By now we have covered this Thailand to Singapore overland route a whole bunch of times, following various inland and coastal routes, on trains, planes, boats, and all sorts of automobiles. But my favourite will forever be the rail routes, where, in 2022, we travelled the entire way from Bangkok to Singapore by train and then back again with a return train journey from Singapore to Bangkok. A journey of near 2000km and 30 hours each way (not including transfers) including transfers at the Thai border at Hat Yai (Thailand) Padang Besar (Thai/Malaysia border crossing), Gemas Railway Station, and Johor Bahru (a basic map outline here). As well as the more exciting stopovers between Thailand and Singapore by train at both Penang and Kuala Lumpur which I’ll highlight along the way.
Note, there isn’t a direct Bangkok to Singapore train, or even a direct train from Thailand to Malaysia, or a Malaysia to Singapore train given the border crossings between countries. There will be some chopping and changing along the way.
Thailand to Singapore by Train (2022)
This journey has actually become much more convoluted and annoying through the years which began with the introduction of electric trains in Malaysia before the arrival of Covid and the ongoing precautions/restrictions in this new normal. Otherwise, the simplest time for train travel was when the diesel trains from Bangkok would continue right through to Malaysia right up to Butterworth/Penang Sentral. But now it’s all about the nippy electric lines in favour of the good old gas-guzzling diesel trains and the complications will likely remain this way as well until the full implementation of the electric train lines has been made on both sides of the border. Otherwise, for now, there will be forced transfers between both diesel and electric trains on this overland train journey from Thailand to Singapore.
But it’s still a fantastic journey which I will highlight in the various stages below travelling from Thailand to Singapore by Train with my favourite stopovers along the way. Admittedly it can be done quicker (skipping past Butterworth/Penang) but for me the stopovers are the highlight of the entire journey between Thailand and Singapore.
The Best Train Journey in Southeast Asia?
There are of course more exciting but simpler train journeys in Southeast Asia, day-trip type train rides, like the death railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and maybe Sapa in Vietnam etc. But when it comes to more extensive train travel itineraries in Southeast Asia, I can’t think of any that can compare to Bangkok to Singapore by train. Of course, this may be down to personal preference, as I find more excitement in travels south of Thailand with the old colonial spice routes, multiculturalism, the diverse mixing pot of amazing food, and the modernity of the utopian/dystopian cities along the way. Whereas, with inland Indochina borders, I find them more depressing tainted with constant reminders of tormenting times with the Khmer Rouge, communism, and the American Vietnam War.
Why Travel from Bangkok to Singapore by Train?
Train travel is definitely not the most convenient mode of transport in the region, and on our most recent adventure, Fanfan refused to join me, opting instead to fly to the main destinations along the way. Including short stops at Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and then the final stop at Singapore. Because she pretends she doesn’t love trains (everybody loves trains).
I think her combined flight time between all destinations (Bangkok to Penang to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore) was around 4-hours in total and it’s also much cheaper. But she doesn’t get to do the trains! With over 30 hours of trains from Bangkok to Singapore with lots of excitement along the way. But there are also other perks i.e.
- Travel is flexible and tickets are easy to buy at the station with (generally) no pre-bookings required before travel.
- Trains are generally cleaner and more comfortable than travelling by bus/coach.
- Train travel is relaxed and stress-free and it’s a bit like sightseeing from the comfort of your chair.
- You get to travel on trains. Trains are awesome!
How Long to Travel from Bangkok to Singapore by Train?
The travel time from Bangkok to Singapore by train (currently) is around 30 hours not including border crossings and transfers. It can also, potentially be rushed through 2-days (48 hours) given the overnight sleeper train travelling from Bangkok to Hat Yai near the Thai-Malaysia border.
In comparison, flights take under 3 hours and coaches around 20 hours so it’s definitely the most convenient mode of direct travel between Bangkok and Singapore. But there are some must-see stopover destinations (incl. Penang, Kuala Lumpur) and a lot of nice scenery along the way. Full recommended train route and times below:
Recommended Train Route from Bangkok to Singapore
It is possible to travel faster, for example travelling direct from Padang Besar to Kuala Lumpur bypassing Butterworth/Penang. But Penang is the obvious highlight of this stretch. There are of course potential stopovers at Hat Yai or Gemas, but there’s not a lot to explore in either destination (and more so Gemas) and I’d more likely squeeze in a visit to Melaka along the way with a short(ish) bus transfer from Tampin Station in southern Malaysia.
