train travel in Malaysia

The train from Malaysia to Chiang Mai

Bangkok Station

Bangkok Station

The train from Malaysia to Chiang Mai

The train from Malaysia to Chiang Mai is interesting and fun if you like trains. And a useful and safer way to travel if you want to make stops along the way.  And you’ll see some of the countryside, and have the experience. But if you don’t want that,  fly – if you’re flexible you can find cheap flights.

So you could make one or more stops or travel all the way to Bangkok in one go, and then take another train on to Chiang Mai. The latter is what I will describe here as in the past I have visited the below-mentioned.

Previously you could catch the train from Singapore to Bangkok on the one train. More recently it was Butterworth, Penang to Bangkok, but Malaysia has electrified the lines, while Thailand hasn’t.  So now one must change trains at the border of Thailand.

So the the train from KL and Penang to Chiang Mai is actually three trains. Train one to the border, train two to Bangkok and train three to Chiang Mai. For more photos and videos related to this trip, please see Part 2.

Malaysia’s Jungle Line – (Malacca to) Gemas to Kota Baru by train – AKA Circling Malaysia by rail (mostly) 3/4 – late 2017 update

13/10/2017 UPDATE

Talking to a KTMB representative today she told me that this line is open again and has been since repairs finished last year.

24/06/2014 UPDATE

Yesterday I noted an interesting article in the Star newspaper concerning this line. If you are planning a trip, you should check to see if this service is running before committing to travel plans.

However, in case the link disappears, here is the text copied from the Star site above:

Continue reading here.

Penang to Kuala Lumpur by plane, train, bus and car – March 2017

You have a few choices travelling between Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Read the latest version:


The main carriers from Penang to Kuala Lumpur are Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia.  Kuala Lumpur has two main terminals at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).  KLIA, which is where the full service airlines fly to and from, and KLIA2, which the low cost airlines use.  (There is another airport, Subang, which Firefly and Berjaya Air operate from, which is likely to be useful only if you wish to go to that area.)  Prices vary, but can be very cheap – as cheap as bus or train fares.

Air Asia web site

Malaysian Airlines web site

Air Asia

A flight takes only about 45 minutes, and in that time on Malaysian Airlines they serve a drink in a plastic container and a packet of peanuts, and then come around to collect the rubbish.  Those two activities take up the cabin crews’ time while at crusing height.

the cabin in economy

peanuts and juice

the seat back – screen not activated for use on this short flight

On Air Asia you would not normally be served anything, but of course the flight time is similar.


KTM – train company web site – note that for purposes of the web site your point of origin is Butterworth, and destination is Sentral Kuala Lumpur.

For more information and links please see

Penang now has the ETS – Electric Train Service – meaning that the journey to KL from Penang-Butterworth can take as little as just over four hours. This  provides more comfort and safety than buses, in a similar travel time, and for a similar price as the better bus companies.

For my blog about a recent train ride from Penang to KL see here


Penang to KL by bus

KL to Penang by bus

Aeroline bus company

Transnasional bus company

Nice bus company

Konsortium bus company

There are many more bus companies.


Driving from Penang to Kuala Lumpur

Heading south – typical landscape

And which is best?  Of course, this is hard to say.  Let’s compare them in terms of travelling time, cost, scenery and enjoyment.


If your destination is KL, then let’s look at the time it will take.  You should be at the airport perhaps 1.5 hours before departure. Flight time is about 45 minutes, and then once you have landed it will take at least 45 minutes to collect your luggage if you have any, and to get into central KL, and more likely one hour or more. Thus total time from Penang airport to KL hotel is at least 3.5 hours.  That is faster than any other mode.  It can also be quite cheap if you catch one of the Air Asia specials. Catching a taxi to and from Penang airport, or parking charges there can add considerably to the cost, however.  There is no airport bus in Penang, just a local bus, which is not very frequent or reliable.  Using the Grabcar app from Gurney Plaza to the airport is about RM26. Uber may be similar. Apart from shortly after take off, the scenery you will see from the plane is not very interesting. It is more stressful flying, but if you are also flying out of KL, it can often be the easiest mode of transport.

