With increasing concerns about air travel carbon emissions, ethical travellers are taking to trains. Stella Martin enjoys a slow trip through the heart of Peninsular Malaysia.
I thought seven days on the trans-Siberian railway would cure me, especially when the trip was scheduled to take five. But here I am again, dragging my dubious husband on board a train for another long trip, on the track which cuts diagonally across Peninsular Malaysia from Singapore in the south to Kota Bahru in the north-east, near the border with Thailand. A plane trip would take just a couple of hours – but we would miss so much, I tell him.
Finding the railway station in Singapore is our first challenge. It doesn’t feature on city maps because this decaying relic of colonial days actually belongs not to Singapore but to neighbouring Malaysia. Since trains using the station go only to Malaysia, Singapore takes no responsibility for the site; we wonder if, pursued by Singaporean police for littering or jay-walking, we could seek diplomatic asylum on its empty platforms, beneath the limp Malaysian flag.
Having opted for the slow train (the slightly faster Ekspress travels at night) we are pleasantly surprised to find it has soft seats and air conditioning. There are also very few passengers, something which changes once we have crossed the causeway which joins Singapore to, and separates it from, Malaysia; it is cheaper to take a bus across the causeway to Johor Bahru and pay for tickets in Malaysian ringgit than in Singaporean dollars. The train fills up and chugs off at a modest pace.
I have always loved trains. I love the way they allow you to look, not at the manicured façades which are turned to the street, but in at the back door. Instead of the packaged product presented to tourists on bus tours, a train journey allows an unrehearsed, unedited insight into a country. You see what is in the back yard – the washing, the chooks, the sheds and dunnies … and the rubbish.
After clean, modern Singapore, Johor looks rundown. Abandoned follies are abundant – concrete aspirations left unfinished in the wake of the Asian currency crisis. A tropical climate is hard on concrete; it’s not a good look.
Fellow passengers reflect the racial mix of the peninsula; behind us a family of Indians converse in burbling linguistically-acrobatic Tamil; poised Malay women peer demurely out from under the tudongs which envelop their heads; in front of us a little Chinese girl, a china doll dressed in pink, plays peek-a-boo, hiding behind the hideous Barbie on her bag. She, like all the other children we encounter on the train, behaves impeccably for hours on end.
Johor is a state of oil palms. These gloomy plantations stretch across the landscape in every direction harbouring little wildlife other than rats and cobras. In places young palms sprout up between the skeletons of felled rubber trees – although we are told that this former mainstay of the economy is making a come back as rising oil prices make synthetic rubber more expensive.
At Gemas we leave the main line to Kuala Lumpur and head off towards the heart of the country. Small towns are enlivened with garish, Disney-like Hindu temples and modest domed mosques. They briefly turn their attention towards us, presenting us with flower beds and platforms. But as soon as the exchange of passengers has taken place they turn their backs again, forgetting our prying eyes. Occasionally the train imposes itself on this parallel universe, urgent, clanging sirens and lowered gates momentarily halting a swarm of motorbikes… and then we pass and life continues.
It is afternoon before we at last begin to see signs of rainforest. At first just a few dead forest giants stand sentinel over the new, upstart oil palms. Then they become less rare. A hornbill glides across the train and a group of monkeys is silhouetted against the sky. Durians hang like enormous Christmas baubles from high branches.
We leave the train in Jerantut to take a boat up the mighty Tembeling River to Taman Negara, the national park which sits astride the mountains of the peninsula, an island of protected forest in the encroaching plantations.
Four days later we are back on the railway. Rather than double back to Jerantut, we have decided to catch the mail train at Tembeling, a few kilometres from the Taman Negara boat jetty.
Our taxi stops next to the tracks. Puzzled, we look for the station but there is none – no platform, no ticket office, no waiting people. The taxi driver points to a concrete shelter, next to the track, surrounded by banana plants and jungle. It is almost the only visible building; he helps us lug our bags along the tracks towards it. To either side, the tracks curve off, disappearing into a tunnel in the forest. We wait.
The time for the train to arrive passes. Five, ten, thirty, forty minutes elapse. It is hot. We hear an engine. A young woman on a motorbike mounts the tracks, crosses and disappears. We hear chopping and she returns with a bunch of bananas.
Then, as we privately wonder who will start the “how do we get out of this one?” discussion, the M92 suddenly looms out of the jungly tunnel. It is approaching alarmingly fast. We wave and jump up and down. Squealing, clanking and shuddering it grinds to a stop. Willing hands reach down and haul us and our bags up from the tracks and the romance of train travel overwhelms me once more. How very Railway Children it is to board a train without the assistance of a platform.
