As a frequent traveller to Thailand I’m familiar with the troubles of the deep south of Thailand, where many countries have advisories to not travel there. As part of my Southeast Asia railway project I took a train through the southern provinces. This is my trip report and what to expect. What this isn’t is advice if you should go through there yourself.
Thailand to Malaysia by train
There are two ways to get from Thailand to Malaysia by train, both of which go via Hat Yai. The most popular route is from Hat Yai to Padang Besar. This connects to the West Coast railway line that runs from Padang Besar to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. There used to be a direct train from Bangkok to Butterworth (for Penang) on this route, but the train now only goes to the border.
The other route is from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok. This train service travels through the troubled provinces, which have become a virtual no-go zone for foreign tourists. As a visitor, the main reason you would take this route is to travel overland to the east coast of peninsula Malaysia.
The South Thailand insurgency
The conflict in South Thailand is an ethnic and religious separatist insurgency in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand (Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat) and parts of Songkhla province. This area was the part of the former Sultanate of Pattani way back in 1785, and it’s been part of the Kingdom of Siam/Thailand ever since. The most recent troubles have been ongoing since the early 2000s.
My government has issued a travel advisory stating do not travel in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla.
Hat Yai is in Songkhla province and is generally consider ok to travel in, but there were multiple bombings in 2006 which killed four people, so it remains on the red alert list.
Not only has there been conflict in the region for years, the railway has also seen its share of the trouble. In September 2016 a railway worker was killed when a train was bombed in Pattani. And in December 2018 explosions in Narathiwat province damaged train tracks, a cellphone-signal pole and an electricity pole.
Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok by train
Travel around Southern Thailand enough times and you’ll end up in Hat Yai at some point. It’s a provincial city that has few visitor attractions, but I like visiting these working cities in Thailand. For this trip I had come from Trang, and by the time I got to Hat Yai it was too late to get the train.
There are six train services that travel from Hat Yai through the deep south. Two of those services start from Bangkok. Those trains take over 20 hours so that is a long night/day in the saddle if you are going to do that.
Services from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok are local trains, so you just buy the ticket on the day of travel at the train station.
On the day I travelled I got the 7:35 to Sungai Kolok. This is one of the trains that originates in Bangkok. In hindsight I should have picked a train originating from Hat Yai, as the Bangkok train was an hour late.
When the Bangkok train arrives the sleeper carriages are removed and only the third class carriages remain.
It already felt like it was going to be an unusual trip as there were no other westerners waiting for the train. Usually there is at least a couple of backpackers on the same trip. In a case of ignorance is bliss, it was probably a good thing I didn’t check the news recently. Three weeks before my trip insurgents fired shots at train travelling between Sungai Kolok and Yala. The train stopped at Balo Station, where seven gunshots near a window and a wheel where found. No passengers were injured.
The train was waiting at Hat Yai for a while, and then soldiers from the Royal Thai Armed Forces got onboard. I counted at least eight in my carriage, all armed with machine guns at the ready. Being the only foreigner I was a curiosity to the soldiers, but no doubt my skin colour and passport waved me through.
Eventually the train got going for what is a 3h45m journey. This was an “Ordinary Train” with 3rd class seats (fan cooled).
I had a walk around the carriages and all the seats were the same, and there are only squat toilets.
After the soldiers were onboard I felt a bit self-conscious about being the only foreigner. No one gave me any unusual stares or greetings though, (apart from that kid a few seats away who challenged me to a staring contest).
A stop at Yala Station. Unfortunately I know Yala and other cities of the deep south like I knew about the cities of Northern Ireland when I was growing up. Known for all the wrong reasons.
Plenty of rubber plantations along way, which are at least more aesthetically pleasing than palm oil plantations.
Overall though the scenery is lovely along this line. I hope that this part of the world can put its troubles behind them, as Northern Ireland has done.
I love the little train stations of Thailand. This is Bukit Station.
The stations in the deep south are enclosed by security fences with gates at each end of the railway line.
Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok is a single track line, so the chances are that your train will be waiting at a passing loop at some point to let oncoming trains pass.
Towards the end of the journey (not sure where) the train went by a buddhist temple that was fortified like an army barrack. There was barbed wire on the perimeter fence and a gun tower on the corner. Earlier this year insurgents killed Buddhist monks at a wat.
And finally we arrived at Sungai Kolok (also spelled at Su-Ngai Kolok). There used to be a railway service that crossed the border to Rantau Panjang in Malaysia. The bridge and track is still intact, but it’s closed for now. It’s about 1.3 kilometres from the station to the border checkpoint, so about a 20 minute walk or get a motorbike taxi that will surely greet you at the station.
There is no railway at Rantau Panjang, so it’s either a taxi or bus from there to Kota Bharu. From Wakaf Bharu (near Kota Bharu) you can get the Jungle Railway all the way to Johor Bahru on the Malaysia-Singapore border.