If you are flying out of KLIA then flying is probably the best option.  The airline you choose usually depends on which terminal in KL you fly out from. In Penang, there is only one terminal, so there is no issue with convenience for any airline.  But in Kuala Lumpur there is KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) and KLIA2.  Air Asia flies to KLIA2, so if you are flying from KL on Air Asia, it makes sense to fly from Penang also on Air Asia. And if you are flying from KLIA, then you will probably want to choose a full service airline to fly on from Penang, as it will fly into KLIA.  Of course, you can transfer between KLIA and KLIA2, but it takes some time, and is less fun if you have luggage.


The train takes a similar time to the bus. It takes about four hours, or up to four and a half, depending on the schedule.  Occasionally incidents on the E1 motorway block or slow traffic,   which obviously won’t affect the train, but will the bus. You will also have the travelling time to the station at Butterworth, so add on at least an hour for the trip to the ferry terminal, and ferry to Butterworth.  It is very relaxing, though, and the scenery is better than travelling by air or road.


Travelling time by bus can be from four and a half hours to more, depending on traffic. But you will probably leave home an hour before the bus departs, so this must be added to the total travelling time. Bus fares vary quite a bit depending on which company you choose to travel with. But the more expensive bus companies tend to be safer, and more comfortable. Aeroline, the most expensive company,   quotes on its web site a price of RM60 one way in March 2017. Of course, by bus or car the scenery will be the same, as either way you will be travelling on the E1 north-south motorway. Mostly, the scenery is not very exciting. However, around Ipoh, which is about half way, the scenery improves for a while. The bus can also be quite relaxing, depending on the skills of the driver – the cheaper the bus company, the worse the drivers, generally. Many people find the bus the most enjoyable way to travel this route. I would avoid any very late night / overnight bus journeys if at all possible, as bus drivers and other vehicle drivers have been known to fall asleep at the wheel.


When I drive, with three very short stops on the way, it takes about 4.5 hours in light traffic. By car you will presumably be driving directly from home to your destination, so it takes only about an hour more than flying. The road charges are about RM45, and I suppose you will use about RM70 for petrol, although this will vary quite a bit according to your car and driving style. Of course, there are other costs, but for me, as I don’t drive much anyway, it is really only these costs that count. RM115. Double the bus fare for one person, but if two or more people,competitive. Naturally you will be able to carry much more luggage, be able to visit other places en-route if you wish, and have use of the car in KL. You will have to pay for parking, however, which at many hotels is RM10 per day.

Is it fun to drive? Not particularly. It’s frustrating as the speed limit is pathetically low, and for the section of the road which is three lanes each way, the left lane is mostly empty, while most drivers drive in the middle lane, making overtaking in the left lane necessary when the right lane is also blocked by a slower vehicle. This is hardly ideal.

My conclusion:

The disadvantage of the train is that Butterworth station is a bit far from George Town, and you need to catch the ferry.  But the bus station has the same disadvantage, being next to the train station.  The other terminals for the bus are from Sungai Nibong or Queensbay Mall – also a bit far.  Then, you find the same disadvantages for the bus and train in KL, where the terminals are not central.  But the airport in Penang is further away, and the airport in KL is even further out, so really, unless you are flying out of KLIA, I find the train offers the best combination of safety, comfort and convenience to central Kuala Lumpur.

For historical interest you can see a much older blog on this topic

Catching the train from Penang to Kuala Lumpur – March 2017

The train is a very viable transport choice between Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Look here for prices and timetables, and to book online:

Or see the official KTM web site, which is more difficult to use: KTM – train company web site – note that for purposes of the web site your point of origin is Butterworth, and destination is Sentral Kuala Lumpur.

Basically there are several trains a day in both directions, and the ticket prices as of this writing are RM59 or RM79, depending on which train you take.  The train is one class.

This blog describes the journey from George Town to Butterworth, where the train station is located, and then on to KL by train.

after alighting from a taxi or bus you walk along a passage towards the sea and the KTM office, where you can buy a train ticket if you wish.

note the opening hours of the KTM office

the KTM office

at the office the path turns right angles to the left, then later 90 degrees to the right and up a ramp to the ferry waiting area

some ferries load cars this way

looking back from the ferry towards George Town

looking back from the ferry towards George Town on the other side

about to disembark the ferry

Once you disembark from the ferry you walk straight ahead and then veer right, heading for both the bus station and train station.

you walk along an elevated walkway and cross the railway line

You cross a pedestrian bridge over the railway, turn left…

elevated walkway

at the time of writing construction continues, but you go straight here for the bus terminal, or right for the train station

… and then to the right for the train station, or straight still for the bus station.

