For train enthusiasts, the 1,233-mile journey up the Malay peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok is both a marvel of engineering and the chance to put in some serious track time. The journey lends itself, though, to a staggered approach, including a stop along the way to explore Kuala Lumpur. Bear in mind that the U.S. State Department and most other governments warn against travel through southern Thailand while violence persists, although the train line merely clips the corner of one of the affected provinces.
One of the world’s great rail journeys, the trip between Singapore and Bangkok on the Eastern & Oriental Express offers the height of elegance between the two cities. Rather than slogging at an accelerated pace through steaming jungle and across rice paddies, the Eastern & Oriental extends to a leisurely four-day tour (from Singapore to Bangkok -- the return trip lasts three days) with time to explore attractions en route, stopping to view Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and crossing over the River Kwai, where passengers can disembark for a river cruise. Onboard conditions are from a bygone era, in a good way, with five-course dress dinners preceded by cocktails and accompanied by a resident pianist. Berths are in private cabins with steward service, while for the best views, passengers can head to the Observation Bar and watch this corner of Southeast Asia slide by with a Singapore Sling in hand.
Independent travelers can make the trip in either direction at low fares and in masterful comfort, but will need to purchase three separate tickets to cover Thai, Malaysian and Singapore railways respectively, with advance reservations essential. The fastest way to complete the journey is to take the morning eight-hour 2 train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, then the overnight eight-hour 20 train to Butterworth from Kuala Lumpur, arriving at 6 a.m. From Butterworth, the terminus for Georgetown, to Hualamphong Station, Bangkok, takes 20 hours on the overnight 36 International Express sleeper. For the return journey, the 35 sleeper from Bangkok to Butterworth leaves in the early afternoon and arrives in Butterworth at 1 p.m. the next day. The late evening 21 train from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur arrives at dawn in the capital, then the early afternoon 1 train reaches Singapore late at night. All trains run daily.
Depending on the schedule, independent passengers can take daytime or overnight trains, but either makes for a comfortable journey, with air-conditioning throughout. Daytime trains nurture passengers in wide, reclining seats with a trolley buffet service, while on sleeper trains the accommodation is in curtained bunks along a central aisle, with bedding provided. In First Class, berths have a private compartment with a wash basin, while some services even add WiFi and television to the package. On all trains, look forward to a dining car serving the pick of Southeast Asian cuisine at laughably low prices.
The immigration checkpoint for Singapore is at Woodlands Station, while Malaysian immigration is at Tanjong Pagar, 30 minutes farther up the line. For trains heading from Singapore to Malaysia, immigration scans but does not stamp the passport at Tanjong Pagar, with the Singapore exit stamp coming at Woodlands. For travel in the other direction, Malay immigration stamps passports at Johor Baru, with Singapore immigration a short walk from the platform at Woodlands. Heading from Malaysia to Thailand and vice versa, there are immigration controls on the Thai/Malay border at Padang Besar. The stamp at the border is one of the reasons why tourists in Thailand on a 30-day visa regularly make the pilgrimage to Padang Besar to exit Thailand for the day and re-enter on a fresh visa.