Being experienced on the Bangkok to Malaysia Train heading to the Penang side, seemed mellower compared to the Perhentian islands side. The train was scheduled to leave Bangkok in the early afternoon and it is a good idea to be there on time, as my experience with Thai trains is that they run on schedule out of the main Bangkok station. A good bit of advice is to stock up on munchies before you get to the train station especially if you like fresh fruit. The train does have a restaurant car that serves mostly Thai dish’s that if you like Thai food are ok. The restaurant car can get a little rowdy at night as all of the train police, employees and regular riders all sit around and drink Mekong & Chang and unwind after a hard day at the office, which for many travelers is part of the charm and excitement of the trip, as you can be a fly on the wall and observe the locals with out feeling out of place or intruding.
The train is cheap, around $40 for a 2nd class air-con berth which is comfortable, be sure to get lower bunks as the upper bunks will sway more so you don’t get as good a sleep. You can also get 1st class air con seats where there are only 2 people in the cabin. The cabin is fairly small yet they managed to fit in a sink and a mirror which are the only real upgrades to the seats – berths. The biggest benefits is the ability to lock the door from the inside, so if you are traveling with your significant other you can have some “Risky Business” type nocturnal entertainment, not quite the same as the mile high club but something that will I am sure make the trip more memorable.
The first class trains also have a shower which is a nice feature on long trips, the bathrooms otherwise are the same. They don’t really check tickets to see what car you are suppose to be in after the first check so if you go from 2nd to 1st you can get away with a shower as well. In both the first class and 2nd class cars you can get electricity. For the 1st class cars the location of the sockets is apparent. For the 2nd class cars you need to look a little bit, on one of the pillars in the middle of the car about half way up is a covered 2 plug socket. You will also find connections in the bathroom areas where the conductors sit and where the hot water containers are. In Asia most airports and train stations have hot water available so it is a good idea to carry some Nescafe packets or tea and Cup of Soup or noodles, which are great budget stretchers when on the road regardless of flights or trains, as the terminals always zap you with a convenience premium.
The trains in Thailand for the 2nd class have seats during the day and then normally right after dark they start to make up the beds. The beds in the lower are generally a little wider. Both the lowers and the uppers have curtains that close off the entire sleeping area. A good idea is to sleep on your valuables, I have never had a problem or actually meet anyone that has had a problem but it always pays to play it safe. Something that the Thai train company should consider is lock boxes while they are at it some sort of internet connection would be a good idea as well.
Most passengers will find that there are no real surprises and the trip is straight forward and you can figure out what you need to know on your own. The only part that causes some agitation for most travelers on the trip is the border crossing, if you take the train to Malaysia Butterworth station you first get off the train for Thai customs with out your luggage, then get back on they move the train forward a bit and then you clear Malaysia customs where you need to bring all of your luggage, which is usually a mad dash to get off at the same time as everyone else and cue up. This should be straight forward, but the customs mouse trap that they setup on the Malaysia side is fluid so there can be some confusion on where you should stand to get in line. Lucky me I got behind the family that had some difficulty and was stuck in the line for nearly 30 minutes while they got the mess sorted and then back on to the train where now you have twice as many people as you had before and the seats are confused with new numbers and new passengers that are loaded at the Butterworth station, so beware of this, as it will cause agitation and confusion as you get it sorted out.
Next De Tour of Detours in Malaysia.