the ground floor of the station – nothing but a small waiting area

you can catch a lift or walk up the stairs to the first floor where you can see the bus station from the window

It’s very easy to find. There is a lift that takes you up to the ticket offices and waiting area.

corridor towards the first floor ticketing and waiting area

the ticketing and waiting area

The station is bigger now, but it is very hot inside. You aren’t allowed access to the platforms until the train has arrived and passengers have disembarked. In my case we were allowed onto the train about 10 minutes before the train was due to depart. The carriages and seats are clearly marked, so finding one’s seat is easy.

the board

a poster

a poster

the platform, which you reach by walking down the steps or catching a lift

the train

the train

inside the carriage

inside the carriage

the network diagram

The train departed on time, and arrived in KL on time.

the view a few minutes after departure

the snack bar

There is a small café taking part of one of the carriages, with just few tables. You can buy coffee, teas, soft drinks, and a few light meals. The coffee was ok. The noodles I ordered were not very good.

food available

availability notice

what I bought

every passenger receives this snack package

contents of the snack package


The scenery is pleasant enough, but quite similar to the same trip by road.


The train makes a few stops along the way for short times, and is a smooth ride

Taiping station

Taiping station





Ipoh station

Ipoh station

Ipoh station

toilet is clean

There are clean toilets in a couple of the carriages.  LCD displays show progress, the next station and the speed of the train, which reaches about 140kph.

the electronic board in the train showing progress and speed

old KL station, a few minutes before the train arrives in KL Sentral. This is a view of the station I took from a bus

And as I mentioned above, the train arrived on time.

Of the three choices of public transport to KL, which is better?

If you want to see the scenery, then surface transport. But really, once is enough.

The airfare can be a similar price to the train or bus, especially if you factor in the cost from KL Sentral station or the bus station to the airport, if you are flying out of KLIA. So I tend to think flying is better if you’re going to the airport.

From Penang to central KL all three modes take around the same time.

If you’re going to central KL, neither the train station or bus station is really in the centre, but you can quite cheaply and reasonably quickly get there.  Whereas from the airport it’s a bit expensive by train to central KL, or slow by bus.  So going to central KL I’d suggest the surface transport.

The train fare can be higher than many bus fares, but similar to the better bus companies. With a bus you might get WiFi, with the train you don’t, but there are working power points on the train for every two seats. The train is smoother and safer, and more comfortable, so that would be my choice, unless you want to save a few Ringgit by using a cheap and possibly not so safe bus company.
So, to summarise, my idea is to fly between Penang and KL  if you’re then flying out of KLIA, or vice versa; otherwise catch the train.

Malaysia’s Jungle Line – (Malacca to) Gemas to Kota Baru by train – AKA Circling Malaysia by rail (mostly) 3/4 – mid-2014 update

Find a newer version here:

24/06/2014 UPDATE

Yesterday I noted an interesting article in the Star newspaper concerning this line. If you are planning a trip, you should check to see if this service is running before committing to travel plans.

However, in case the link disappears, here is the text copied from the Star site above:

East coast line to undergo repairs

KUALA LIPIS: Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) is expected to close down its 321km Gemas-Gua Musang stretch along the east coast railway to conduct major track repair works soon.

Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar said that despite its earlier notice to KTMB ordering its closure on Thursday, he expected KTMB to appeal the decision.

“We have noticed that KTMB has continued to operate despite such risky conditions,” he said.

It was important to stop as the Government had approved RM400mil to im­­prove the current railway track, he said after conducting a joint inspection with KTMB president Datuk Elias Kadir and KTMB chairman Datuk Nawawi Ahmad, senior SPAD officials and KTMB staff along the stretch yesterday.

The major track repair works involving 11 affected areas are expected to take up to two years to complete.

Among the affected parts along the stretch are railway bridges along Kuala Krai and Gua Musang in Kelantan, which face the problem of rotten wooden slippers, as well as soil subsidence and erosion affecting the tracks along Kuala Lipis and Jerantut in Pahang.

It is learnt that 13 minor derailments have occurred on the railway line since 2012.

Syed Hamid said while the notice issued was made in the interest of public safety, a final decision would not be made until KTMB had formally made their appeal.

“We understand KTMB’s situation and their services are a real need. Therefore, their position must be improved from time to time,” he said.

When asked whether the changes in the notice could affect those travelling during the upcoming Hari Raya season, he said the safety of the public remained the biggest priority.