- Bangkok to Hat Yai Junction by train (17 hours): Leaving Hua Lamphong Station. Recommend a Lower berth cabin with better views on the right side of the train. Arrival time is unpredictable. Optional stopover at Hat Yai.
- Hat Yai to Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint (Malaysia Border) by train (1 hour): Immigration takes roughly 30-minutes. Remember, new currency and new time zone in Malaysia (+1 hour).
- Padang Besar to Butterworth (Penang Sentral) by train (2 hours): Ferry terminal connects for travel to Penang island. For a more direct, less fun route, travel directly to Kuala Lumpur (5.30 hours).
- Butterworth (Penang Sentral) to Kuala Lumpur by train (4.30 hours): Currently only KMT Komutertrains so harder to pre-book. Views better on the left side of the train.
- Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru by train (8+ hours via Gemas): This is an indirect route travelling first from Kuala Lumpur to Gemas (2.30 hours) on electric trains and then from Gemas to Johor Bahru (4.45 hours) on diesel trains. Add time for the stopover. Views best on the right side of the train.
- Johor Bahru (JB Sentral) to Singapore (1 hour): The crossing from Malaysia to Singapore (Woodlands) where times depend on immigration queues. We have spent up to 4-hours during peak weekend travel times.
This entire journey takes roughly 30 hours on trains in total between Bangkok Thailand and Singapore.
Bangkok to Hat Yai by Train (17 Hours)
The first stretch from Thailand to Singapore by train would be the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok Hua Lamphong station to Hat Yai with just one recommended option leaving at around 14:00PM (full timetable here). The train then arrives at Hat Yai when it arrives. Thai train travel times are notoriously unpredictable where I’ve had trains arriving more than 3 hours late and recently had a 5-hour delay for onward travel from Hat Yai to Padang Besar.
However, the overnight train from Bangkok to Hat Yai is scheduled to take 17 hours arriving the following day at around 10:00AM.
For comfort, there are 2 better options, with first-class which is ideal when travelling as a couple but not so much for solo travellers as they are double berth cabins.
For solo travellers, the 2nd class sleeper berths would be best, and I recommend paying extra for the lower berths in 2nd class sleepers with window views at night. During the day both beds will be stored away and replaced with seating.
Bangkok to Hat Yai Junction by train
Online Train Tickets for Bangkok to Hat Yai? For up-to-date train times and to buy tickets online check here.
Where to stay in Hat Yai? Hotels near Hat Yai junction here.
Arrival Station at Hat Yai? Hat Yai Junction (map of Hat Yai station area here).
Stopover at Hat Yai Junction (Southern Thailand)
Previously, before Malaysia introduced the electric train lines, the Bangkok train would continue across the border at Padang Besar, right down to Butterworth/Penang. Now it only travels to Hat Yai Junction, and, given the unpredictability of Thai rail travel, onward journeys to the border and Malaysia have become trickier to organise. Therefore, a stopover a Hat Yai may be worthwhile.
Admittedly Hat Yai isn’t the most exciting of stopovers, but it is worth the visit, and it is a convenient base for travel in the south of Thailand for those failing to find onwards travel/tickets, or are just needing a break (Hat Yai hotels here). Hat Yai is also a major hub for travel in southern Thailand, with various onward travel options including buses and minivans to all the southern coastlines and islands in Thailand like Koh Lipe (our guide to southern Thai islands here).
Hat Yai to Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint by Train (1 Hour)
It is a simple one-hour journey from Hat Yai Junction to Padang Besar on Thai 3rd class trains meaning it is probably the most exciting hour of train travel on the Bangkok and Singapore train line. Proper old school trains, open windows, rotating fans, cool breezes rushing through your hair, head out the window (but be careful). It’s proper train travel. Lots of noise, woot woot! Anyway, even if it’s not to your comfort, it’s only an hour from Hat Yai before reaching the Thai/Malaysian border at Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint (the 2nd/final Padang Besar station). This will be the last of the Thai train lines.
