Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Thailand to Malaysia: Scenes from a train

September 28, 2010 by Rolf Potts

A little more than seven years ago, when I was living and traveling full-time in Thailand, I had one of the best train-travel experiences of my life while traveling south out of Bangkok to the town of Surat Thani.  I was sharing a second-class sleeper car with a Kiwi guy who was carrying a bottle of Mekhong whiskey, and at some point the two of us walked down to the train’s dining car and shared the whiskey with a rag-tag bunch of Thais, Brits, and Israelis.  I’ve never written about the ensuing experience — but it was one of those classic nights that make travel so special: A dozen or so people from five different countries getting tipsy and telling stories and offering advice to each other as we rattled our way through the lush Asian countryside.  We learned Thai phrases together and sang silly pop songs and toasted each other’s health, our voices blending in a happy yawp of international brotherhood.

Since I was covering the same route on my no-baggage transit from Thailand into Malaysia, I decided to relive that experience by buying a bottle of Mekhong whiskey in the Bangkok train station, and sharing it with new friends as the journey progressed.  Unfortunately, re-creating a previous travel epiphany tends to require more than a bottle of cheap Thai whiskey — and this journey turned out to be more random than my south-bound train experience of seven years before.

Regardless of how this particular journey turned out, I consider an overnight trip on a second-class sleeper in Thailand to be one of the great world train experiences.  I’ve traveled across Russia, Australia, and India by train at various points in my travel career, but (while less legendary by global reputation) Thai trains are as enjoyable as any in the world.  There’s something about the tidy efficiency of a second-class sleeper, with its tasty food, comfortable berths, and cheap fares (less than US$40 for a 24-hour ride from Bangkok to Penang) that makes it a joy to ride.  When the train attendant comes out in the evening and breaks the day-table into a two-tier bunk bed with full linens, it’s like watching a ritual of precision as mesmerizing and authentic to Thailand as khon dancing.

On this trip Justin and I shared seat-space with a Thai college student named Goi and a 58-year-old American traveler named Paul, but — as is the case on Thai trains — our social situation was fluid.  My favorite companions on sleeper car #3 were a 60-year-old Chinese-Malaysian plantation-owner named Saw, and a 19-year-old Indian-Malaysian student named Ranjay.  Since we were bound for Malaysia, I kept asking them about their homeland — but Saw was primarily interested in talking about American professional wrestling, and Ranjay liked to steer the conversation to SpongeBob SquarePants.  Since I know next to nothing about the WWE and/or SpongeBob, our conversation wound up being very lengthy, and unproductive to the point of being comical (I only regret we didn’t film it).

My trump card, or so I thought, was the Mekhong whiskey — which I took to the train’s dining car around dusk.  The first indication that the bottle of Mekhong might not have the social cache I’d assumed came when I offered a shot to the train’s dishwasher, and he waved me off and produced his own bottle of Hong Thong whiskey.  Technically, Hong Thong isn’t really whiskey (it has a taste closer to rum) — but then Mekhong whiskey isn’t whiskey either (it’s distilled from molasses, rice, and spices, and more or less tastes like low-grade cough medicine).   After the shots of Hong Thong I joined a group of jolly Thai men, none of whom were the least bit interested in the Mekhong.  The more I offered it around, the more they insisted that only crazy people drink it — and by the end of the night I felt like I’d done the Thai equivalent of offering up a bottle of Thunderbird wine to commuters on the Long Island railway.  The Thai fellows stuck to beer, and I was forced to drink the Mekhong myself (with a little help from Justin) while we all chatted about religion, Thai vocabulary, and the possibility of foul play in the death of Michael Jackson.

The train rolled across the Malaysian border the following morning, and I continued my second-class sleeper social routine.  One of my most intriguing new acquaintances was Erin, an Australia-bound Seattle native who was carrying so much stuff that she’d lost track of how many bags she was carrying.  In addition to a 60-kilo (132-pound) suitcase full of clothing and enough antiallergenic cosmetics for a one-year stint Down Under, she and I were able to identify nine separate bags (plus a loose pillow that wouldn’t fit in any of them), many of which she had acquired during a recent shopping binge in Bangkok.  She claimed that she didn’t want to go to the trouble of buying anything in Australia, but I was astounded by the sheer physical effort that went with helping her to take her bags off the train.

As I helped Erin wrestle her 60-kilo monster-bag out of the baggage compartment and onto the platform at Butterworth (near the island of Penang in Malaysia), I realized how long it had been since I’d even thought of the psychic and physical hassle that comes with carrying luggage.