“We have suggested KTMB to provide alternatives as we do not want to risk a big tragedy during the balik kampung rush,” he said.

Admitting their financial shortcomings, Nawawi thanked the Government for approving the allocation, but hoped that SPAD would delay the closure notice.

“We will discuss our appeal during the KTMB board of directors meeting on Thursday and will hand it over to SPAD soon.

“While we are very concerned about the safety aspects of our passengers, we would also need time to adjust to the possible closure,” he said.


Malaysian rail network


The plan was to catch a taxi from Malacca to Gemas, have breakfast if time, and then board the train for Wakaf Baru, the station near Kota Baru, where we would spend the night.  There is only one day time train a day, and so if you wish to see the scenery you have no choice but to take it. It only has second class carriages. They are in worse condition than the west coast trains.

Malacca to Gemas.

As there is no train line to Malacca, the branch line having been destroyed during World War 2, and having had no desire to spend the night in Gemas, we found ourselves having to catch a taxi early in the morning to Gemas Station.  There may be a bus, but I wouldn’t reply on being able to get to Gemas on time for the train. And as the train comes from Singapore there is no good train connection from Kuala Lumpur to meet this train.

Google Maps showed the following about the route by road from Malacca to Gemas:

  • Route 1 91.4 km, 1 hour 32 mins
  • Lebuh Amj and Route 1 89.2 km, 1 hour 36 mins N15

The taxi stand in Melaka Sentral quoted us RM140 to Gemas, and a driving time of up to two hours.

The Jungle Line – Gemas to Kota Baru:

Train 14 to Kota Baru [Wakaf Baru] (EKSPRES SINARAN TIMUR  17-Sep-2012 09:38 17-Sep-2012 18:52) is scheduled to depart at 9.38 from Gemas.

The other question is where to alight the train. There is no actual station at Kota Baru. This is what The man in Seat 61 says:

“Which station for Khota Bharu?  The closest station to Khota Bahru is Wakaf Bharu, about 5 km (3 miles) away.  A taxi from Wakaf Bharu to Khota Bharu costs around 12 Ringgits.  However, if you want to travel more cheaply by bus, there’s a better and more frequent bus service from Pasir Mas, 19km from Khota Bharu.  Buses run from Pasir Mas to Khota Bahru every 15-20 minutes from 06:45 to 19:00 from a bus station just 100 metres from Pasir Mas railway station.  If you want to complete the whole train journey to Tumpat, no problem, buses also link Tumpat with Khota Bharu every 45 minutes 06:45-19:30.  Bus information for all these routes is at, select ‘Kelantan’ then ‘Khota Bharu’ as your location.
Heading into Thailand?  Bus 29 runs every half hour from Khota Bahru bus station near the central market via Pasir Mas to the Thai/Malay border point at Rantau Panjang, fare 5 ringgits (£1), distance 45 km, journey time about 1 hour.  A taxi will cost about 17 ringgits.  Walk across the border from Rantau Panjang (Malay side) to Sungai Kolok (Thai side) and keep walking straight on for 800m to Sungai Kolok Railway station for trains to Hat Yai, Surat Thani & Bangkok. “
As most Malaysian trains do not have a dining car or even trolley service, we brought some food and water which we’d bought in Malacca the night before.
We booked a hotel in Kota Baru in advance as the train was scheduled to arrive around 7PM, which was a little late to be hunting around for a hotel.

The Trip:

We had  a taxi booked for 7AM, as we were told it could take up to two hours.  We were told the going rate was RM140, but were charged RM120 as the hotel managed a discount for us. As the traffic was light, it being a holiday, it took only one hour 20 minutes.

So we had over an hour to explore Gemas and the station, and to breakfast.  Most of Gemas was still closed at 8.20, and there did not appear to be so much to see anyway, but The Curry Point was open, and busy.

a great place for breakfast

We asked for Dosa,and a cup of coffee each, and the dosa was delicious. Cost for both of us, RM5.80.


Gemas station also has a cafe, but we were too full to even properly look in. It was open by 9AM, though.

Gemas station has a new platform, but all prospective passengers waited on the old platform until the train was shunted in to the new one, and then the way was opened for us to enter the new platform and board the train.

old platform

The main rail line is electrified, but the Jungle line uses diesel locomotives, so changing locomotives took time.  The train was only three carriages long, and they were all second class. Not long after boarding the train it departed, at about 9.45AM.

new platform and train

The point of this trip is to see the wonderful scenery. There is a report by a traveller on the The man in Seat 61 web page, which is what enticed me to make the trip in the first place. But as we continued to travel along the line, what we saw was mainly palm oil plantations, or land that was cleared, presumably for more palm oil plantations.

