Taking the Penang (Butterworth) Bangkok Train 36 to get to Hua Hin
Once we knew we were heading to Hua Hin after leaving Penang we looked at our transportation options. Hua Hin is about 200 km south of Bangkok and does not have a commercial airport. So to fly would have entailed a flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur then to Bangkok followed by a train ride or other ground transport back down to Hua Hin. Lots of hassle.
Then we found out there was an overnight train from Penang. Train 36 leaves Butterworth (the city on the mainland opposite Georgetown) every afternoon and trundles up through the night over the border and into Bangkok stopping at Hua Hin on the way. The train is run by Thai Railways who have a good reputation and all reviews we read online were great - so we decided to go for it.
You can buy tickets up to one month in advance. This is a popular route so we got our tickets right away. We bought ours at the ticket office at the Weld Jetty from where the Georgetown to Butterworth ferry operates. I don't know if there is anywhere else to buy the tickets.
On travel day our super landlady kindly gave us a ride from our apartment to the ferry terminal. The ferry leaves every 15 or 20 minutes or so from Georgetown to Butterworth and is free in this direction. We said our final goodbye and headed for the ferry.
There is a bit of a walk to the train station from the ferry terminal in Butterworth, and quite a few stairs to navigate. There was some major construction going on for what seemed to be a brand new transit hub building. Hopefully this will improve the connection between the ferry and the station. Fortunately for me a Malaysian soldier kindly carried my bags up and down all the stairs for me. Once we got to the station there was an elevator. There is a modern waiting area and an air conditioned waiting room.
The train was on time but unfortunately, the carriage we were supposed to be on where we had reserved seats was not available. From what we could understand it was delayed somewhere down the line so they took us to the Malaysia - Thai border in a commuter train instead. This was a shame, because it was definitely not as comfortable, still it was air conditioned it was only about 3 hours to the border.
Before we got to the border a friendly Thai man came around and asked if we wanted to order food for the next part of our journey. We placed our orders but we found out later that we could have also ordered once on the Thai side too.
At the border at Padang Besar all the passengers got off the commuter train with luggage. We cleared Malaysian immigration and then went through Thai immigration. Then we landed right back on the same spot where we got off the last train. Not exactly a tough border crossing.
Our new train arrived and on we got. The only seats available for the whole journey are second class sleepers. They are not closed cabins, you buy a seat which gets converted into a bunk part way through the journey. The upper bunks are slightly cheaper than the lower bunks because they are smaller, but with an upper and lower bunk you get to sit opposite each other while the seats are down, so we got one of each. Our dinner was waiting for us at our seats and as we ate it we were soon off onto the rest of our journey on the Thai side of the border.
The clocks go back an hour at this point, and then at 7pm the staff come around and convert all the seats into beds. It was a bit too early for us to go to sleep so we watched some movies and TV we had downloaded while snuggled up in one bunk. It was quite cosy and fun. After we watched the movie I jumped up the ladder with an elfin like grace to get to the top bunk. My gymnastic efforts are not captured on camera.
The movement of the train made it pretty difficult to sleep. It was a bit like sleeping in an Airstream trailer when it is very windy, an experience I have often described as what it must be like trying to sleep on a train rattling along the tracks. I can now testify that they are very similar. But I managed a few hours of sleep. I can also tell you that listening to Mumford & Sons on my phone was a good choice for helping me to drift into slumber.
The atmosphere on the train was friendly, with a mix of locals and tourists on board. We stowed our luggage under our seats and even though we bought padlocks, I would have had no security worries. The bathrooms were basic, and while peeing when the train rattles along takes a little skill, I found cleaning my teeth even harder. But it was all fine. The bunks were really comfortable and the sheets and blankets were clean. We rattled into Hua Hin at around 6.30am moderately rested and grateful for a fun experience. Much better than a boring old airplane!!