Riding the Rails Down to Malaysia and Singapore
From Hat Yai in southern Thailand, flights to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur take little more than an hour and certainly won't break the bank, but taking the plane means missing out on so much along the way. Instead, it's a much more interesting idea to take at least two or three days for an adventure by train, stopping off to see some of the highlights on the journey.
Kicking Off from Hat Yai
Starting out just after lunch from Hat Yai station, you could reach Kuala Lumpur by evening for an overnight stay, before continuing on to Singapore the next day. Attempting this, however, would be unwise. You won't save money, you won't see much, and you certainly won't save time. Better to take it easy and break the journey down into smaller segments.
The first stop as you head south is the Thai-Malaysian border at Padang Besar. There are actually two crossing points on the railway, but the other is at Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province. Those in the know will note that Narathiwat is one of the three 'troubled' provinces in the south of Thailand -- the other two being Yala and Pattani -- involved in a long-running insurgency. Foreigners haven't been targeted, but the Padang Besar border crossing avoids any potential security risk, as the train passes through safe territory all the way.
It takes just under a couple of hours to reach the border from Hat Yai, and once there you'll have to disembark in order to pass through customs and immigration inside the station, first to exit Thailand, and then to enter Malaysia. Your next train should be a clean and modern Malaysian ETS train for the 20-minute journey to Arau, where you can take a cheap taxi to the ferry terminal at Kuala Perlis. This is the gateway to the gorgeous tropical islands of Langkawi, and the crossing takes just over an hour. In addition to some lovely beaches and great duty-free shopping, the highlights once you arrive include the Panorama Langkawi SkyCab and SkyBridge, providing spectacular views over the whole archipelago and even as far as Thailand. There is also an airport if you are short of time and want to move on more quickly.
On to Butterworth
Back on the train, the next stop as you head south is Butterworth, an hour and 45 minutes from Padang Besar, where the station doubles up as the ferry terminal for the boats heading over to Georgetown on the island of Penang. Since Georgetown formerly served as the capital of British Malaya, it's no surprise to find colonial architecture dating back to that era, as well as strong Indian and Chinese influences. Most of all, however, Penang is renowned for its food, with its rich heritage of culinary excellence across a variety of cuisines from around the region. Penang is also served by air.
Cooling Off at Ipoh
Moving on, Ipoh is around 90 minutes south of Butterworth, and is the stopping-off point for buses to the Cameron Highlands, where the weather is cool and the scenery includes tea plantations. For families, the most convenient approach would probably be to hire a car so you can explore at your own pace, and stop wherever you like.
Next Stop: KL
From Ipoh, the train takes another two and a half hours to reach Kuala Lumpur. This is yet another Malaysian city that's considered to be a food paradise, while the can't-miss attraction for many visitors will be the famous Petronas Twin Towers, although KL Tower is less costly to visit and the view is, in our opinion, even better. If you can avoid the midday heat, Kuala Lumpur is a great city for walking, shopping, and trying out all the different kinds of food you can find. You can also get around using the monorail system, which is so much better than you'll find in metropolises that use underground transport because you get great views of the city as you're getting around.
A Decision to Make
After Kuala Lumpur you have a decision to make, because the journey on to Singapore isn't quite as easy as it used to be, nor as easy as it surely will be in the future. That's because the train no longer actually goes to Singapore! Instead, it terminates in Johor Bahru on the Malaysian side of the Johor Strait, which separates the two countries. To continue the journey, you have to cross the bridge by bus and clear customs and immigration on each side. It's not the least bit difficult, but it does add to the journey time.
On the other hand, Johor Bahru can be a great family destination in its own right. Two of our favourite attractions are the Legoland Malaysia Resort and the Kota Tinggi Firefly Park. Legoland is a theme park and water park that also boasts its own hotel, and it offers a wide range of activities to keep the kids occupied and entertained. For an encounter with the natural world, Kota Tinggi provides the chance to take an evening boat trip out on the water when thousands of fireflies come out to play.
When your Malaysian rail adventure reaches the end of the line, it's easy to take a flight from Johor Bahru, or simply to continue to Singapore's Changi Airport where you'll have connections all over the world -- so the journey never has to end.
For timetables and booking advice on all of these trains between Thailand and Singapore via Malaysia, the best source of information is the Seat61 website. The site is an amazingly helpful travel resource covering railway journeys all over the world, and comes highly recommended.