As of 10 July 2018, Singapore is still expected to have a high-speed railway (HSR) link to Kuala Lumpur in 2026. The buzz about it is that the direct journey will take a mere 90 minutes from Jurong East to Kuala Lumpur – it beats flying to get there, if you take into account check-in and baggage clearance procedures. Although uncertainty still lurks on Malaysia’s side due to the hefty cost of building this railway, they have not given an official report about terminating this agreement, hence the continuation of the construction of this link on Singapore’s side.
Even if this does not come to pass, thanks to the British who built railways throughout the neck of the woods way back in the 19th century, one can still actually travel from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane completely by rail.
If you have (a lot of) time, an overland train trip might be just be your thing. Unlike the often cramped quarters of an aircraft, trains have bunks wide enough to lie on, and the longer journey means you’ll have time to read, sleep, watch the scenery, or stretch your legs.
Not limited to Vientiane, rail travel actually connects us to exotic destinations as far afield as Hanoi, Beijing, and even Europe. Intrigued? Here’s what you can look forward to on these three overland journeys.
TRAINS FROM SINGAPORE
With the closure of the famous Tanjong Pagar Railway Station back in 2011, rail travel from Singapore effectively began from Woodlands. However, as of late last year, even the last of the KTM (Malaysian railway) services stopped servicing Singapore altogether.
Instead, the journey between Woodlands CIQ and JB Sentral has been taken over by a dedicated shuttle train service called Shuttle Tebrau. The short journey takes about 5 minutes across the causeway to JB Sentral, from where a network of KTM trains operate throughout Peninsular Malaysia and beyond. This means that all of the railway journeys from Singapore technically begin from JB Sentral.
If all goes to plan, the high-speed (HSR) railway line is expected to link Singapore and Kuala Lumpur by 2026, with 8 stations along the way. The direct journey will take just 90 minutes, and from Kuala Lumpur, there’s just one transfer to get to Bangkok by rail.
SINGAPORE TO BANGKOK AND VIENTIANE
You can technically travel overland all the way from Singapore to Vientiane, effectively taking you through four countries entirely on trains. However, there is no direct route as it requires multiple transfers within Malaysia alone. Beginning from JB Sentral, you can take the train to Gemas and board the high speed train (ETS) towards Butterworth.
Due to the train scheduling, you’ll need to spend the night in Butterworth (the mainland half of the state of Penang) in order to connect to Padang Besar in the northernmost Malaysian state of Perlis where Train 36, also known as the International Express (Ekspres Antarabangsa), connects you to Bangkok on a daily overnight sleeper service.
The onward journey from Bangkok (Hualamphong) to Vientiane is via the Bangkok-Nong Khai railway (Train 25/26) which has first- and second-class sleepers on newly-commissioned carriages.
The 15-minute shuttle train service extends across the Friendship Bridge into Laos at Thanaleng station, just 13km from Vientiane (you can get there via tuk tuk or bus) where you can board the bus across the border to Vietnam.
The entire journey: under 40 hours
Singapore: Woodlands CIQ à Johor Bahru: JB Sentral Via Shuttle Tebrau, 5 minutes
Johor Bahru: JB Sentral à Gemas Via KTM Shuttle train, 4 hours
Gemas à Butterworth Via ETS train, 6.5 hours
Butterworth à Padang Besar (border) Via ETS train, 1.5 hours
Padang Besar à Thailand: Bangkok Via Train 46, 16 hours
Bangkok: Hualamphong à Laos: Nong Khai Via Train 25/26, 10 hours 45 minutes
Nong Khai à Thanaleng Via Shuttle train, 15 minutes
Thanaleng à Vientiane Via tuk tuk or bus, 20 minutes
VIENTIANE TO HANOI AND BEIJING
While a rail journey to Beijing is possible, it’ll require a bus ride between Laos (Vientiane) and Vinh (Vietnam). The modern sleeper buses have bunks and toilets, with spectacular scenery along the way. You can take the bus all the way to Hanoi or alight at Vinh to transfer to a train to Hanoi Station onboard the 6-hour Reunification Express.
If you’re arriving by train from the south (like Hue or Hoi An), you’ll most likely pass by ‘Hanoi Train Street’ (as locals call it) in the Old Quarter – it’s a narrow residential street that has a railway track running through it. The street is so narrow that residents must ensure their personal belongings are all safely inside the house before the train passes twice a day.
From Hanoi’s Gia Lam Station, the hop on the direct 37.5-hour service to Beijing with its soft sleeper train (the Z6). If you prefer to break your journey within China, you can go via Nanning, Guilin and Xi’an.
By 2021, the new Sino-Thai Railway will cut the rail journey between the two countries short – the 1,272km journey between Bangkok and Kunming is expected to take about just 12 hours on board this high-speed rail service. From Kunming, there are numerous connections to Beijing via high-speed rail (under 11 hours) or high-speed sleepers (33.5 hours).
Construction of the line began in December 2017, and when completed it will run through China, Laos and Thailand, and it will cut the journey time from Bangkok to Beijing overland by about 46 hours.
SIDE JOURNEY TO KOREA (SOUTH AND NORTH)
From Beijing, you can journey to the Korean peninsula, with views of Southern China’s landscape along the way. Onboard amenities include an LCD TV for each bunk, lockable compartments, and a restaurant car serving Chinese dishes.
