Travel by train is a great way to experience the landscapes of Southeast Asia, and to meet the people who live here. Personally I think train travel the best way to travel in the region, and I always choose it if it’s a suitable option.
With low cost airlines having revolutionised travel in Southeast Asia, it’s become easy to just fly everywhere. If you are travelling in the region for the first time then I would consider adding rail travel whenever it is possible.
I remember little details of the first train trip I took in Thailand. The whirr of the ceiling fan (yes, trains with ceiling fans) and the sound of the train tracks as the sleeper train from Bangkok made its way to Surat Thani for the gulf islands. I remember nothing of the flight home.
Trains in the region for the most part have not been fully modernised yet, so it is completely different travel experience compared to travel in Europe and East Asia. For that reason alone you should experience it as it once was, before we are all riding modern trains built in China.
This guide covers every country in Southeast Asia that has a railway, though it doesn’t include city metro railways or airport trains. Most of the railway action is on mainland Southeast Asia, with a few railways running on the major islands in maritime Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia countries with train services
[Phnom Penh train station]
Cambodia has one passenger line in operation from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. The service runs three times a week and takes 7.5 hours. This is not the most efficient way to travel, but if you hate buses and happen to be travelling on the day of the week that this service runs, then this is the train for you. The bus on the other hand takes 4.5 hours and runs throughout the day.
The Phnom Penh to Battambang train was discontinued in 2009 and the line is currently being rehabilitated and extended to the Thai border. Eventually it will be possible to get the train from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.
In the meantime you can ride the Bamboo Railway in Battambang. This “railway” is made up of a bamboo platform and motor that sits on lightweight wheels that can be easily removed by two people. The railway was originally a means for people living along the line to transport goods. The section near Battambang is now a tourist circus. The railway will most likely be shut down once the railway is restored, so see it before it’s gone.
[Bamboo Railway, Battambang]
Cambodia rail resources
Out of the 17,000+ islands of Indonesia there are two islands with railways, and four other islands are planning, promising, or constructing railways.
[Train at Gambir Station, Jakarta.]
Getting around by train is a good option on Java with trains crossing the entire length of the island. If you are overlanding from Sumatra it’s possible to get the ferry to Merak and begin your journey there.
Starting from Jakarta, the train is the best way to escape the city as you don’t have to go through traffic to get to the bus station. Gambir Station is close to Jalan Jaksa, which is the backpacker street in Jakarta.
There are three branches that travel east towards Surabaya, and a single line after Surabaya that continues to the eastern end of Java at Banyuwangi. From there you can get bus and ferry tickets to Bali.
For visitors the best route to take is the line that goes via Bandung and Yogyakarta.
[Railway crossing at Yogyakarta]
Most visitors continue on to Bali, but if you can’t get enough of Java trains then you can turn back to Jakarta via Semarang on the northern route.
For an island that is over 2000km long Sumatra only has a few rail options, which are not useful from a tourists perspective. Eventually these disjointed lines will form part of the Trans-Sumatra railway, which will traverse the length of the island. For now though services in operation are most useful if you are slow-travelling around the island.
As usual the official railway website is useless, but a legendary rail-enthusiast on the Thorn Tree forum has put together maps for each segment.
North Sumatra trains – Travels from Medan to three points south. Seeing that every traveller is going to go to Lake Toba this is not a useful train.
West Sumatra trains – Two lines here, one serving Pandang, and one near Lake Singkarak.
South Sumatra trains – If you find yourself in Palembang then this is a useful option to get to the far south of the island.
Indonesia rail resources
Kereta Api – Indonesian Railways (in Indonesian).
Tiket – a user-friendly ticket booking service. A small fee is added but it will save you time and frustration of buying on the Indonesian railway site, which often rejects foreign credit cards.
The most comprehensive online Java Indonesia travel itinerary – dontworryjusttravel.com.
Laos has no railways but it has one train station at Thanaleng, 4 km north of the Laos-Thailand border. This station has a service from Bangkok by Thai Railways. It’s 20 km east of Vientiane, so as yet there is no Bangkok to Vientiane train service.
There is a plan to extend the line to Vientiane, along with a more ambitious plan to build a railway from Vientiane north to the China border, which would form part of the Kunming-Singapore railway line.
