Chiang Mai to Bangkok then Bangkok to Penang by Train
After enjoying our stay in Chiang Mai our trip continued with the long trip south into Malaysia. To do this we needed to travel all the way from Chiang Mai to Penang by train. It’s a pretty long trip and involved two overnight train journeys and a ferry.
Why not fly?
Of course, it’s not the way everyone would want to make the trip. In fact, our taxi driver in Chiang Mai was incredulous. When we told her we were travelling from Chiang Mai to Penang by train she laughed. ‘Why not just fly?’ she asked us. Indeed, that is most people’s reaction but actually travelling overland has many benefits if you have the time.
Firstly, you see more. There’s no better way to get a great idea of just how big the world is than travelling slowly across it overland. Secondly, you see things and meet people that you just wouldn’t cross paths with if you take the fast route. Still, it’s not always the most comfortable or luxurious way to travel and it definitely has its downsides on occasion. We think it’s worth it though.
Here, I’m going to share our experiences of travelling from Chiang Mai to Penang by train. I’ll also give you some tips in case you want to make the same trip.
Chiang Mai to Bangkok by Train
Firstly, you need to get to Chiang Mai railway station. It’s right out of town so you’ll need transport. We just had the hotel call us a taxi as we spent the day lazing by the pool after checkout.
There are several trains from Chiang Mai to Bangkok but ours (train 10) departed at 6 pm. Train 10 has first-class sleeper compartments as well as 2nd class. They are definitely more comfortable but the main benefit of these is that you get a small compartment to yourselves.
Onboard Train 10
As you can see our train was quite new and very clean. We arrived at the station quite early and stocked up on snacks and drinks for the journey at the 7/11 which is just opposite Chiang Mai Station. In the photo above you can see two bottles of water in the holder. These are provided for you which is nice but we had lots of our own also.
To give you an idea of the cost we paid 1653 Bhat which is approximately £42 each for this part of the trip. I think it’s pretty good value when I consider that is the same fare I pay to get into London from our local station which is a 60-minute journey.
As always, we arrived early because it’s better to be hanging around the train station for a while than risk missing the train. However, the train was already standing at the platform and the conductor waved us on when we stood by the door. It was lovely to sit inside with the air conditioning on as we waited for the train to depart. It also meant we could arrange our things and settle in for the trip.
I don’t know if they have a buffet car on this train because we tend to cater for ourselves on train journeys. We stocked up before boarding the train and enjoyed our snacks as we rolled out of Chiang Mai.
Of course even in First Class yo have to walk to the end of the corridor to use the toilet but at least you are sharing it with less people. On the Chiang Mai to Bangkok train the compartments, corridors and toilets were very clean. They also had a shower at the end of the corridor.
We didn’t use the shower, I just had a quick wash but it is a great option to have available. I’ve only had a shower on a train once – that was on Amtrak when we crossed the US by train.
The first part of the journey was in daylight so we saw a bit of the countryside before it got too dark. Shortly afterwards the conductor came round and put the beds down for the night. As you can see the seats convert to two comfortable bunk beds. I usually make Paul go on the top bunk because I tend to get up more. It’s easy enough to climb up and down but still a bit awkward.
A bonus on this particular train was the power points so we could charge our phones. We also had intermittent wifi onboard which was handy for keeping in touch with ongoing travel. There was also a tv screen which showed us where the train was, which station was next, whether it was on time etc. Very useful.
We arrived at Bangkok Hua Lamphong station just before 7 am the next morning. Shortly before that, we were served with a continental breakfast and coffee.
Bangkok to Penang by Train
Finding your way around when you arrive at a new station can be tricky. Bangkok Hua Lamphong station is a large station but we’ve been there before so we kind of know our way around. Although it’s big, there aren’t many places to get lost as there is just one main concourse when you exit the platform.
The next leg of our journey was Bangkok to Padang Besar which is the Thai-Malaysian border station. That train didn’t depart until 3.10 pm so we had a day to explore Bangkok again. Firstly, we put our bags into storage at the station. If you want to do this there is a small left luggage office right in the corner of the main concourse.
A Day in Bangkok
Unfortunately, not much is open in Bangkok at 7 am in the morning on a Sunday but we did find a coffee shop that was open in one of the small malls. This was just bad planning on my part as I didn’t even think about it being Sunday and the main malls opening later.
So we spent time relaxing in the coffee place until after 10 am when everything else started to open up. Then we headed to Siam Shopping Mall which is my favourite mall to hang out in Bangkok. I needed some new headphones for my phone as mine had stopped working. However, isn’t it always the case that when you want something specific all the shops sell something else!! Siam is huge but we had plenty of time and I did eventually find a small kiosk that sold me some headphones.
I like to listen to audiobooks when we’re travelling so I use my headphones a lot so I was pleased to get that sorted. Afterwards, we had lunch in a nice restaurant somewhere inside the mall. I thought I had photos but I can’t find them anywhere so perhaps not.
Bangkok to Padang Besar
The next stage of our journey was on the Bangkok to Padang Besar train. This train was 2nd class only so as you can see it was very different from the previous one. I actually think the layout is quite good and the seats are very spacious. The main problem we had with this train was that it was dirty. We wiped our area down with lots of wet wipes and that felt a bit better but still not nice. We’ve travelled on these 2nd class trains before in Thailand and Malaysia and they were much cleaner so not a typical experience.