By 15.00 this had not changed, and we were still passing by the palm oil plantations or the devastated cleared land. This was disappointing.

There was a trolley on the train with snacks and sweet drinks, but no actual food.  It was wheeled through the train a couple of times, but was kept in the last carriage. We were happy we’d brought our own supplies.

At around 15.15 we arrived at Chegar Perah, little suspecting that we would spend the next 2 1/2 hours there. Of course, it was not announced, and even if you ask the conductor you don’t get much of an answer.  Apparently there was some breakdown somewhere up the line, and we were kept in a siding until other trains had passed. It is only a single line, with some sidings along the way for passing.

We amused ourselves watching the cows, goats and hens with their chicks wander past the train. The goats could actually walk on the rails without falling off.

goats walking along the rails at Chegar Perah

We walked around the train. Looked at the cows.

cows crossing the lines to where the grass is greener

There was a shop we found, by watching other people go there, but it wasn’t selling any food or drinks we were interested in.

the siding on the left, and the main line on the right

We got too hot outside and sat in our seats, as the air conditioning was still on.  A couple of trains went past in the opposite direction. We tried to sleep. Eventually around 17.40 the train moved off.

we finally move off

And from now the scenery improved.

At 18.45 we arrived in Gua Musang, and the train shunted into a siding again, and we waited for perhaps 30 minutes while trains passed by going  in the other direction.

It seemed to us that the train controllers had decided our train’s punctuality was a total lost cause, so they might as well make us even later, and keep the trains going south on time. Of course, there was still absolutely no information from the conductor, the driver, or the train company as to what was happening. By now it was almost dark, so we knew we were not going to see the scenery we had ridden the train to see.

Once we finally moved off it was dark and we couldn’t see anything. We stopped at Bukit Abu around 21.04 for about 10 minutes, and then at Kuala Krai at about 22.00, where we shunted again and went backwards and waited for a while. At last, around 23.50 we pulled into Wakaf Baru, five hours late, and with no apology or explanation from any of the train staff.

The locals get picked up by their friends, but there were quite a lot of foreigners, who no doubt wanted taxis, and not many taxis, so we had to hurriedly agree to a fare of RM35 (which probably should have been RM20), for the 10 minute ride to our hotel, or wait perhaps half an hour until the taxis returned and try for a cheaper fare. It was the only time we were cheated on our trip.


Malacca: River Song Residence, 100 Lorong Hang Jebat, Jonkers Street. This hotel/residence is inexpensive, new, clean, and has terraces right on the river, but the best thing is how friendly and helpful the management/staff are. We made a couple of requests, and they were 100% reliable.  In the past I have usually stayed in the Equatorial, which is exponentially more expensive, and a totally different atmosphere, but nice.

view from rear terrace of Melaka River

Kota Baru: Tune Hotel. I wanted to stay in one to see how it was. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and the rooms were surprisingly large for the image of the hotel.

Tune Hotel room is quite spacey


It appears the best scenery is probably from Chegar Perah to about Kuala Krai.  As I missed seeing this due to it being dark I am thinking of taking the day train from Kota Baru next time, and then turning around and catching the train back to Kota Baru once I have seen the best part, or perhaps catching the 17.16 evening Intercity train and seeing most of it before it gets dark. There are other possibilities, too.

Interview with a Trans-Siberian traveller to Penang

Idly browsing my blog statistics one day – something I almost never do – I saw that someone had been referred to my blog from a blog called Toad’s Travel Adventures. I read “Wind in the Willows” when I was a kid, so I clicked on this, to discover the author was soon planning to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing, and then catch the train through Vietnam and travel on to Singapore.  Well, I hope to do a similar trip,  have more or less done the train myself from Hanoi to Singapore,  and as he was stopping off in Penang on the way, we decided to get together. Meanwhile I read about his progress on his blog until he actually arrived in Penang. Here are his answers to my questions.



Matthew, a two times veteran of the Trans-Siberian Railway, talks about his two  trips.

Tell me about about your usual travelling style.