Train travel in Malaysia is a great option on the Peninsula, and there is one small line in Borneo Malaysia.
[The old Kuala Lumpur train station.]
Peninsula Malaysia has a number of useful train options for travellers. On the west coast it’s possible to travel from Bangkok to Singapore, transiting through Malaysia. Of course you should stop along the way to break up the trip.
[ETS at Butterworth.]
From Butterworth (the train station for Penang) the ETS service to Kuala Lumpur is the fastest train in Southeast Asia, travelling at 160km and hour.
About halfway between Butterworth and KL is Ipoh, which has an impressive colonial-era train station.
[Ipoh train station.]
From Kuala Lumpur there are regular trains to Johor Bahru on the Singapore border. There is no direct train to Singapore at the moment, so you have to change at JB for a short Singapore connection.
About halfway between KL and Singapore is the junction station of Gemas. From here the East Coast Line travels up the peninsula on the other side. This line is also known as the Jungle Railway as the train passes through thick forest, though increasingly it could soon be called the palm oil plantation railway.
The railway passes by Taman Negara National Park which can be accessed from Jerantut station. The railway terminates at Tumpat, near Kota Bahru (which is a popular jumping off point for the Perhentian Islands).
In Borneo Malaysia there is one railway in Sabah, and none in Sarawak. The Sabah line runs from Tanjung Aru (next to Kota Kinabalu airport), and travels south for 134 km to Tenom. Considering how big Borneo is, this is not a lot of railway. For visitors the section between Beaufort and Tenom travels through the Padas River gorge. Here is a review of the new (old) North Borneo Railway.
International trains from Malaysia
Trains for Thailand depart from Padang Besar and trains for Singapore from Johor Bahru. There was a time when you could get the one train from Bangkok, through Malaysia, to Singapore, but there are no such services at present. Perhaps when the planned Singapore to Kuala Lumpur high speed train is built they will think about extending north.
In Borneo Malaysia there are no connections to Brunei or Indonesia.
Malaysia rail resources
Myanmar is similar to shape and length of Thailand, and like Thailand the trains here hub-and-spoke from the principal city (Yangon is no longer the capital). There are over 4000km of railway in Myanmar, and trains travel to main points of interest (Bagan and Inle Lake). Decades of underinvestment has left the railways in poor condition, so don’t expect a similar service and comfort to Thailand. Lines are being restored and new carriages deployed, so hopefully that will change over the coming years. For now though, trains are much slower than the bus, and perhaps your last chance to travel rough before everything is modernised.
In Yangon check out the Yangon Circle Train. While this is technically a commuter train, this is a unique travel experience to see this old rail service that does what it says and circles Yangon.
From Yangon there are services north to Bagan and Mandalay. The overnight train Yangon and Bagan may not be comfortable, but it is certainly an experience you’ll remember.
Another branch to Mandalay goes via the new capital of Naypyitaw. From Thazi (north of Naypyitaw) there are services to Kalaw and Shwenyaung (for Inle Lake).
Northeast of Mandalay the service to Lashio is one the great Southeast Asia rail experiences, especially between Pyin U Lwin To Hsipaw. I caught this train in December, 2011 when the country was just beginning to open up.
This was the 1st class carriage for the Mandalay-Lashio train. The trains are now being upgraded and pictures I’ve seen of newer trains look more comfortable than one I took.
[1st class carriage Pyin U Lwin To Hsipaw (December 2011)]
I joined this service at Pyin U Lwin, which is a good place to start as the Mandalay service starts at 4am. Trains from Pyin Oo Lwin depart at a more civilised time of 8:22am.
[Pyin U Lwin train station]
The highlight of this trip is crossing the Goteik viaduct, which was built in 1900 with parts shipped from the United States.
The train I was on was running late so we got to see the southbound train crossing the bridge first.
When I visited the guidebook knowledge was that you couldn’t take photos of the bridge while crossing. Something about state secrets. I imagine now there would be selfie-sticks hanging out of every window.
[Crossing the Goteik viaduct.]
Another travel option is from Mandalay to Myitkyina, which will take you to the most northerly station in Southeast Asia.
Travelling south of Yangon there is a line that runs to Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Dawei, which is scenic yet slow.
International trains from Myanmar
Myanmar has borders with four countries but there are no international services to any.