The train chugs off into the forest tunnel and we rattle through a landscape of pure green, skirting the national park through the mountainous centre of the country.
We ask the ticket collector why the train was late. “Yes, late.” Then as an afterthought he tells us it was waiting for another train. With single tracks, from time to time each must wait for the one coming in the opposite direction to arrive at the station before continuing. One problem and the entire network of Malaysian trains is affected.
This train has no air con. It is midday and stiflingly hot. Some windows will open and others not. One agitated man finds a screwdriver and forces one open. We cheer quietly but instead of bringing down the temperature, it simply allows fumes from the engine to penetrate the baking carriage.
We stop in Kuala Lipis, waiting for the opposite train. Which is also late. The temperature rises. We are sweltering and start to doze in the soporific heat. I marvel at the Malay women surrounding us; most wear long, polyester skirts and shirts with tudongs swathed around their heads yet they retain their calm poise, appearing not to sweat at all.
Suddenly at Kubang Rusa, the landscape erupts. Great jutting crags of limestone appear, vertebrae in the backbone which runs right up the peninsula, eventually expressing itself in the spectacular scenery of Phang Na, near Phuket, in Thailand.
Rather than complete our journey in the dark, we leave the train at Gua Musang. Overwhelmed by an enormous limestone crag, this utilitarian town has, to our surprise, a three-star hotel with an intriguing name, the Fully Inn. It is a hotel with pretensions in a town with none. Even the porter eventually asks us, with a puzzled air, why we are there; we seem to be the only guests.
Next morning we trudge back to the station in darkness. When planning to complete the trip in daylight, I hadn’t taken into account a tardy rising sun – but Malaysian railways is on our side; the train has been delayed. Dawn breaks just before it arrives.
A baby in the seat in front of me has me in his sights. Wide brown eyes fix me with a gaze. He knows I’m different, but can’t quite work it out. Every time he starts to whimper, every woman in the vicinity turns to soothe him, a covey of nuns calming his fretfulness. Then he turns to gaze at me once more.
Forest gives way to oil palms and rubber plantations, then to houses and roads and we are in Kota Bahru. I’m glad to get off. That’s enough of trains for now.
But, ten minutes later, we are stuck in a dense traffic jam. Suddenly the single track, leading off into the forest, has renewed appeal. I still have the train bug.
Destination Malaysia by train
Getting there: We started from Singapore. The railway station is on Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar, in southern Singapore. The nearest MRT stations, Tanjong Pagar and Outram Park, are about 1km from the railway station.
Timetables: The LT (Lambaian Timur) 58 leaves Singapore each morning at 6.00, arriving at Wakaf *Bahru (the stop for Kota Bahru) at 20.17. If you want to stop en route, you can also catch various mail trains; the M92 leaves Gemas in the morning for Wakaf Bahru, passing through Jerantut and Gua Musang; the M82 goes from Gua Musang to Wakaf Bahru in the morning and the M84 in the afternoon. See www.ktmb.com.my
for latest times. These trains all terminate, about 45minutes later, at Tumpat on the Thai border. A short taxi ride takes you to Sungai Kolok to catch the Thai train to Bangkok (see www.railway.co.th for Thai details).
*Bahru is also spelled Bharu.
The overnight express train (Ekspress Timuran) leaves Singapore at 18.15, arriving Wakaf Bahru at 8.42 (Tumpat 9.05) the next morning. Standard berths, which have fresh sheets and blankets, are arranged on either side of the central aisle of the carriage, with curtains for privacy – but at night you miss the scenery.
Fares and tickets: Train travel in Malaysia is very cheap. However, although fares are quoted in Malaysian ringgit, if tickets are bought in Singapore they cost twice as much because the Malaysian ringgit amount is charged in Singapore dollars. For example, the RM30 ($A10) fare costs $Sing30 ($A23). This also applies to tickets booked by internet but picked up in Singapore so if you are breaking your journey it is cheaper to buy/pick up the ticket for the first leg of the journey in Singapore and purchase/pick up other tickets as you go along – or follow the locals’ example and cross the causeway by bus to buy your ticket in Johor Bahru – but allow ample time for this.
The LT58 costs RM30/41 ($A10/14) economy/superior seats from Singapore to Wakaf Bahru. Seats on the express train cost RM32/41 ($A11/14) economy/superior and berths RM49/54 ($A17/18) upper/lower.
Express trains can be booked on the internet, but not the LT58 or mail trains. We simply visited the railway station in Singapore the day before and bought our tickets over the counter.
© S.B. Martin. All rights reserved