If the mysterious and forbidding North Korea intrigues you, there is a sleeper train that plies between Beijing and Pyongyang – open only to non-American travellers. Once across the border, you’ll get a firsthand look at the hermetic dictatorship, including the rural neighbourhoods not often shown to tourists. Among the train passenger rules: apply for a North Korean visa before boarding, and any mobile phones, tablets, laptops, USBs or DVDs you bring are subject to searches for banned content. As a side note, the world’s longest rail journey is from Pyongyang all the way to Moscow, on a limited bi-weekly service that’s not (technically) open to westerners.
As the land border between North and South Korea is closed, you’ll need to take a ferry journey from Qingdao – accessible via bullet train from Beijing – which takes you to Incheon in South Korea.
Here are the routes:
To North Korea:
Beijing South Railway Station à North Korea: Pyongyang Via K27 train, 26 hours
To South Korea:
Beijing South Railway Station à Qingdao Via bullet train, 5 hours Qingdao Ferry Station à South Korea: Incheon Ferry Terminal Via Ferry, 15 hours
BEIJING TO MOSCOW
What’s more mind-blowing than a trip to North Korea? Answer: a journey on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Although the original Trans-Siberian is between Vladivostok and Moscow, there are branch lines that connect to China and North Korea.
From Beijing, there are two options to get onboard the Trans-Siberian towards Moscow: the 8,986km-long Trans-Manchurian (built around 1900) and the Trans-Mongolian (completed in the 1950s) which meet up with the Trans-Siberian at Ulan Ude. The latter is arguably the more interesting of the two – the 7,621km journey takes 6 nights, taking in views of fertile rice fields, parts of the Great Wall, the Gobi desert and stops off at Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) before crossing into Siberia where the train changes tracks at the border (China uses a different gauge track from Russia).
The Trans-Manchurian is less popular but there is no need for a Mongolian visa as it bypasses the country, going via Harbin instead.
You can also stop over along the way to places like Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and Ulan Ude (an ethnic Mongolian part of Russia), and several points in Russia proper, like Irkutsk (for Lake Baikal), Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
There is no open hop-on-hop-off ticket on the Trans-Siberian, as it’s an all-reserved long-distance railway where everyone gets their own sleeping berth (tickets indicate specific travel date, train number, and berth number) but you can arrange stopovers along the way using a separate ticket for each train. It’s easier to arrange with a travel agent to do this. The Kupé 4-berth sleepers (2nd class) is a comfortable choice for most travellers, with the 2-berth Spalny Vagon (1st class) being double the price.
The Trans-Siberian Railway operates all year round, with the summer months (May to September) being the most popular thanks to the longer daylight hours. The seats are heated in winter when it’s easier to get tickets, but daylight hours will be shorter and station stops will be chillier. April is the least attractive time due to the slushy snow and barren landscape.
Both the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian make the one-way journey once a week from Beijing.
Here’s the route
Beijing South Railway Station à Moscow Via Trans-Siberian Railway, 6 nights
MOSCOW TO NICE
One of the world’s longest train rides, the Moscow-Nice train which stretches across 3,315km, connects you from the Russian capital to the Mediterranean coast via cities like Minsk and Warsaw before reaching Nice. As one of the longest trans-European rail routes, it traverses the route through 8 countries – Russia, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Monaco and France – in just under 47 hours.
The railway line from Moscow to Nice was popular with Russian aristocracy since 1864, when trains first started running the route. The railway connection had existed until 1914, and was reestablished 96 years later in 2010; in 2015 the 150th anniversary of the rail connection was marked by a considerable upgrade of the carriages, and it now boasts a Luxury Class (VIP) car as well as first class sections.
Since the train changes gauges at the Belarus-Poland border, you’ll need to a Belarus transit visa to cross the country. Today the line (which runs once a week) follows almost directly the original route that once connected Russia with Southern France in the 19th century.
Here’s the route
Moscow (Byelorussian station) ͢ France: Nice Via Moscow-Nice Train 18, 47 hours
THE HASSLE AND MAGIC OF RAIL TRAVEL
While air travel has made it possible to travel the globe, there’s just something about train travel that can add a journey’s worth of experiences to a trip. Travelling all the way to Beijing, Moscow or Europe may work out cheaper, and there’s more to see.
The only (possible) fly in the ointment is the journey between Singapore and Vietnam. From Singapore, multiple transfers are required within Malaysia before you even reach Bangkok. From here, trains don’t extend beyond Vientiane or Aranyaprathet (on the border with Cambodia), which really means the ‘rail’ journey ends here.
And of course, there is also a chance that the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR might not be happening due to the overwhelming cost of building its infrastructure. However, there are plenty of overland options that could bring you across the border to Kuala Lumpur.
While an overland journey (by bus) is possible, it is probably less of a hassle to fly to Vietnam (either HCMC or Hanoi) in order to connect to a train to China, and onwards to Russia and beyond.
From Vietnam, one can journey all the way to Europe completely by train without much of an issue in terms of transfers.
The next time you’re looking for an epic journey, you can skip Changi Airport and head for the rails. If you have an adventurous spirit and a lot of time, it’ll be a roomier, more picturesque journey with lie-flat beds at a fraction of the cost to fly.