If you’re the sort of person who likes to travel, but dislikes sitting in metal tubes of death while they’re thrown from one site to another several thousand feet in the air after having transferred all your favorite liquids to comically small containers, I have news for you. There are things called trains! (Yes, this is news for most Americans.)
Train travel in Southeast Asia provides a a wonderful way to see the countryside, interact with fellow travelers domestic and foreign, and pack in a night’s sleep and transportation in the same bill. Traveling by train slows down the journey, making an expedition out of getting from point A to point B. It’s my favorite way to move myself between cities in this part of the world, despite a few haphazard trips.
That being said, there are a few basic items that make train travel a LOT more comfortable in this part of the world. Without further ado, here is my list of essential items for train travel in Thailand and Malaysia.
Do you want to eat all your meals in a red-toned dining car playing Dutch pop music? If not, read on.
Essential Items for Train Travel in Thailand and Malaysia
- Bathroom shoes. Bathrooms are always soaking wet on Thai and Malaysian trains. Shower heads are almost always directly above the toilets, meaning that everything in the bathroom gets hosed down regularly. Additionally, it’s a cultural thing in Thailand and Malaysia to clean up your area by spraying down the floors. My advice is to always use the squat toilets, where you’ll have less contact with surfaces, and to appoint a pair of flip-flops expressly for the bathrooms. That way you won’t feel like you’re carting train gunk around on the soles of your chucks for the next few days.
- A picnic. While there is generally food available on trains in the dining car and for delivery to your seat, it’s expensive. On the route between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, you’ll likely want dinner and breakfast, or breakfast and lunch, depending on your departure time, so it’s nice to have one of them already prepared. For dinner, pick up some street food from around the station–it will stay hot and tasty in all the styrofoam. For breakfast, I like packing up some dried fruit and crispy, sweet rice cakes available for sale outside most stations. Sometimes the trains get delayed, so it’s worth it to have some extra snacks (I like nuts and cookies!) packed away for train travel.
- Cards. I know most people rely on iPods and iPads and iPhones for entertainment on travel these days, but there is something nice and old-fashioned about playing cards on a train. While gambling is illegal, it’s okay to play Hold ‘Em with chips you’ve fashioned out of bobby pins or bottom-of-the-suitcase items for fun. I’ve found that playing cards is greatly entertaining not only to me, but also to others on the train; it’s a good way to break the ice.
- The train travel holy trinity: hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and a handkerchief. The sinks on trains may or may not have soap, depending on your particular train and ticket class. The bathrooms may or may not have showers and toilet paper. While your seating area will likely exceed your expectations at cleanliness, the same cannot be said for the stations you will be traipsing through. Hand sanitizer is must before digging into your picnic. Baby wipes double as toilet paper and makeshift body cleansers when a shower isn’t available. The hanky is for when you try to open a beer in the slot next to your seat that’s actually meant for securing a table and it explodes all over you.
- Water. Get a 1.5 liter bottle per person per trip. Drink it all.
- Zip ties. All the trains have different places and mechanisms for storing your luggage. Sometimes it’s a rack, sometimes it’s a space under your seat, and sometimes everyone just dumps their crap in the middle aisle. We haven’t witnessed any theft, and generally feel safe on trains, but that’s no excuse not to secure your belongings. I zip tie my bags shut and zip tie them to some sort of structure. Obviously these can be opened easily, but I do think it lessens the chance for a crime of opportunity. Also, I stick my passport, credit cards, money, and other valuables on my person when I sleep.
- Ear plugs/eye mask. Trains are loud and everyone is going to want to get up earlier than you. Shut it out. I like this eye mask, modeled after the one Audrey Hepburn made famous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
- Pajamas. When the bed is made, I like to change into pajamas. Not only is it more comfortable, but I feel more hygienic leaving the clothes exposed to the dining car, bathrooms, and train stations of southeast Asia out of my bed. In Malaysia, some trains have the berths folded down from the get go. I would still recommend changing clothes before settling down in the sheets you’ll be wrapped in all night.
- Beer. There’s something nice about cracking open a can of Leo as the train leaves a station. You’ve successfully navigated the world of train stations and ticket buying, and it’s your time to relax and enjoy the view out the window. Celebrate it! Also, if you buy beer in the dining car, you might find yourself at a dance party where the price of beer will make you broke. Better to stick to your seat with the one.
- A sense of humor and a spirit of adventure. To date, over a third of the trains I’ve taken through Thailand and Malaysia have resulted in some sort of major or minor roadblock. Know that there is a distinct possibility of getting derailed. Mostly, this means transferring to a bus for a portion of your trip. Approach these situations with humor, compassion, and a sense of adventure, and you should enjoy your journey.
Andy wasting his iPhone battery before boarding a train to Kuala Lumpur. Note: This train did not get anywhere near Kuala Lumpur.
More on Train Travel in Thailand and Malaysia:
- How to Book Train Tickets in Thailand Without Losing Your Mind
- From Chiang Mai to Bangkok: Train Legs
- From Bangkok to Hat Yai: The South
- From Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur: Derailed
- From Northern Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur: Destination KL
- From Singapore’s Train Station to the MRT: Getting to Singapore’s MRT System from the Train Station is Hard
Train Travel Resources:
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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