8 Reasons Why You Should Take a Train Trip: Lessons from Traveling Singapore to London Overland

After I graduated in 2011, I thought of doing a dream trip. Beyond common places like Taipei and Bangkok, I have never traveled before. I want my trip to be different.

At that point of time, my good friend Terence wants to travel from Singapore to London overland.

I was thinking:

Why not join him? So we embarked on a month journey traveling over train.

Singapore to London Overland

Train travel is one in a lifetime experience for many Singaporeans. After experiencing it, I encourage everyone to try it. Here are 8 reasons why I think so.

1. Comfort

Raise your hand if you love to fly. Unless you are in business class and above, flying will never be comfortable.

Taking trains is different.

How Trains Look Like

You have the luxury of lying down. You can also sit up if you want. It is your choice.

2. Experience the journey

Unlike planes, you can see lots of things during your train journey. Sometimes, it can be a mountain. Sometimes, it can be a river. Other times, it can be nothing at all. Just plains.

I am fascinated at the amount of effort put in to make train travel possible.

At every stop, you can also see a mini-market. There will be people selling food.

Kazakh Train Station

You will have the true local experience especially when you are traveling in a large country.

3. Getting to Know New Friends

Taking the train for more than 10 hours is long. You will get to see unfamiliar faces. During our train ride from Nanning to Beijing, there are strangers sit facing us.

I remember how I feel when I look at them. They are staring at you. They just do not look friendly. And we need to spend 10 hours on the train.

During the journey, we interacted. Then we found out that they are just as friendly as us.

The person sitting beside Terence keep asking him to eat. The lady opposite me is peeling oranges for us.

We learned their culture and practices. Many common practices in China that are otherwise inappropriate in Singapore. For example, littering on the train, spitting on the floor, etc.

When we are in Xi’an, we met a retired English couple. It turns out that they are traveling from the UK to Singapore overland.

Photo with English Couple

We left them our contact details. And we met them when they are in Singapore.

4. Being More Aware of Scams

Scammers are creative. They have to think of ways on how they can cheat your hard earned money. They are also good actors. Lying straight to your face without blinking an eye is never a problem for them.

While we are traveling from Bangkok to Siem Reap, we booked a tour bus through our hotel. The tour bus brought us to the border between Thailand and Cambodia. We alight in a secluded place where we have our lunch.

From here onwards, a series of scams started:

  1. To enter Cambodia, most people need a visa. Official price is USD35. The guide told us to pay USD50 instead. We were lucky because Singaporeans do not need a visa to enter Cambodia. A French guy asked if he can apply for the visa on his own. The guide said no. If he insists, he will not bring the French guy to the border.
  2. We remember that we booked the tour bus to reach Siem Reap. But the guide told us that our transport would only stop 7 km away from Siem Reap. We will have to make our way to the city. To go to Siem Reap straight, we will have to pay more.
  3. The guide told us that Cambodian prefer using Cambodian Riel instead of USD. We can change our Thai Baht at the money changer. He advised us on the amount needed based on our length of stay. I remembered he told us a huge amount of Thai Baht for 2 days in Cambodia. We didn’t withdraw the cash. After that, we realised that the money changer overcharged us by 25%. And best of all, Cambodian prefers using USD instead.
  4. We told the driver (the one we overpaid) to bring us to our hostel. But the driver brought us to another hotel instead. This hotel is in a secluded place in Siem Reap. Only when we insist (and of course, with more money), then the driver brought us to the hostel.

We had a bad border crossing experience between Thailand and Cambodia. From then on, we are more wary of potential scams.

5. Opportunity for Self-Discovery

Taking a train trip is also a good opportunity for self-discovery.

First, you will have lots of time to spare. You can think about what do you want to do in life. Where do you want to be 20 years from now? Dream about it. How’s a typical day like for you when you are 50 years old.

This is painting a mental model. Research has shown that successful people do that all the time. They imagine a future with as much details as possible.

Second, there will be times where things do not go as plan. How would you react in times of uncertainty?

We had an issue when we are in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. All visitors need to register their visa within 5 days. Registration is not required if you leave the country before the 5-day period.

Astana Park

A park in Astana

It is our fourth day in the city. It is a Friday, and the visa registration office is closed for the weekends.

Our poor planning and lack of information contributed to this issue. We tried to seek help. But nobody can understand us. Even the staff at our hotel is not helpful.

Out of desperation, we went into every hotel we saw. We ask the receptionist whether do they speak English. We explained our situation. And nobody, except one, offered to help us. She requested us to hand over our passports and collect it the following day. Of course, we refused.

What would you have done if you are in our shoes? We do not know the consequences of overstaying in Kazakhstan.