It cost £31 each so not much less than the lovely First-Class trip from Chiang Mai. Still, it is an experience. As you can see you get these lovely wide seats during the day so plenty of space to stretch out. Because it is one person per berth you won’t get anyone else sitting in this area so it’s all for you.
Are we on the wrong train?
As usual, we were waiting on the platform very early and when the train pulled in we asked if we could get on. Yes, said the conductor so on we got, cleaned our seats, settled in. Then about an hour before our train was due to depart the train pulled out of the station. So I was really panicked now thinking we were on the wrong train. The conductor had wandered off and anyway there wasn’t much we could do s. So we sat and wondered where we were going.
Fortunately, the conductor returned and reassured us we were on the right train. We boarded so early that we were going into the depot to take on bedding and supplies. That was a huge relief and a bit of a diversion. A little while later we returned to Bangkok station and picked up the rest of our passengers.
In fact, the train was probably half empty so not that many people boarded anyway. It was all very quiet.
2nd Class Sleeping
At night, the conductor makes up the beds by pulling down the top berth and bringing the two seats together to make the bottom berth. The lower berth is really spacious and I was quite comfortable. Paul said the upper berth was more cramped and not so pleasant. If you look at the pictures you can see that you get an extra foot or more on the lower berth. Of course, you could book two lower berths but then you wouldn’t be sitting together so it kind of depends on the time of day you’re travelling. I think I would book two lower next time especially if the train left late so you’re only sleeping on it.
We arrived at Padang Besar station at 9:53 am (Malay time which is an hour ahead). This is the border station where you enter into Malaysia so you have to go through passport control and immigration. It’s a slightly strange but straightforward process as you kind of circle the inside of the station going to various booths to show your passport. We’ve done it before so we were prepared for it this time but go where you’re told and it works fine.
Facilities at Padang Besar
This is a small station with limited facilities but it has what you need. You need to travel to Butterworth on the local train and you can’t buy tickets online so first stop was the ticket kiosk. Most of the other people on the train are doing the same thing so expect a queue. Oddly, the kiosk didn’t open until half an hour after our train arrived so we all had to wait anyway.
Tickets are approximately 12 Ringotts (£2) each but do make sure you have some Malaysian money with you. Although you have plenty of time if you need to look for a money exchange. The train to Butterworth leaves at 12:25pm so we had several hours to wait around the station.
We found the toilets upstairs. Not the nicest toilets but usable and very busy. You have to pay although it’s a small charge and they give you toilet paper when you go in. Also upstairs is a restaurant which also sells takeaway snacks and drinks. There is another small food kiosk downstairs but their stock was very limited.
We found a large waiting area next to our platform which had power points so we charged our phones and waited. I don’t have any photos of the train to Butterworth but it was a modern commuter train. No reserved seating so just hop on and grab a seat. The train arrives in Butterworth at 2.16 pm.
Butterworth to Penang Ferry
The final leg of the journey from Chiang Mai to Penang by train is actually the ferry from Butterworth to Penang. It is quite a long walk from the train station to the ferry terminal but it is now all linked up so it’s either flat or there are lifts so perfectly manageable with luggage.
Alternatively, you can grab a taxi at the train station but they will want to take you all the way to Penang as there is now a road bridge. Be warned though, it’s a long trip by road so likely to be much more expensive than the ferry. The ferry costs about 20 pence so it’s hard to beat on a budget.
Butterworth station is new and has lots of lovely shiny facilities. If you need food before heading across to the island then you’ll find plenty of choices here. We just walked straight through and went straight to the ferry. It’s easy to find just follow the signs. You can check the ferry schedule here but we just turned up and took the next one.
Onboard the Ferry
Onboard the ferry you can sit or stand around the sides. The inner area is filled with cars. The ferries go back and for all-day so just turn up, buy a ticket at the kiosk and get on. Surprisingly, you only pay to travel to the island. Travel back to the mainland is free.
I really enjoyed the ferry trip. After two days travelling it felt as though we were nearly there and the sea breeze was nice. You get a great view of the new road bridge spanning the bay. And of course, great views of both Penang island and Malaysia as you can walk around the ferry as much as you like.
Less than twenty minutes later and we were disembarking on the island. There is a bus station right next to the ferry port. If your hotel is too far to walk especially under the hot Malaysian sun then there is a free bus. The CAT shuttle bus circles the main town area and leaves from Terminal B which is on the left-hand side as you leave the ferry. It leaves every 15 minutes and is a modern, air-conditioned bus.
Chiang Mai to Penang Schedule
As it’s such a long journey I’ll just put a summary here to make it clearer. Although it might sound like a long-winded way to get from Chiang Mai to Penang it was great fun. Why not give it a go?
Chiang Mai to Penang Schedule
6 pm Train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok
6.50 am Arrive Bangkok
3.10 pm Train from Bangkok to Padang Besar
9:53 am Arrive Padang Besar
12:25 pm Train to Butterworth
Ferry to Penang Island