Suddenly — in that moment — traveling with next-to-nothing felt like an indulgent luxury.

Share |
  • Welcome to Malaysia, Rolf! :D Looking forward to reading your adventures here.

    On a sidenote, 60 kilos of luggage is indeed shocking. I wonder how many more destinations she planning on…

  • Ralph


    Rolf and Justin, you cannot fool this investigator (my true vocation). This was pre-planned, right? I'm referring of course to the allegedly random encounter with Rolf's luggage antithesis. First the supposedly random, yet shockingly beautiful travel companion yesterday. Then this? Lol… concocted or not, it's still entertaining (I'm trying to convince myself this is truly not premeditated).

    In other news: this blog convinced me to purchase Vagabonding. I finished it up in one day (while traveling for work) and I'm now ready to pick up Marco Polo…

    Keep it up guys!!! And please, PLEASE tell me you have another similar travel blog in the works once this challenge is over.

    • Believe it or not, Erin was just a fellow-traveler on the Bangkok-Penang train. We'd hung out with her a bit the day before, and we knew she had that giant suitcase — but it wasn't until we went through the Malaysian border checkpoint that we realized how many total bags she was carrying. Since she and Rolf were already friendly, he just asked her if she was game for an interview, and she said it was no problem. Fortunately for the video, Erin was a natural on camera, and completely forthcoming about her luggage situation (we've interviewed plenty of other interesting folks in other situations who didn't make the cut because they froze up when the camera was rolling).

      As for Taylor in Thailand, she's Rolf's real-life travel-friend, and — as was the case with Max — he invited her along because she knows a lot of about Bangkok. In camera terms it doesn't hurt that she's also beautiful — but we had no idea before we started shooting that her reactions to the Chinatown bug-eating would be so expressive and priceless. So we've definitely been lucky to get such great people in front of the camera — but keep in mind that we shoot way more than we keep, and things aren't always so serendipitous.

      Anyhow, Ralph, thanks for following along — and I hope you enjoy Rolf's books (Max from the Bangkok video makes a couple of appearances in “Marco Polo Didn't Go There”).

      • Ralph

        No worries! I love this blog, the writing, and certainly the VIDEO! Your effort is certainly appreciated and the quality is just outstanding. I am sincere in my wishes that you both continue with similar traveling blogs after this one! It's just so much fun.

  • Brett

    This is going to sound like a silly question but: how do you approach all of these people? Just walk up to them and ask if you can join them, ask for names, etc?

    • Toniri

      This is something I would like to know too.

  • Hi Rolf Potts. I'm from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    I simply like the way you write your travel stories because it's entertaining and also because I love to learn how it's going to be in the foreign lands.

    Just wonder the location where did you shoot train photo? In Southern Thailand?

    Anyway, Welcome to my country, Malaysia.

    • The image used in the post was taken at the Butterworth station near Penang, Malaysia.

  • Great video, and great reminder about what really is essential, even when traveling for an extended period of time. I'm sure it would be challenging to do as Erin did and move across the world. I would think other options would exist, like shipping her clothes to her destination, that might have made her travel experience more enjoyable and less cumbersome.

    Cheers –

  • I would really be interested to know how much she'd pay on check-in cost

  • RCAQ

    Well, guess I'm among those posters questioning some scenes here and there – meeting some other nice ppl by incident – but hey, the outcome is quite nice.

    I hope you guys DID survive the lower temps in NZ – Looking ff. to the upcoming reports.

  • Max

    Hey come on… 60 Kg of luggage is not shocking at all if she needed it for an entire 365 days. Because wearing just 4 shirts, one jacket and a couple of pairs of trousers for an entire year would be a bit of a strain! When I moved to London to work and do my MBA, I lugged one Samsonite case at 55Kg on the train + a suit carrier at 10Kg + a laptop bag at 5Kg (but I stayed there for eight years). And finding clothes in my size and for my build might be harder, so I'd prefer to take them with me if I was moving country for a year or more. Can't wait for the next instalment! I'm hoping Rolf that you launch your own travel channel–these videos are really awesome–Justin's video skills and editing are really good.

  • Max

    A total opposite of the travel light philosophy… I was reading about the British special forces regiment the SAS Special Air Service… these guys regularly trek up to 60 km with the weight of a 15 stone man (95Kg / 200 lbs) on their back over the toughest terrain. The max I'd go to for a RTW trip is 10Kg though.

  • keep up the fun to read posts and videos. awesome blog to follow :-)

  • littleonesays

    Aah, fool. It should have been Sangsom, at least then the other tourists would have joined you!