Train from Hat Yai to Padang Besar: Times, schedules, and online booking here.
Map of Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint Area.
Thai/Malaysia Border Crossing at Padang Besar
It’s a relatively simple border crossing (with most western passports) stamping out of Malaysia, then stamping into Thailand with the completion of a quick arrival form.
Padang Besar to Butterworth/Penang by Train (2 Hours)
It is possible to travel directly from Padang Besar to Kuala Lumpur (times, schedules and booking here) but I would personally space out the journey now with a night or two in Penang which is easy to reach from Butterworth Station.
The trains are much quicker once arriving in Malaysia since the introduction of ETS (Electric Train Service 2015), although between Padang Besar and Butterworth the ETS has currently been discontinued in favour of the simpler Komuter trains. These trains to Butterworth travel relatively regularly and, unlike Thailand, Malaysia Trains actually run on schedule. They leave and arrive on time, which can be a bit unexpected/disorientating when arriving from Thailand.
Admittedly the Komuter trains in Malaysia are a bit uncomfortable when full with a mix of bus-like seats and subway-like benches making it my least favourite stretch of the journey between Thailand and Singapore. But Georgetown/Penang makes it all worthwhile.
Padang Besar to Butterworth (Penang Sentral)
Online Train Tickets for Padang Besar to Butterworth? Probably because it is a local Komuter Train I have had trouble to find online tickets between Padang Besar Immigration Checkpoint and Butterworth.
Where to stay in Butterworth/Penang? Hotels near Butterworth Station here and hotels in the nearby UNESCO area of Georgetown Penang here. Arrival Station at Butterworth? Butterworth Railway Station (map of Butterworth station area here.
Stopover at Penang Island
From Butterworth station, it is an easy 5-minute walk to Penang Sentral and the ferry terminal (now a faster shuttle boat) for the crossing to Penang Island. The crossing takes roughly 20-minutes from the pier at Penang Sentral to George Town in Penang (either by ferry to Weld Quay or faster shuttles to Swettenham Pier. It is then easy to walk to the central tourist areas of Georgetown (here for our quick guide to Penang).
Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur by train (4.30 hours)
Following the same ferry route back to Penang Sentral and Butterworth, we are now on the fast train lines with the KMT Intercity and ETS (Electric Train Service) travelling from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur. These high-speed trains sit at around 100-150km/h so it’s less clickety-clack of steel wheels as it is whoosh. Reclining seats, free WiFi, it’s all business and less charm. It’s probably closer to the Shinkansen or Maglev of Japan or Chinese Maglev than the diesel trains of Thailand. The comforts are also reflected in the price.
Note, the KMT Intercity trains in Malaysia are often full so there’s no guarantee of a window seat without advance booking. A lot of commuters also have no interest in the scenery around them and pull down the blinds. So it maybe best to pre-book tickets here. It won’t be long before arriving to the KL Sentral Station in Kuala Lumpur.
Stopover in Kuala Lumpur
Again, I would forever recommend a stopover in Kuala Lumpur for those who have never visited, and it’s easy to reach the various tourist areas (KLCC/Bukit Bintang/Chinatown) by Monorail or LRT (Light Rail Transit) from the KL Sentral Station (our Kuala Lumpur Guide here). For simple stopovers KL Sentral hotels here.
Butterworth (Penang Sentral) to Kuala Lumpur by train
Online Train Tickets for Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur? For up-to-date train times and to buy tickets online check here.
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur? Hotels near KL Sentral here and hotels in the bustling Bukit Bintang area here.
Arrival Station at Kuala Lumpur? KL Sentral Station (map of area of the KL Sentral station area here.
Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru by Train (7+ Hours)
Again, due to the limited coverage of electric trains in Malaysia, there is no direct train from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru. Instead, there will be a stopover at Gemas Railway Station to switch from the electric train lines to the old-school diesel trains. So, first, you must travel from KL Sentral to Gemas (2.30 hours) by electric train before travelling from Gemas to JB Sentral on the diesel trains (4.45 hours).
