The Bangkok to Butterworth Train: by rail to Malaysia

Bangkok to Butterworth Train

The Bangkok to Butterworth Train: The International Express from Thailand to Malaysia.

Penang: it is one of my favourite places on earth. This small island in the north-western coast of peninsula Malaysia is a melting pot of culture; feed your eyes, your belly and your soul on all it has to offer. I could return again and again.

We arrived on the overnight train from Bangkok; the International Express runs once a day from Thailand to Butterworth in northern Malaysia. From Butterworth it’s a short walk along an overpass to the ferry terminal where frequent ferries cross the channel over to Penang.

A couple of days were spent in Bangkok catching up with friends (after flying in from Myanmar) during which time we tried to book tickets on this train. This should have been straightforward, hell, we’ve bought tickets in stations across Asia, but it turned out to be rather trying.

There seemed to be some kind of ticket stitch-up at Bangkok station, we’d been warned of it by The Man in Seat 61: the term is called scalping apparently – travel agencies buy up blocks tickets to resell at a premium. 

We went up to the correct counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station – Chris, Sophie and myself – only to be told the train we wished to take was full. We pressed for details, she seemed unsure; she said come back later as unsold tickets may be rereleased: only to be told on the return trip that this wasn’t the case, was never the case, there were no available tickets.

However; if we went along to one of the travel agencies in the station they may be able to sell us tickets.

This sounded all too familiar; we trudged up to the agency she recommended. What a surprise: they could sell us three tickets, all together, on the train we wanted, for an extra 500 baht per ticket. How predictable.

Angry, I walked away. This is a station-based stitch-up , there should be no reason why we shouldn’t be able to buy these tickets at the correct price, at the station counter. I don’t remember us having this problem when we took this train six years ago, mind you: we’d caught the train in Surat Thani, much further down the line. 

We tried an agency outside the station but they couldn’t help, so, feeling extremely annoyed, we had to go back to the first agency and buy our tickets from them. Urgh! The tickets cost around US$53 each, $15 more than they should: we had definitely been scalped.

Still, at least we could leave on the day we planned to: we were going back to Malaysia!

BKK to Butterworth Train-2279
The International Express leaves Bangkok mid afternoon; we arrived on the platform just as the train crew were lined up smartly alongside the rear carriage.

This is a great train, the arm chair-style seats in the sleeper cars are roomy and the layout feels very retro and sixties space-age; at night the facing seats convert into a wonderfully wide bed while the upper berth folds down to a slightly narrower bed. Curtains provide privacy and with all the curtains drawn the carriage reminds me of the sleeper car in Some Like it Hot, I could just picture Marilyn peeping her head out, looking for mischief!

If you can, always go for a lower berth, the extra room is great but, more importantly, they never turn the lights off. The upper berth stays brightly lit all night: if you get it, I’d certainly recommend an eye mask.

Other than the light issue, this twenty-three hour ride is comfortable and smooth; a world away from the rail experiences we had in Burma!

There is a restaurant car attached until Hat Yai, we didn’t make use of it though on this journey: eating a pack-up we’d bought in Bangkok beforehand.

The train reached the border, Hat Yai, at half past six in the morning. As fairly typical with most rail border crossings we’ve done in south-east Asia, we all had to get off the train with our luggage to go through passport control and customs.

What was marvellous though, was that we went out of Thailand in one room and into Malaysia in another: this was so much easier than having to repeat the process after crossing into Malaysia.

BKK to Butterworth Train-2287

There was an eclectic mix of passengers on this international train, a few western independent travellers like ourselves, a couple of Thais and the rest of the berths were taken by Malaysians heading back home. The seat opposite Sophie was taken by a Malaysian man who managed to perform Salat in the roomy chair: there was just enough room for him to prostrate between the seat arms.

The juxtaposition of this devout man and pretty, blond Sophie in her tee-shirt and shorts – obliviously listening to music – opposite him, made a contrasting scene.

The scenery seems to be lusher and greener as the train heads into Malaysia; pulling into Padang Besar, the Malaysian border station, the carriages filled with day passengers: our spacious arm chairs became seats for two people, for the last three hours to Butterworth.

The train stops at Alor Setor on the way to Butterworth, from there you can get a bus to the Langkawi ferry. Two visits to Malaysia and I still haven’t been to Langkawi, shame on me! 


The International – Bangkok to Butterworth – Express pulls into Butterworth at 1pm; the station is linked to the ferry terminal via a walkway: a ten minute, hassle-free stroll.

Ferries cross the narrow channel every ten minutes or so, we were soon marching onto one amongst a crowd of passengers. For just 35 cents (US) it’s a bargain ride (MYR 1.20); it takes fifteen minutes, walk on, walk off.

By the time we’d reached Penang we were feeling rather peckish; luckily, the walk to our booked accommodation took us through Georgetown’s Little India.

A food stall on the top end of Lebuh Pasar was piled high with freshly cooked samosas and various other fried Indian snacks: perfect for lunch on the go, and perfect they were, delicious!

Penang | Malaysia-4380Just walking through the old streets of Georgetown, through Little India and Chinatown, on our way to the hostel had rekindled my love of Penang, I’d fallen for it six years ago and it was just as I remembered it.

Georgetown is one of the prettiest old towns in the world, it is a joy to wander the streets; after checking in, I couldn’t wait to get back out with my camera and go exploring.

Penang | Malaysia-4479

I can’t wait to share the glorious Penang photos with you!

Do you have some?

Keep travelling:

George Town, The Multicultural Jewel of Penang It’s just so darn pretty!

Penang Street Art and Peranakan Tiles The wonderful arty side to Penang.

Penang Hill: Train Up, Walk Down. Heading up into the clouds and exploring old colonial bungalows.

6 Reasons Why I Love The Cameron Highlands And they aren’t all tea!

How To Do The Temples Of Angkor a perfect 3 day itinerary to see the temples with tips!

The Golden Land: Travels Through Burma 

By Rachel A Davis

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