My normal travelling style would be much more luxurious I would say.  I’ve spent 20 years probably spending too much money on business class and enjoying nice lounges. But that doesn’t necessarily equal the experience I’m looking for. I’m not now trying to be a backpacker, but find some sort of middle ground that gives me some of life’s great memories without having to spend the sort of money I used to. It’s a much richer experience travelling by train. It is not about the luxury but more about the people you are with and the experiences.

I believe you did this trip before, but to Shanghai  last time – why are you doing it a second time?

I can now call it a dress rehearsal for the current one.  It was my first foray into solo train travel to places I hadn’t been to before. From Shanghai I hopped onto a plane down to Thailand and bumped into a couple of women from London on a cooking school who told me their journey, and I realised I hadn’t been adventurous enough. I realised I’d be able to go the whole way. After two months of thinking it was a mad journey I’d done, I realised how much I’d enjoyed it and I decided to stretch myself a bit more and do the whole mission. Even though it meant repeating the beginning of the journey – as far as Beijing – which takes 10 days to two weeks. The challenge this time was getting from Beijing down to Penang. The other thing is that generally land routes from Europe to Singapore have been quite difficult, but I realised that with the train it is possible to do it.

What was different about this overland trip to the last time?

To begin with I had more certainty of what was going to happen and that has advantages of allowing you to relax a bit. But the disadvantages are it’s not quite as impactful or meaningful. It’s been a much bigger stretch than the previous trip as it’s  longer and involved a considerable deal more planning from a red tape point of view and contact with a lot more local agents. The organisational phase was probably three times longer than the previous trip, but the rewards are probably three times greater, and the reward comes from the difficulty. It’s valuing personal achievement. So you’re having fun, but it’s been more of a challenge.

How did you decide the direction – west-east – as opposed to east-west?

As someone who lives in the west and always gone east it’s normal for me to think of going this way. If I were doing the silk route classically I would think of doing it east-west, and maybe I will. I think a key reason is the planning – it is easier to plan a trip from west to east because the greatest red tape problems come around exact dates of entering and leaving countries around Russia particularly, and if you start at that end it is easier to get that right rather than the other way unless you are absolutely precise about when you are landing it could be quite hard. I think there are two styles of traveller.  The free and easy “I’ll see if I can get a train there tomorrow” kind – and I applaud those people, but then there are the kind of people who are maybe a bit control freaky who want to know more precisely what is ahead. I’m definitely in that category,but I have a degree of flexibility; but I like to stick to a plan if I can, and I think that has benefits. So for my planning phase I can recall it was much easier going from the west to the east and also there was something else about the conditionality of visas. For example, for China, where you needed to be able to show exit and entry – it definitely just flowed better going in that direction.

Why do you travel by yourself?

As I have got older more of my friends have got family travel commitments, and I find two things. Firstly, fewer and fewer people have the time and focus on the thing you are interested in, and also the slightly selfish thing is that travelling alone is more fun. And I mean that from the point of view that you get that richness of – you can’t just sit back and not talk to people when you travel alone, so it forces you to get into the culture of a place a bit more.  So I am not saying I don’t enjoy travelling with friends . but the combination of a lack of friends with the same mission in mind, plus that means that solo travel is rather good. A perfect compromise would be to meet friends for a bit of a journey  – or meet up in a city for a few days – and then you don’t have the pressure of no two people wanting to do the same thing on an itinerary.

 How did you go about planning the trip, which is a really complicated thing I imagine?

 The research phase normally starts off with a visit to Seat 61,which everyone will go to, and it’s 98% bulletproof for basic travel planning. I think then there is a phase of checking with agents that the services you need are there and that they are affordable, which gives you the confidence that you can actually do it. I tend to spend a long period of time until I commit, wanting to know as much as possible about a trip before I finally pull the pin.

Which websites did you use apart from Seat 61?