The journey between Kuala Lumpur and Gemas is smooth but it’s not really an exciting train ride. There are some nice mountainous scenes between KL and Melaka and another potential stopover would be at Tampin for onward travel to Melaka. Unfortunately, trains do not connect to Melaka but it’s relatively easy to reach.
Stopover in Gemas
With the stopover, at Gemas, there’s next to nothing going on, at least nothing of tourist interest. A short minute walk finds the main street with Pizza Hut, KFC, FamilyMart, and 7-11s if desperate, otherwise this is just a pit stop along the route through Malaysia to Singapore by train. Map of Gemas Train Station area.
Gemas to Johor Bahru by Train
The final journey from Gemas to Johor Bahru is then the last leg of the journey from Singapore to Thailand by train before the border crossing from Johor Bahru to Singapore to complete. Travelling from Gemas to JB Sentral is by older/cheaper diesel trains (4.45 hours).
Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru (JB Sentral) by train
Online Train Tickets for Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru? Again I struggled to find the Komuter trains for this stretch online (I paid at the original station for both tickets). For up-to-date train times and to buy tickets online for the KL Sentral to Gemas Station check here.
Where to stay in Johor Bahru? Hotels near JB Sentral here.
Arrival Station at Johor Bahru? JB Sentral Station(map of the JB Sentral Station area here).
Johor Bahru to Singapore Border Crossing (1-4 hours)
Ideally, there would be a direct train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (they do talk a lot about it) but, there will always be a stop for the border crossing at Johor Bahru (JB Sentral) for passport control/immigration connecting the Woodlands Train Checkpoint in Singapore.
There is a train crossing between Johor Bahru leaving JB Sentral to Woodlands in Singapore on the Shuttle Tebrau. Train times and online tickets for the Shuttle Tebrau here.
I have only followed this route however by bus, where after passing the Malaysia side of the checkpoint, there will be buses (we recommend #170 or #178 to Kranji Station, to cross the bridge from Malaysia to Singapore at the Woodlands checkpoint. After passing immigration and passport control in Singapore the same buses will pick you up for transfer to the various destinations in Singapore.
The nearest Singapore MRT station would be Kranji Station (map here) and it takes roughly 5-minutes on the same shuttle bus (#170 or #178). You are then connected to the convenient MRT train lines that connect pretty much all of Singapore (transfer via Jurong East for the main tourist areas).
Note, immigration and passport control can take longer during peak times and, on our most recent crossing (2022), we were waiting 4 hours to be stamped in at Malaysia due to Singaporeans crossing the borders for cheap weekend nightlife in Johor Bahru. It is advised to choose your crossing times outside of peak periods.
Reasons Why I would never do it again?
I’d probably do sections of the journey, but I have done it once, both ways, and I don’t see why I would consider doing it again. The route has become more complicated as well and less enjoyable as well. But it’s no doubt a fascinating journey for someone new to route and more so the region. Otherwise, these are the nuisances that made the trip not as enjoyable as it could be.
- 1. Trains in Thailand are unreliable and onward travel is unpredictable.
- 2. The KMT Intercity trains in Malaysia are generally full and there’s no guarantee of a window seat without advance booking.
- 3. The scenery through roughly 14 hours in Malaysia is a bit repetitive. A lot of palm trees.
- 4. Immigration between Malaysia and Singapore can take hours (4 hours at weekend on our recent return).
3 thoughts on “Thailand to Singapore by Train (via Bangkok, Penang and Kuala Lumpur)”
Thank you for your info on train travel in Malaysia. Quite some years ago I travelled by train, from KL to Butterworth overnight. A really pleasant experience. I had a quarter bottle of whisky to sustain me and an upper bunk. The other passengers were friendly and I woke refreshed and ready to get the ferry over.
Thanks John. I’m the same with the whisky. Unfortunately alcohol has been on trains these days so I have to hide it in a soft drink bottle 🙂 I always opt for the lower berth in advance these days for the night views out the window.
Yes, I travelled that way from Bangkok through to Butterworth back in 1989. It was a relaxed, comfortable sleeper trip and with the added interest of a slight pause at the border while a couple of passengers were taken off the train and arrested.
It’s a shame that the route is now so broken up. I’m travelling it again, February 2023, but needing three trains.