Due to the amount of time we've spent wandering around south east Asia we're occasionally asked for itinerary suggestions by people planning trips. Below is a favourite itinerary idea of ours. We've done all of the legs of this railway adventure at various points but have never done it all in one go. Even after all this time there's still more for us to do in south east Asia.
Rather than bouncing all over the region flying all over the place and ticking off destinations, we find it far more rewarding to spend more time in fewer destinations and to travel by train whenever possible. You see more, have more unplanned encounters with interesting people and have the time to take it all in instead of sitting in yet another airport. With that in mind we have a trip suggestion for you...
Most people aren't aware of this but it is possible to catch the train all the way from Singapore north through Malaysia all the way to Chiang Mai in north west Thailand. Alternatively you can start in Chiang Mai, go south and end in Singapore. I'm going to talk about going north from Singapore to Chiang Mai but bear in mind that this can easily be done in reverse.
The trip is going to be comprised of several legs, mostly rail with some optional ferries, interspersed with stops of several days. At each stop you arrive by train, spend a few days exploring, eating, drinking and generally having a good time before getting back on the train and heading on to the next stop.
How long this trip takes will depend on you. I'd suggest a total trip duration of one month if possible. You could do it in two weeks pretty comfortably but it would be a little rushed. More time is always better but sometimes its a luxury we don't have.
Starting in Singapore our core suggested itinerary is:
Singapore -> Kuala Lumpur -> Penang -> Bangkok -> Chiang Mai
All of these places are on the rail line. Technically Penang isn't but you can see the island of Penang from the railway station and there's a ferry right there.
First you arrive in Singapore, presumably by air. Spend a few days, check it out.
Singapore is an expensive place so probably don't linger too long. The price of everything falls radically the instant you step over the border into Malaysia.
If you're on a tight budget arrive and head straight for the train.
Posts that we have written about visiting Singapore include:
- Cheap Things To Do In Singapore
- Royal Caribbean Cruises From Singapore
- Renewing My Australian Passport In Singapore (So Easy!)
Cross the border, next stop Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia's capital. It's not exactly our favourite city but its certainly a colourful multicultural place. You can expect rich spicy Malay and Indian food in abundance.
There's plenty of shopping available at more reasonable prices than you'll find in Singapore.
Our top activity suggestion for Kuala Lumpur is Dining in the Dark KL.
We have written a detailed Malaysia travel guide.
Posts that we have written about visiting Kuala Lumpur include:
- How To Get From Singapore To Kuala Lumpur By Train Easily
- KL Hop On Hop Off City Tour
- Food Tour Malaysia - Nommms
- Batu Caves
Another train north to Penang, a former British trading port jam packed with historical buildings and tasty food. When in Penang eat as much street food as possible. Look for anywhere popular with the locals and try whatever they're having (even if you're not entirely sure what it is).
Penang is also home to Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in south east Asia.
Posts that we have written about visiting Penang include:
- Touring Penang On a Scooter
- How to get across Penang Bridge and enjoy it!
- Food Glorious Food in Penang (Part 1)
- Food Glorious Food in Penang (Part 2)
- Red Inn Heritage Guesthouse Review (our favourite place to stay in Penang)
Next stop Bangkok, Thailand's capital. Bangkok is a sweaty bustling hive of activity. It's gritty, its intense, it can be confronting. It's an amazing city.
Bangkok is huge so we have written a guide to the different areas of Bangkok.
If you're looking for something a bit different check out the Siriraj Medical Museum "the museum of death" while you're in town.
Posts that we have written about visiting Bangkok include:
- Smiling Albino's Multi Transport Day Tour
- The Bangkok Robot Building (we love this thing!)
- The Best Area To Stay In Bangkok
- How To Get Around Bangkok By Public Transport
- Street Food In Bangkok
Finally, north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand's spiritual home. The old city at Chiang Mai's center is seven hundred years old and packed with Buddhist temples.
Thailand's rich spiritual life is easy to see in the streets of Chiang Mai. Of course there are also plenty of hostels, bars and restaurants so don't think that this means that it's boring.
At Chiang Mai you can get a meal and a massage from female prison inmates. They've moved just down the block since we wrote a post about this but its still going strong.
If you can ride a scooter or motorcycle consider doing the Mae Hong Son loop.
Posts that we have written about visiting Chiang Mai include:
- Songkran In Chiang Mai
- Meditation and Motorbikes
- Chiang Mai Women's Prison Massages
- Chiang Mai Walking Markets - Shop Till You Drop
- The Cost Of Living In Chiang Mai - A Monthly Break Down
- Advice If You Are Moving To Chiang Mai
Other Possible Stops
Ayuutthaya - Its on the rail line between Chiang mai and Bangkok. One day is probably enough. At one time it was Thailand's capital but it was sacked by the Burmese and never rebuilt.
Melaka/Malacca - Melaka is in Malaysia between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore but its sadly not on a rail line. I believe the Japanese ripped up the rail line to Melaka to gather resources for the Burma railway during WW2 and it was never rebuilt. Its roughly 2 hours by bus from KL from memory so you can bus there and back or bus there then on to Singapore which is about the same distance away.
Vientiane - From Bangkok instead of catching the train north west to Chiang Mai you can catch it north east to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Laos is a beautiful country. There are no railways within the country but the train can at least get you to its doorstep. We have written a detailed Laos travel guide.
One of Thailand's islands - You should probably see one island if you have time. I wouldn't particularly worry about seeing multiple islands as they are rather similar.
There is a chain of 3 islands off Thailand's east coast. Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Koh means island by the way. Koh Tao is the small kidney bean shaped island north north west of Koh Phangan. There are ferries between the islands.
On the mainland there are two towns, Surit Thani and Chumphon which have both a train station and a ferry port (of sorts) so you can get a ferry to the islands.
From Surit Thani you can get a ferry to Koh Samui. From Samui you can get one to Koh Phangan. From Koh Phangan you can get a ferry to Koh Tao. From Koh Tao you can get a ferry to Chumphon on the mainland where you can rejoin the rail line. Phew. And of course you can do this going the other way too.
Alternatively you could just go from Surit Thani to Samui, back to Surit Thani and back on the train (or from Chumphon to Koh Tao and back to Chumphon). We spent a good month just making our way through these islands so if you're pressed for time maybe leave it at one island. If I had to pick one I'd probably choose Koh Tao.
For more information about train schedules, ticket prices and so on consult the excellent Seat 61.
Train tickets are generally most easily purchased in person at a train station. For the leg out of Singapore at least you should be able to organize that online. Malaysia and Thailand prefer a more relaxed, face to face approach that is less compatible with confirming dates in advance.
Give yourself a few days contingency. Delays occur and train schedules get changed unexpectedly. You want to have room in your schedule to accommodate these.
Find a calendar of national holidays. The trains can get extremely busy on holidays as thousands of people head home from where they work to visit their family.
When sleeper cars are available, get one. A second class sleeper is completely adequate but you will appreciate being able to lay flat on a comfy bed.
Above all have fun.