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Rail travel in Southeast Asia

A rundown on what to expect when travelling by train in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand

Where possible, rail travel is our preferred means of transport on our various Southeast Asia tours – especially for longer journeys. It’s certainly more environmentally friendly than hiring private buses, it avoids traffic, passengers can walk around – visit the buffet car, chat to other voyagers etc – views are often better than roadside ones and, these days, most Southeast Asian train services provide a comfortable travelling experience. So here’s a brief country-by-country rundown on the current state of rail travel in Southeast Asia including which ones we include on our tours, which we don’t and why.

Rail travel in Cambodia

Our alphabetical listing takes us to what is certainly the worst of the bunch as Cambodia’s 600 or so kilometres of narrow gauge track, originally built by the French, has suffered post-independence from serious neglect. (For obvious reasons.) There are two lines; Phnom Penh to Battambang to Poipet, (on the Thai border) and Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Kep and Kampot.

To be fair a lot of work has been done to repair tracks and upgrade rolling stock but while you don’t have to sit on the roof anymore, it still has a long way to go. Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville takes around 6 hours on a good day while a taxi or bus on the new motorway takes 3. It would be feasible for travel to Kampot or Kep but with only one departure each day in each direction it’s very hard to squeeze into an itinerary.

When we enquired at Battambang station on train travel to Phnom Penh, the woman at the station counter literally burst out laughing! The daily scheduled train claims to take 7 hours 40 minutes but the ticket seller admitted 12 hours on a good day was more realistic and since it leaves Battambang at 3.00 p.m. that’s not very convenient. It’s now only 5 hours driving time on Highway 5 so this is why, regrettably, we don’t include any train rides on our Cambodia itineraries. There’s constant talk of upgrades, new lines, new trains etc but roads are clearly the priority for the Cambodia government and the new Phnom Penh to Battambang and Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville routes are as good as any you’ll see in Southeast Asia. The one exception is, of course, Battambang’s famous Bamboo Train which is still going and still awesome but doesn’t really count does it?

The old station in the suburbs of Battambang

Possibly the best train ride in Southeast Asia – Battambang’s famous Bamboo Railway.
Rail Travel in Indonesia

This should be termed rail travel in Java as at present, with the exception of a Sumatran line linking Medan to its airport, only Java has functioning rail services. (Sumatra also has small, unconnected sections in Aceh and the south part of the island.) On the plus side, train travel in Java is very good and, unlike Cambodia, the government is investing heavily in the rail infrastructure so new lines are planned for Sulawesi and Kalimantan. (Although noticeably not Bali which has no trains and dreadful roads.) A high-speed link connects Jakarta with Bandung while elsewhere on the island, services are comfortable and efficient. Our Java tour uses trains for travel between Solo, (Surakarta) and Malang and Probolinggo and Kalibaru however we confess that what seem to be frequently changing schedules and train categories don’t make this easy plus the booking system isn’t the simplest either.

If you can find one going the right way at the right time, it is a great way to travel in Java – particularly bearing in mind the state of the road network.

The Surabaya Express passing above Malang's Rainbow Village
The Surabaya Express passing above Malang’s Rainbow Village
Rail Travel in Laos

Laos has recently gone from having no railways whatsoever to being the proud possessor of one of Southeast Asia’s most modern rail links. Between 1893 and the 1940s there famously existed just 7 kms of track, in the 4,000 Islands, and the rusty old WW2-period Japanese trains that last used the route have now become tourist attractions and selfie backdrops.

The new Chinese-funded and constructed high-speed line connects Vientiane with Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province with Lao stations of relevance to visitors being Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Oudomxai/Luang Nam Tha. It now takes some 2 hours to travel from Vientiane to Luang Prabang – when we first went it took 2 days. On the downside, we find the Lao government rather precious about its new prestigious railway and reservations are notoriously complicated while baggage check-in is as strict as at any airport. (No liquids over a certain number of millilitres, penknives etc are systematically confiscated and so on.)

The Lao system should be connected to the Thai line from Bangkok to the border shortly but as far as we know no plans exist to extend the network elsewhere. It certainly makes travel to Luang Prabang very painless and the scenery’s good but meanwhile, much of the country’s road infrastructure is in pitiable condition.

Rail Travel in Malaysia

No Luang Prabang-Vientiane or Jakarta-Bandung bullet trains as yet although Malaysian services are comfortable and efficient while its reservation system is more user-friendly than certain others. Borneo, (Sabah and Sarawak), has only a short 80 km section from Kota Kinabalu but tiny Peninsula Malaysia boasts (we’re reliably informed), 1,776 kms of track. Main routes are a west coast line from Padang Besar, (where it connects to the Thai system), to Singapore via Butterworth (for Penang) and Kuala Lumpur plus an eastern one running from Kota Baru in the northeast, through the centre of the Peninsula to KL.