Myanmar rail resources
Myanmar Railways – The unofficial-looking official site.
Train travel in Myanmar (Burma) – For railway information about any country seat61.com has the most comprehensive independent updates.
The only functioning railway in the Philippines is on Luzon. Not counting the Manila commuter trains there is one line that runs from Manila to Legaspi. Most of that line is not operating as it is being repaired, and only the section from Naga to Legaspi is operating.
Philippines rail resources
[Tanjong Pagar railway station, the former main train station of Singapore.]
Singapore has no national railway but it’s served by the Malaysian railway, KTM.
Trains from Malaysia used to terminate at Tanjong Pagar railway station, which was close to the city centre. That station was closed down in June 2011 and trains now terminate at Woodlands. This station is less than a kilometre from the Malaysia border so you are barely getting any Singapore train travel. The new station is connected to the MRT line.
And now to make the travel experience even worse, there are currently no direct train from Kuala Lumpur. Trains stop at the border at Johor Bahru and there you wait for another train to shuttle across the border. There is a high speed train planned for the KL-Singapore route, so maybe then you will be able to get the same train.
A more luxurious train option is the Eastern and Oriental Express – a luxury train service that travels between Singapore and Bangkok, taking three days and two nights.
[Hualamphong Train Station, Bangkok – Thailand.]
Thailand has a good network of railways, with all lines radiating from the central point of Bangkok. Thailand is 1600km from north to south, which lends itself to overnight train travel.
To the north the overnight train to Chiang Mai is a relaxing way to travel. Leaving in the evening the train arrives early the next day. The seats are converted into beds and are surprisingly comfortable.
[2nd class sleeper train.]
With long north-south distances and trains in both directions often sharing a single line, trains times are according to when they can pass each other.
[3rd class from Chumphon to Prachuap Khiri Khan.]
Heading south, the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani is a good way to travel to the gulf islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
One of the most unusual railway experiences in Southeast Asia is Maeklong market train, which is south of Bangkok. To get to the station the train goes through an actual market. Venders who set up stalls on the track quickly pack up their goods and move to the side while the train passes through.
[Maeklong market train.]
International trains from Thailand
Thailand is surrounded by four countries, though there are only two international train services.
There is a train that travels to Laos, which is a cross-border shuttle that runs from Nong Khai (Thailand) to Thanaleng (Laos). This train is timed to meet the Bangkok to Nong Khai service, and Thanaleng is about 20km from Vientiane.
For trains to Malaysia there is a direct service to Padang Besar which is just over the border (after Hat Yai, Thailand). From Padang Besar you can connect to Butterworth (for Penang), KL, and Singapore.
Book tickets from Bangkok to Padang Besar (and Malaysia).
Thailand rail resources
State Railway of Thailand – Official website that looks like an old Geocities homepage.
Thai Railways – Unofficial enthusiast site with times and history of Thai railways.
12GO Asia – My recommended train ticket booking site in Thailand. It’s easy to use and will save you time and frustration from trying to use the State railway website.
[An old locomotive outside Sai Gon station.]
The long and skinny land of Vietnam has one main line running north to south, with a few other lines radiating from Hanoi. The train is good way to travel in Vietnam if you are planning to stop along the way.
[Train from Danang to Hue.]
Much of Vietnams railway runs on a single track, so north-south and south-north trains share the same line. As a result there many passing loops where a train may wait until the opposing train passes. With only one line some trains leave at odd hours of the night, making it less convenient to jump-on and jump-off up (or down) the coast. If one train is late this has a knock-on effect for oncoming trains, so don’t plan anything time sensitive if you are planning to travel by rail.
[The single railway track serving Hanoi.]
International trains from Vietnam
From Hanoi it is possible to travel to China. There is one direct train from Hanoi to Nanning, and at Cao Lai you can cross the border and catch another train to Kunming. In central and southern Vietnam there are no railway connections to neighbouring Laos or Cambodia.
Book train tickets in Vietnam
dsvn.vn – Official Vietnam Railways booking site.
A more user-friendly booking site is 12go Asia.
Vietnam rail resources
Any questions related to travel by train in Southeast Asia please visit the Southeast Asia Railways Facebook group.
Future Southeast Asia Railways
If you’re interested in what the future of rail transport in the region holds then check out my epic map of proposed railways in Southeast Asia.