I tend to try to hunt down blogs of travellers. I think that gives a more real edge to it and then compare those with the web sites of travel agents offering ticketing, transportation or tour services to the place you’re going and see you they compare.  It’s nice to see the alternatives to Seat 61. I found this blog of a German guy who went to Pyongyang and he’s got 10 years of blogged travel experiences of train travel around the world in extreme detail. And that’s quite a treasure trove. Whereas Seat 61 would just give the broad brush context, the timetable and the cost. It doesn’t  really tell you what it’s like crossing the border so it’s nice to find that depth of detail. I’ll have a large spreadsheet containing a calendar and then I’ll try like a large jigsaw puzzle to assemble each of the sub components of the trip. And see what days of the week the trains might be going and see where it fits together and where it doesn’t. And move the pieces around in such a way that you then get a viable itinerary.   There’s then that moment of wanting to know that everything’s possible before you commit to spending money on things – before you start buying a visa to a certain country, you book the hotel OK there,is the train available etc. etc. You try to de-risk it as much as possible. I would normally start with the train – if it’s a train trip – I would then be thinking about the visa requirement and then I would be thinking about the hotels, but I would check all three from the point of view of availability before booking any of them. Not that I am that fussy about hotels. But I might change the whole thing around so I can stay where I want to.

Why do you do these trips in winter?

That’s the available time of year. It’s easier to plan. But also I’d commend a Siberian winter to anyone. It’s quite good fun. It’s not that it’s cold on the train. It’s very hot.

You still need all the cold weather gear, don’t you?

You do.  This time I thought about trying to sacrifice some of it.  Because it’s not that long you’re outside for. But I don’t recommend it. You need a good pair of boots and you  need a good jacket. This year in Moscow it wasn’t cold enough, and there was a lot of black ice, so it was really dangerous on station platforms and so on.

Having more or less carried out your plan, do you think you could have made a better plan?

I can’t think of any massive flaws. I’d like to make more of Europe. I’d like to stop in Berlin. I stopped in Warsaw this time and loved that. If I was travelling in the summer I would always get off in Mongolia and I’ve not achieved that yet. But it’s not going to be comfortable in a ger in -35. I haven’t spent enough in Cambodia. I literally just dashed through the place. Other than that everything else has come together quite nicely. I think 6 weeks is a good length of time for it. 45 days gives you enough time to have a couple of semi breaks. 60 days’d be nicer,but…

If you had unlimited time, what would your plan have been?

I’d have stopped off a bit more in Vietnam, I’d spent time in Hue, Na Trang, Halong Bay, maybe tried to do something a bit off the beaten path in Cambodia. I’m quite interested in these motorbike itineraries you can pickup in Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos would have been an interesting side journey, but not on the main path, although I understand it’s possible to take a bus from China to Laos, and then a bus from Laos to Bangkok. I’d like to see St. Petersburg.

What went well, and what didn’t?

The plan went very well. It delivered everything I wanted it to from the trip.  The only problem was self-inflicted – too many oysters in central Vietnam which destroyed one of my train journeys. I think I over packed,but it’s been easy to get over whatever the situation. Every trip is different. There were a lot more mainstream tourists on the Trans-Siberian leg than the previous trip. It didn’t feel quite so Marco Poloish. The previous year there were very few of us. It’s funny how that changes the atmosphere and dynamics of a journey. On this trip, when I left Beijing for Hanoi I didn’t see a western person for the whole journey. Apart from that health problem, everything else has gone swimmingly.

What were your best memories of the trip?

Motorbiking with a side car in Hoi An was a definite highpoint – out in the fields. The food has been a high point. I’ve had some incredible dishes from around the world. And I’ve met some incredible people – local people I’ve met on trains in the country and also travellers on their own adventures. There are thousands and thousands of people doing similar but slightly different journeys and it’s great to meet them and compare plans. There’s a real spirit on the Trans-Siberian when everyone realises they’re arriving in Beijing. And the small-world paradox where you actually bump into people you have met on trains in other countries.

Is there anything I didn’t ask – or anything you’d like to add?

My next trip – I’m quite excited about the prospect about a central Asian escapade. But I’ve got all that research to do. Either to Vladivostok or head off from Moscow down to central Asia. That’s the next big question. I’d need to vary the season a little. Something tells me I should try that trip in September. I need to do the research.  And my mind is always trying to find film connections with stuff that I do. Has there been a film made there? As you see in my blog.

Thanks very much, Matthew.

Matthew at the Penang Club

Matthew at the Penang Club

So, have a look at his trip on his blog –

Overnight train from Penang-Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur – November 2013 – the trip

I made the booking, and I have just now made the trip, by ferry from George Town to Butterworth, and then the train to KL.

The first thing I noticed is that the taxi fare to the terminal has gone up 33% after the government raised the petrol price about 10%.

The next thing is that the Penang ferry terminal entrance is undergoing some construction work, and it is even less clear how to get to the ferry. You just go straight in the direct of the water, past a few shops, following the path around to the left, and where the path divides, take the left side (where the sign says Masuk = entrance) up to the waiting area.

