Forget flying. It is too expensive. And too easy! Backpackers and all travellers with a sense of adventure should always try to undertake the journey from Singapore to Bangkok overland, so that’s either by road or by rail! But how easy is it, and what kind of planning must you make beforehand?
Leaving Singapore can often be a blessing for many backpackers, as the Lion City is a very expensive place to stay when travelling on a budget. Planning for a trip northwards overland, taking in the sights and sounds of Malaysia and Thailand, is not only a good way of experiencing new cultures but also to save some money! Most people stay for a night or two in Singapore, with plenty of amazing tourist attractions to keep you occupied (including Singapore Zoo, Marina Bay, Orchard Road, Sentosa Island, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve etc.), before heading to Woodlands in the north of the island to begin their overland journey in earnest.
Singapore and Malaysia are linked together by the Johor Causeway, which is a road bridge across the Johor Strait. There you will reach Malaysian territory at Johor Bahru. But first, you must decide how you want to leave Singapore, as there are plenty of buses and coaches that will take you over the Causeway and beyond (sometimes even up to Kuala Lumpur). Woodlands Checkpoint is the place in Singapore where you go through the border formalities to leave the island, and immigration officials often come on to the buses to check your documents. This is quite a luxury, as the further north you get, the less chance there is of this happening! Instead, you will probably have to queue for ages in hot and humid conditions to get your passport stamped! There are also new shuttle trains running along the Causeway (just a 5 minute journey), but you will need to find your own transport upon arrival on the Malaysian side.
The first major city you will encounter in Malaysia on this journey (apart from Johor Bahru) is Melaka, which is full of colonial charm. Yet the city is not going to hold your attention for too long, so further northward is the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur. Most people choose to stopover in KL for a night or two and take in the impressive sights, such as the PETRONAS Towers and Merdeka Square. Shopping for all budgets can be performed at Bukit Bintang, and tasty Malaysian street food can be found primarily at Jalan Alor, which is one of the main backpacker hideouts in the city. If you want to stay a little longer in the area, then you have the possibility of great day trips to the humid jungle at Taman Negara and the much cooler climate found at the Cameron Highlands.
Train travel in Malaysia is cheap and easy. There is a very impressive rail network and some major stations, such as KL Sentral, are among the biggest and busiest in the entire region. Tourists use Malaysian trains all the time, from the West Coast Trunk Line to the East Coast Trunk Line, and everything in between, such as the “Jungle Railway” (even if standards on the Jungle Railway are slightly inferior to those of other rail services in Malaysia).
You will find the Malaysia/Thailand Border at Padang Besar. The name is the same on both sides (unlike at other borders, where each country has it’s own name for the crossing) and journeys by rail and road are made at the same place using the same immigration officials. It can get very busy at Padang Besar, but in my own personal experience, it seems more organised on the Malaysian side, as opposed to the Thai side.
Southern Thailand is the home of many iconic beaches in Phuket and Krabi, and it great to stopover in these areas before heading further north. In fact, speaking of “iconic”, I consider Ao Nang Beach to be the best beach in the region! Trouble is with southern Thailand, when you arrive you just don’t want to leave! Depending on how much you’re enjoying yourself, it is possible to spend at least a week or maybe two weeks while you seek out everything the area has to offer. When down by the beach, make sure you get a ride on the iconic Thai longboats – but remember that there is so much more to the Thai coast rather than just its coastline (as strange as that sounds!), including mangrove swamps, beautiful temples, and big Buddhas.
Thailand has an extensive railway network, reaching to the furthest extremities of the kingdom, and to the borders of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The track is narrow and for most of its length it is single-track only. These facts, together with the lack of bridges, make travel by train in Thailand rather slow. However, Thailand’s railways are comfortable and inexpensive, safer than travel by road, as well as being cheaper and more relaxed than air travel. Using the Thai rail network, you can travel economically from Padang Besar at the border with Malaysia to Chiang Mai in the north (via Bangkok), or even to the border with Laos at Ubon Ratchathani. There is no train travel to Cambodia from Thailand, so it is necessary to use the Bangkok-Siem Reap bus services instead.
Arrival in Bangkok signifies the end of the first part of your overland trip through South East Asia. The Thai capital certainly is a love/hate kind of city, with pollution, traffic congestion, and scams being prevalent wherever you go. However, there are two reasons why Bangkok remains so popular with tourists: the delightful street food, such as at Sukhumvit Soi 38, and the cheap price of accommodation! A 5 or 6 night stay in Bangkok is the least you should think about before you head off to other parts of the region. For taking in the sights and sounds of Bangkok, there is nowhere more important than the Grand Palace.
When staying in Bangkok, why not think about experiencing an extra country on your journey and try out the newly-opened land border crossings with Myanmar. You can travel to Mae Sot, across the Friendship Bridge, and enter Myanmar, from where you are only a 6 hour bus ride from Yangon.
If you are interested in making a second part of your overland journey through South East Asia from Bangkok to Saigon, then consider getting to Siem Reap (via the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border) to travel south through Cambodia to Phnom Penh, and then into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta over the Bavet/Moc Bai border crossing, where you can catch another train northwards up the Vietnamese coast to Hanoi, via Hue and Danang.