Our West Malaysia tours use the former to travel between KL Central and Butterworth – taking around 4 hours – from where a ferry connects the station to central George Town on Penang Island.

Rail travel in Southeast Asia
Phnom Penh’s not so hectic main station
Rail Travel in Thailand

At present, Thai railways extend from their Bangkok hub to Chiang Mai in the north, (via Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok, Lampang etc), and Hat Yai in the south. The latter extends to Padang Besar to connect with the Malaysian network while side routes link the cities of Trang on the west coast and Nakhon Si Thammmarat on the east. (All of these stop at Surat Thani for onward ferry travel to Koh Samui etc as well as Khao Sok National Park.) To the east, a northern route leads to Udon Thani via Nakhon Ratchasima and Khon Kaen while a southern track branches off at Nakhon heading for Surin and Ubon Ratchathani.

One of the most frequented Thai trains – at least for visitors – is the Bangkok Noi-Kanchanaburi-Sai Yok route, infamously constructed by the Japanese army during WW2 using local and allied POWs. It’s still in use, still commonly referred to as the Death Railway and features on our Thailand family tours and South Thailand tour, Mountains and Rainforests.

Kanchanaburi, Death Railway
The ‘Death Railway’, at Tham Krasae, Kanchanaburi

A final route, connecting Bangkok with Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border, is slated to become part of a projected Bangkok to Phnom Penh to Saigon, (Ho Chi Minh City), high-speed railway. Other projects are linking Udon with Vientiane (ongoing) and extending the northern line to either Chiang Rai or Nan.

In terms of rail travel in Southeast Asia then, the Thai system is reasonably comprehensive and provides a reasonably efficient service although, bear in mind, some of those are long routes so while rail travel times are okay compared to road travel, an 11-hour train ride can be equivalent to a 1-hour domestic flight. However, a Thai night sleeper train is an experience, is certainly better than a long-distance bus journey and does help to reduce flights to a minimum. (It’s environmentally friendly but also helps to keep tour costs down.) (BTW, Thai sleeper trains feature single carriages with curtained-off bunk beds the length of each side.)

Once again the booking system is not the easiest with multiple train types with differing prices while a major problem is tickets not becoming available until 60 days prior to departure. Schedules list; rapid, express, special express, sprinters etc, offering different seat categories – some with couchettes others not, some with premium class others 2nd class only and so on. Rapid is the slowest while one departure – nicknamed the Disco Train – even came with an in-train night club although we’re not sure it’s still going.)

Our Thailand tours currently feature a daytime, morning, sprinter train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok, (for Sukhothai) and a night sleeper train south to Surat Thani, for Khao Sok.

Vietnam, the Hanoi to Saigon express
The Hanoi to Saigon express
Rail Travel in Vietnam

Last but not least in our rail travel in Southeast Asia outline are Vietnamese railways. The shape of the country means there’s only a single, very long, route – often known as the Reunification Express – connecting Saigon, (Ho Chi Minh) in the south with the capital Hanoi in the north. An extension continues northwards from Hanoi to meet the Chinese border at Lao Cai, although last time we looked no cross-border trains were running. (Lao Cai is misleadingly named Sapa on their schedules – which is actually an hour’s drive away up a mountain.)

The rolling stock is not new and the trains slow but they are comfortable enough. The 4-bed sleeping compartments are well-equipped with curtains, clean bed linen, reading lamps and electric and USB sockets. Hanoi to Lao Cai is an acceptable 7 to 8 hours on a night train but Hanoi to Saigon weighs in at 18 hours. Apart from missing out on most of the country, that’s a long ride, so on our Vietnam tours, we stick to shorter sections such as Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi.

Our brief outline of rail travel in Southeast Asia dates to June 24 although certain things do change quickly, (others not at all). We’re particularly looking forward to seeing some rather more modern – and faster – Thai trains and routes, (they are working on it), while it seems a great shame that the Cambodian government doesn’t divert some of the funds for their impressive road construction projects into the railways – both for freight and passengers. Lao is probably well-advised not to borrow any more funds from China, so best stick to just the one line for the foreseeable future, while Vietnamese railways – although quaint and comfortable enough – could also benefit from speeding things up a bit. West Malaysia seems to have got it covered for now but the extension of Indonesian routes to islands other than Java would be great since, as mentioned before, their roads are generally not great!