There's only one major hitch to catching trains all the way from Europe to Singapore. Our rail expert Matthew Woodward explains how to get around it...
You may have read Mark Stratton's recent article on travelling from Bangkok to Singapore by train. Chances are, you may have been inspired to try this route yourself. But what if you want to travel to Singapore from even further away – Vietnam, China or even overland all the way from London?
It can be done. But there are some obstacles you need to overcome first.
Sai Gon railway station (Shutterstock)
First of all, the bad news. Currently there is no working railway across Cambodia, so if you are planning to travel further south from Ho Chi Minh City you need to use the bus or the boat.
Getting to Ho Chi Minh City is straightforward enough and is currently the furthest you can travel continuously by train from Europe on the Trans-Mongolian route. There is a train that regularly crosses the border from Nanning in southern China, and there are frequent services south on the “Reunification Express” route from Hanoi to Saigon. Do stop off at some of the amazing beaches on the way down – Da Nang (for Hoi An), and Nha Trang are personal favourites.
Bus in Siam Reap, Cambodia (Shutterstock)
So how best to cross Cambodia to Thailand and the nearest available train?
There are several companies in Vietnam who offer fast and convenient services by modern air-conditioned bus from Ho Chi Minh City across to Cambodia connecting with Thailand. Most of them can be found on Pham Ngu Lao Street in the central downtown area of HCMC. You can book in advance or turn up on the day.
What if you want to take a little longer and see more of Cambodia? Simple. On day one, take the seven hour bus journey across the border to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Enjoy a night on the banks of the river Mekong (take a day to explore if you have time), then take a second bus on day two northwards to Siem Reap, about five hours away. It is also possible to take a fast boat to Siem Reap, but consider that you will either be stuck outside in the hot sun for a day, or inside next to the engine..
From Siem Reap the Thai border is less than two hours away by local taxi or minivan. It is a popular route and easy to arrange from any hotel or guesthouse. Your taxi can drive you right up to the border point.
Poipet border crossing (Shutterstock)
Be prepared for an hour of fun and games at the Cambodian border town of Poipet. It is not unsafe, but full of more of touts and scammers than you will probably see at any other border in the world. You simply need to ignore them all and get your passport stamped out of Cambodia, then walk across the border road (lined with casinos) into Thailand.
At the Thai border things are well organised, but outside be prepared for small armies of touts selling transport (most of the hassle is for people going the other way, as they can be targeted with false Cambodian visa on arrival processes). There is a bus here to Bangkok, but having come all this way, I hope you might try the train.
Thai railway (Shutterstock)
The Thai rail station at Aranyaprathet is 6km away from the border – a short and cheap tuk-tuk ride. If you have taken a morning trip from Siem Reap, you will be able to catch the early afternoon train to Bangkok. To the locals it's a very much a local train, but to international travellers it is known as “The Cambodian Express” for obvious reasons.
There is no need to book in advance, just buy a ticket and hop on – no seat reservations here! It’s an interesting eight hour journey in third class only carriages, but a glorious way to enjoy a slice of Thai life with a warm breeze through the open windows. The price for the whole trip is just 50 Baht, or £1.
The train arrives at the very old school Bangkok Hua Lamphong station in the early evening. This is very central, and it is easy to get to anywhere in central Bangkok from here.
Express train to Singapore (Shutterstock)
Once you want to move on from Bangkok enjoy Thailand’s only international train south to Malaysia and onward to Singapore. It is a popular journey, so book this in advance using a Thai travel agent – they can deliver the tickets to your hotel or guesthouse in Bangkok. From here, Singapore becomes the furthest you can travel south by train.
Check out Mark Stratton's article on travelling from Bangkok to Singapore by rail for more inspiration and advice.
Matthew Woodward has recently returned from his third Trans-Siberian rail adventure, now having covered over 50,000 km on the train from his home in Edinburgh, reaching Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. His blog can be found at toadstraveladventures.com.