Take the left side

Take the left side

At that time of night, the sign said there were four ferries operating, arriving at about every 15 or 20 minutes.

waiting area

waiting area

There is WiFi available – Penang Free WiFi, but otherwise it is an un-airconditioned, covered area with some seats. There is no WC.

When the ferry arrives, the passengers disembark, the cars then drive off, the embarking cars drive onto the ferry, and then the passengers catching the ferry are allowed on.



There are toilets onboard.

The trip across the water takes about 15 minutes, and passengers are allowed off as soon as the ferry arrives.

about to arrive

about to arrive

It’s about five minutes walk to the station – go straight ahead, and turn right at the end – where the sign says – then follow the path. The station ticket office / waiting room is air-conditioned and clean. It had taken me about one hour from when I caught the taxi in Pulau Tikus to when I arrived at the station.

waiting room and ticket office

waiting room and ticket office

The rest of the area around the ticket office is under construction. I went to the ticket window to find out how to get to the platform.  They are using new platforms, not the ones next to the ticket office. I told the ticket office attendant which train I was on, and she told me the train was departing at 11PM. The web site, and ticket says 10.28, so I said to her that it was going to be late. She said that it arrives at 10.28, so it will not be late.  Interesting definition of late. The toilet in this office is OK.

To reach the platform you have to return to under the stairs which brought you to the ticket office, and there is a track across the rails to the platform. The staff opens the gate about half an hour before the departure and you are free to board the train.

platform at Butterworth station

platforms at Butterworth station

As they are changing the station area I suggest you arrive in plenty of time to find the route to the platform.

the train

the train

I had a look at the other carriages. Here are a few photos.

Second Class sleeper

Second Class sleeper carriage

Second Class sleeper

Second Class sleeper carriage

Second Class berth

Second Class berth

Second Class seats

Second Class seats

Second Class seats

Second Class seats

seats with tables

seats with tables

I was in Coach L3 – which was easy enough to find, as the coaches are in order, and in Place 7A – which means Cabin 7, berth A.

First Class compartment

First Class compartment

 The quality of the facilities and service has deteriorated markedly. In the previous first class sleeper there was an attached bathroom, with shower, basin and toilet. In this cabin there is only a  wash basin. Previously the berths were attached and parallel to the side of the train, but now the berths are across the compartment, so they are shorter and you can’t stretch.  I think the carriage corridor is narrower as a result. On the top berth your head is very near the luggage rack, so if the train had to brake suddenly your head would be hurt. If you remade the bed the other way it would be safer.  I was pleased to discover there were two power points, as I wanted to recharge my phone, but disappointed that they didn’t work.  Anyway, they are high up, so you need a long cord. You used to be given a 500ml bottle of water, and some more or less inedible food, but not any more. During the night it became cold and the blanket wasn’t enough.  A jumper would be a good idea.

The train departed at 11.15, it was a bit of a bumpy ride, and from around 5AM there were annoying but unintelligible announcements about the next stop.  The train arrived on time!! At 6.30AM.



There is a lounge in KL Sentral railway station for first class passengers on the third level, very near the hawker centre. Previously I think it was always open, so I went there to clean up and charge my devices.  But now it seems to open for an hour and a half before a train departure.

waiting room times

waiting room times

I returned later when it was open.  Now it is infested with cockroaches in both the bathroom and lounge, and some mosquitoes are around,too.

VIP room / First Class Waiting Room

VIP room / First Class Waiting Room

There are showers on the bottom level, again with cockroaches.  And nearby, lockers, the smallest and  cheapest being RM5.



I went to the ticket office on the second level to book a return journey,but the train was completely booked for the next five days.  So, early booking is advisable.

If you can get a booking – book early –  it is still a reasonable way to travel from Penang to KL, as you save a day travelling by night, and save a night’s hotel costs. It is now worse than in the past, but still OK and quite comfortable.  But, ensure you use the toilet in the station before you board.  Take something to drink onboard, but don’t drink any more than necessary because you really don’t want to use the toilet onboard if you can avoid it.  Have something warm with you, like a jumper. And for safety consider sleeping with your head in the other direction.

Once the line is electrified it should be a much faster trip, and I don’t know if they will still provide a sleeper service. If they do, I hope they have new rolling stock.

You can see more photos on my older blog on the night train.