ve ever had in Thailand. (It was also my first).

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The next train didn’t leave till mid-afternoon, so I kicked around the town for a few hours. I found a decent public restroom with a shower and I quickly gave myself one that helped lift my spirits. Afterwards I made my way to a coffee shop inside a small shopping mall where I could escape the stifling heat and tried to read and nap. I was too tired to explore more of the town.

Finally, it was time to board the train. This was going to be the longest leg of the trip; the entire journey would take around 14 hours. The train was a bit more packed than the two previous legs, and the seats weren’t particularly cushy, but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to sink into my seat and sleep for the remainder of the trip.

I must’ve done exactly that because I can barely remember anything from that ride. The next thing I knew, we were pulling into Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s main railway station. I had finally made it to the Thai capital, nearly 48 hours after I left Singapore.

The main train station in Hat Yai

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
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Last stop 

Of course, that wasn’t the end of my trip. In Bangkok, I needed a place to stay, and I found one near the backpacker’s district of Khao San Road. I got there just in time for Halloween and there was a massive street party there that night. I met and chatted with a few locals and fellow tourists and sampled more of their street food (which was pretty much the only thing I could afford). I also managed to visit some of the more famous temples, including Wat Arun and the Temple of the Reclining  Buddha. 

There was still the problem of how I would get home as my flight back to Manila departed from Singapore. I could've done the same thing in reverse, but, at that point, i didn't have a lot of time, so I made the practical decision of catching a flight, not to Changi, but to Kuala Lumpur. I can’t imagine why I didn’t just go straight to Singapore, but whatever was going through my head at the time, I went on one final train ride from KL back to Tanjong Pagar station where it all started.

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No, it wasn’t exactly the European train ride I imagined, but I got something else out of it altogether: a story that I can keep telling anyone who’s interested for years to come. 

*If you’re planning your own train journey from Singapore to Bangkok, keep in mind that many transportation routes have changed a lot since 2005. So I suggest doing your own research for the most updated information.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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