    I *love* thai and malaysian sleeper trains. The Jungle train from Kota Bharu to KL has to one of the all time most beautiful train journeys in the world.

  • Great post! I know that my travel pack fully loaded (with netbook and DSLR) is right around 20lbs and if need be I can easily shave at least 5lbs.

    By the way. The videos are awesome! Keep it up!

  • Msmaf

    Very nice post, thoroughly enjoyable! Thanks.

  • You go Erin! ;)

  • Rolf – I wonder if you could say a bit about language barriers – do you know other languages and if not what strategies do you use for buying tickets, getting directions, riding in taxis, etc.? I'm in a part of China where no one (so far), other than the people in my organization and some students, speak English. I'm learning Mandarin but it's slow-going. I'm going to start exploring other parts of the country soon and without help from my friends (who won't be with me) here this will be a challenge. I'm up for it but would be interested in your thoughts on this – if you have time. Thanks!

    • Tyler

      I am not Rolf, but I am American and fluent in Mandarin…16 years so far and several stints living in China. I definitely encourage you to look around more. To meet your immediate need write down some basic phrases for yourself in English. Triple space it. Have someone translate those phrases into pinyin and into characters and carry it in your pocket. If you get in a bind show it to the people you are trying to ask something to… but with practice pretty soon you will need a new list of phrases. Where in China are you at by the way?

      • Thanks Tyler – good advice. I do have a list of handy phrases and my Lonely Planet phrasebook which has been helpful. I'm teaching in Shijiazhuang until next summer. I'll be starting Chinese language classes soon, so I think that will help as well.

  • @jpascoe, yep – since pretty much all the airlines have a 20kg weight limit flying into Australia (at least in economy class) she is going to be paying a LOT of excess baggage! And it's really not that difficult to shop here – we speak English, lol.

  • CamelsAndChocolate

    I, too, am obsessed with train travel! Why don't we have the kind of trains in the US like they do in Europe (or elsewhere)? If you want to take a shoddy Amtrak train all the way across America, it takes something like three days and costs thousands of dollars, whereas I could make the same journey in Europe for 24 hours and a couple hundred bucks!

    Though I've never taken a train in Southeast Asia, which I'm sure is a totally different experience…

  • Rodney

    That is F*c&?ing insane, I wouldn't want to carry that much crap across the street — let alone half way around the world. Well look at this way, at least there's some lucky chiropractor some where in the world that's going to have several nice pay days off of her dragging all the 'stuff?'…

    If ever there was a moment of realization on how much 'baggage' we carry literally and figuratively this post certainly proved it.

  • Turner

    Thailand is probably my worst luggage experience (my own fault, of course). I had just left Japan after two years and didn't ship enough stuff home before continuing on to Thailand for some volunteer work. As a result, I was hauling a day pack, an unwieldy duffel bag, and a gym bag on that same sleeper from Surattani to Bangkok. Fun fun. Definitely taught me to cut back.

  • Taj

    I think Erin did what any smart girl would do.. Shopping in Bangkok before a year in Oz. Great prices in Thailand and if I remember correctly, Australia is quite a bit more costly for most things. The only trouble is that she didn't pack up most of the stuff and ship it ahead of her.
    Reminds me of 10 yrs ago, I traveled to Seoul with 2 small children and 6 bags that averaged 60 lbs. each. (in addition to our carry ons.) WE were not traveling.. we were moving for a number of years.

  • Pingback: No-baggage field report: Full circle (week 6) | No Baggage Challenge -- Around the World with no luggage()

  • Simonlavender

    I flew into Thailand with 8kg, after SE Asia, Australai, NZ and Fiji, 6 months later I was up to 25kg carying a binliner with a wetsuit I stupidly bought! I know only carry 5kg in a laptop bag/backpack which is mainly food, water and essentials!

  • mrturtle59

    Hell this is like digging up old shit huh!!!
    I usually travel light everywhere I go. A visa card and a box of condoms does the trick for me.

  • Frank Thomae

    Great story and it reminded me of our own Thai train story where we met up with a very happy German on our way back from Ayutthaya.
    Gee, I'm surprised you didn't get many takers for the whisky. And I found it funny hearing about meeting a couple of Asians into wrestling and Sponge BobSquarepants.
    Great story!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Wayne

    I traveled without any luggage and it was great. I wrote about it here

  • travel srilanka

    for sharing this excellent experience, nice pictures,

  • Must be interesting trip :)

  • It's the most pleasurabel thing to travel by train, you will manage to do many stops and enjoy the view wherever you want.