We learned how we would react facing with this situation. Everyone would have different ways of dealing with the issue.

What have we done?

We booked the first flight the following morning to get out of the country.

6. Understand more about Singapore

It is odd that to say we can learn more about Singapore when we travel. Shouldn’t you learn more about the country when you are in the country itself?

Well, the difference here is the perspective. When you are in the country, you learn about the country from the inside.

When you are traveling, you learned how to look from an international perspective. Sometimes, you will have different opinions.

For example, we saw how certain country suppresses religious freedom. The suppression has led to countless riots, leading to people getting killed. We appreciate the religious freedom in Singapore. We also understand why the Singapore government restricted us from saying (or posting) things that will stir hatred.

Also, we didn’t know that Singapore is pretty famous. We met the customs officers on our way to Kazakhstan from China. The officer heard of Singapore. He asked us whether is Mr Lee Kuan Yew still the prime minister. Seems like he is the person most people associated with Singapore.

A final example is on the bilingual education. I never quite understand why is there a need for learning both English and Mother Tongue. What’s the point if we cannot master both languages?

First, most countries have compulsory second languages as part of their education. Japanese learned both Japanese and English. Chinese learned both Chinese and English. French learned both French and English.

They might not be proficient in English as it is not part of their daily conversation. But the fact is, they know at least 2 languages. Some Europeans even learnt 3 or more languages because of the language similarity.

So learning 2 languages is no big deal.

Second, there is no need to master both languages. In fact, you do not even have to master one of them. You just have to be comfortable in using them. Starting with the assumption that everyone has to master both languages is absurd.

Why do I say it is good enough to be comfortable in using both languages?

In China, we faced an interesting situation. There is a Dutch couple, who understand Dutch and English. There is a Chinese lady, who understand Russian and Chinese Mandarin.

The Dutch couple faced some queries from Kazakhstan’s custom. Most Kazakhs can speak Russian. But the Dutch couple do not understand Russian. Neither do they understand Chinese Mandarin. Therefore, we offer to help as an intermediary translator.

The Chinese lady will translate from Russian to Chinese. And we will translate from Chinese to English.

Photo with Mark and Irene

We are happy that we can help. Thanks to the bilingual education system in Singapore.

7. Immerse in foreign country’s culture

Different people have different purposes for traveling. For me, it is always to understand more about the country I am in.

There are lots of ways to understand more about the country. One way is to visit the museum. Understand the history. What has happened in the past will shape today’s behavior.

This is the reason why I always make it a point to visit the museum.

Terracotta Warriors

Visiting the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses

Another way of understanding the country is to talk to the people. Not everyone is friendly. But if you are trapped on the train ride with strangers, you do not have a choice.

During the train ride, we talk to people at a more personal level. Contrary to popular beliefs, people are more willing to share when they do not know you.

For example, we learned that the Chinese are choosy towards their food. Food in the south tasted differently from food in the north. This contributes to the huge success of instant noodles in China.

We also learned that the Vietnamese are proud of their language. Because they corrected us for our awful attempt in pronouncing their languages. Everyone (from waitresses to taxi drivers) make sure that we pronounce their word correctly.

In Kazakhstan, there is an official taxi and unofficial taxi. Any cars on the road can be an unofficial taxi. Think of it like Uber. We can hail for cars. Tell the driver where we are going, agreed on the price, then off we go.

We learned that this is the unspoken system. Official taxis are too expensive. Guess we should have seen the prominence of Uber sooner.

You can learn so much about the country by just talking to people. And a train trip offers you an opportunity to do so.

8. Learn the Need for Backup Plan

Things will go wrong.

That’s the number 1 rule to keep in mind when planning.

We plan to take trains all the way from Singapore to London, except for Thailand to Vietnam.

But on our second day, the Malaysian train operator canceled the train from Penang to Bangkok. Bangkok is our first pitstop.

In that month, the train operator has canceled this train for more than 10 times. We should have known earlier.

But we didn’t.

We were stuck in Penang. In the end, we took a cab to Malaysia-Thailand Border from Penang. Cost us more than S$100. After that, we realise there are buses available.

If we are prepared for train cancellation, we would not have spent the money.

This is an important lesson in both work and life. Always think about what can go wrong. And plan for it. You will thank yourself when things did not go as planned.

Conclusion

Have you embarked on a train trip before? If the answer is no, make it your goal. I promise that you will learn more about yourself. You will learn things that can never be Googled. You will also make new friends.

One more thing:

Taking such a long train trip is not without its risk. We have encountered scams. Things could have been worse. Make sure that you are properly insured.

If you need to buy a travel insurance, you can head over to our travel insurance platform. Or drop us an email. We love to talk to you.