Singapore To Bangkok By Train

In 1990 I bought a second-class ticket from Singapore to Bangkok with stops in Penang and Suranthani.

The old Pearl of the Orient was too clean for me. The Chinese president had ordered the city-state’s police to fine people for chewing gum or not washing their hands after using the WC. Effacing the walls with graffiti has punishable by caning and possession of heroin earned addicts a death sentence.

At night the city was quiet.

The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel was closed for renovation.

Gone were the ‘girls’ from Bugis Street.

I was ready for another country.

To the north Malaysia stretched up the peninsula to Thailand.

The early-morning train departed Tanjong Pagar rail station. I bought roti and beer for the seven-hour trip to Georgetown, from where a ferry crossed the harbor to Penang.

The conductor called for the passengers to board and we left the station several minutes behind schedule. Several westerners complained about the delay, but the engineer made up time through the Woodlands and the train crossed the narrow bridge into Malaysia.

On the other side immigration officers checked our passports and we reboarded the train for the northbound journey.

The train stopped at Senai, then traversed verdant ricefields into the thick mountain jungles of Segamat to arrive at the Malaysian capitol of Kuala Lumpur.

The Central Train Station had been designed in a “Neo-Moorish/Mughal/Indo-Saracenic/Neo-Saracenic” by AC Normanhad and completed in 1897. The train stopped for a few minutes.

I ran across the platform to buy two can of ice-cold Tiger beer from a store. to a store.

The day was getting warm.

I bought another beer at Kluang.

Around noon the train pulled into Taiping. The hill station was reportedly the wettest region of the Peninsular, but the monsoon was months away and we traveled under sunny skies.

A Muslim man boarded the train. I put away my beer. Admad spoke of the Koran.

“Everything known is written in the holy words of Allah. It gives all answers.”

Having spent the last six months in Indonesia, I did not challenge his statements.

Strict Muslims have no use for atheists.

Neither did Christians.

I got off at Georgetown. The Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal was a short distance from the train station. The trip across the narrow channel lasted twenty minutes. Penang was a beautiful city with ecletic melange of architecture.

British Empire buildings.

Chinese godowns.

Malaysian mosques.

Hindu temples.

There were beaches.


And funny hotels and bars and good Indian food.

I stayed a few days extra.

I met a young British nurse. She was vacationing in South East Asia. Sara and I had a good time.

But she was heading south and I was going north.

We said fare-well at the train station.

The train left on time. Sara waved good-bye. I sat by the open window and enjoyed the comforting sway of the train.

Past Gunung Jerai.

Through rice fields.

To Pasang Besar and the Thai border.

To the passport control I was just another westerner was heading Thailand.

A bald Frenchman pointed to a sign proclaiming death for possession of drugs.

“The Thai are serious about drugs.”

“So am I.”

We spoke on the train. He was traveling with a western woman. She was just a friend.

Michael lived in Pattaya.

Maria made a face.

Women didn’t approve of that city.

“Come see me some time. It’s the last Babylon.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

Everyone had heard of Pattaya.

No place on the planet offered such wickedness.

I got off the train at Suranthani.

A ferry ran tourists to Koh Samui.

The day was beautiful.

The weather was warm.

The beer was cold.

The sea at the beach was as clear as gin.

I rode a dirt bike around the island.

I met a girl named Vee. She worked a bar. We pretended to be boyfriend and girlfriend.

After a week I was almost sad to leave the island

The night train pulled out of Suranthani a little before sunset.

The 2nd Class sleeper was clean.

The food in the dining car offered a special menu for Thais. We drank Mekong whiskey with soda water and ice. The windows were open to the wind.

I slept in the upper berth.

The cleaning crew woke the passengers before dawn.

Bangkok was less an hour away.

I held off on breakfast and watched the scenery change from rice fields to factories to city..

Steel tracks split, as the train neared the station.

The engine lurched to a halt.

I checked my seat.

Everything was in my bag or on my person.

I tipped the cleaner fifty baht.

The price of a big beer.

Hua Lamphong wasn’t busy.

Almost everyone was Thai.

This was not the West.

None of the trip had been and I would expect anything else.

It felt good to be in the Orient.

It was the other side of the world.

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