From Penang to Singapore by train

It makes no sense. I could sleep in, have a wonderful buffet breakfast and fly to Singapore in a bit over an hour.

Instead I have to wake before dawn, skip breakfast and spend at least eleven hours on trains, arriving at midnight.


Because I’m me.

Last time I did this trip was 22 years ago and it involved almost two days of travel sitting up in a slow train with terrible programs and advertising playing out loud over the carriage screens.

It was horrible.

So why am I doing it again?

Since then the route has been electrified to Gemas and the trains modernised to run up to 140 km/h. No more night sleepers, just a new electric multiple unit set.

It’s a chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery without worrying about the weather outside.

I wake, as usual, before the alarm clock rings. My body doesn’t know what time zone it is in and I haven’t had the best sleep. Unfortunately, I seem to have a bout of the runs, just the thing you don’t need on a long train journey.

Eventually I get to the point of farewelling the rest of the family and making my way down to catch the taxi. I elect to go the whole way in the dark, crossing the bridge to Butterworth rather than the ferry.

I’m over an hour early, too early, and the station is pretty empty.

Slowly it comes to life, the ticket office opens and so does the kiosk. The goods are limited but I buy a box of nasi lemak, not sure if I will eat it. The bathroom facilities cost 30 sen and are not particularly clean.

Our ETS service, as railway operator KTM dubs it is a modern Chinese built Type 93 six car electric multiple unit. The interior is very bright and clean though a little sparse. There are overhead screens, but thankfully they only display the next station details and train speeds over 90 km/h.

I make myself comfortable and plug my phone into the centre power socket shared between both seats. The seats themselves are a little narrow and recline, but are fixed in direction. I’m facing back, which fortunately doesn’t bother me.

We start smoothly and on schedule under a hazy dawn sky. The sun suffuses the distant mountain range with a gold glow against the faint grey cloud. As we wind our way along patches of morning fog reach down to touch the hills.

Peninsula Malaysia has a reputation for endless palm plantations, but the scenery along the line is far more varied than that.

There’s the vine covered jungle, trees covered with epiphytes. Kampongs, villages of farmers, hide in the jungles, roosters proudly strutting outside the  buildings, brahman cattle graze in small fields. Limestone karsts emerge from the jungle, sides often shattered to feed the concrete plants with their chains of special wagons lining the sidings.

Towns are typically Malaysian, their centres row’s of concrete shophouses, some stained with black. Open sided food centres supply locals with sustenance and I remember finding meals, surprising the locals with my desire to eat their cuisine on that first trip.

Spiritual sustenance is provided by the temples scattered through each village. Shrines for the Chinese, red, grey, decorated for the new year. Mosques for the Muslims, sometimes grand with onion minarets, other times more modest buildings. My favourites are the Hindu temples, blue or yellow, short towers ornately decorated with the pantheon of gods.

The train races along most of the time running at between 120 and 140 kilometres per hour.

We pass sidings where older Malaysian passenger trains are left to rot, one seemingly crushed either through an accident or act of vindictiveness. Some of the carriages, windows smashed and doors open, have been there so long that trees are growing within.

Most stations along the line were reconstructed for the ETS service, pale blue concrete blocks, but a few have survived with a nod to their history. Taiping and Ipoh are both major cities and their stations are reminders of their colonial pasts.

The most famous such station in Malaysia is, of course, Kuala Lumpur’s. Malaysia’s largest city is full of interesting modern architecture including the Petronas Twin Towers, previously the world’s tallest. Much of that architecture is on show as we enter the bounds of the city.

There are also examples of colonial Kuala Lumpur on show, the station being one of them. The neo-Moorish structure dates back to 1910. Though we stop there, just as we did back in 1995, it’s function has largely been replaced by our next stop, KL Sentral, interchange for various local services.

Our pace slows as we depart KL and continue south. We pass commuter stations and communities of modern condominium towers standing right next to rows of decrepit homes illustrating the disparities of society here.

It’s not just humans making homes. In a row of trees by the water baya weaver birds have made amazing hanging nests. It takes me a while to see that they are indeed the work of the birds, such is their shape.

Though still interesting the landscape consists of more palm oil plantations and I find myself drifting off for a satisfying snooze.

The ETS service and its overhead wires end at Gemas, the junction with the East Coast line. We roll into the new station with its five platforms and big grey multi-storey railway building housing the ticket office, waiting room (with a separate room for VIP guests), crew rooms and, down a lot of stairs to the ground floor, a kiosk and small cafeteria.

I’ve got two and a quarter hours to kill before the train to JB Sentral departs. Rather than hang around the station I decide to explore Gemas’ town centre.

Just down from the current station is the old Gemas station, now bypassed by the new track alignment. An older diesel locomotive stands on the abandoned tracks accompanied by a few small freight cars. The wooden pedestrian crossing bridge is fenced off. But the station itself is now in use as a cafe, a few tables and chairs scattered around the main entrance and platform while older headscarved ladies chat and potter, lunch having passed. There seem to be a few old destitute men lying around on the platform too.

I walk on to see what else the town offers.

The answer appears to be “Not much.”

It’s hot, dry, dusty and more than a little dirty. There are cars driving through and the odd person walking around (an apt description of myself), including railway crew, but nobody seemed in much hurry.

There were a few Muslim restaurants, a Pizza Hut and a KFC, but the truth was that my guts were not feeling great. I had tried to use the bathroom on the train a few times (as it seemed did every other passenger else) without much success.

The ETS bathrooms were regularly cleaned by staff, but this seemed to consist of washing everything down and leaving it wet. Plus you aren’t supposed to flush the toilet tissue down and instead throw it in the bin. Eew.

I had only got as far as eating the egg and a small amount of my kiosk nasi lemak before giving up. Later I checked out the on board snack bar, but they only served pre-packaged Malaysian meals (some looking quite good) that had to first be heated up or cheese and cucumber or sardine sandwiches.

Against my better judgement I purchased a cheese and egg sandwich and regretted it, only finishing half. I hate cheese spread, but my stomach refused the alternatives.

I knew I should eat something. I rule out the Muslim cafes as I don’t think I could stomach their rich flavours, which is a pity because I hadn’t yet tried any this trip.

Instead there is a quiet Chinese restaurant serving noodles from a cart. Big owner decorated signs celebrating the upcoming Year of the Dog line the walls.

I have a kolo mee, dry noodles from Sarawak, and enjoy it. Farewelling the owner I cross the road to the KFC. But only for a dessert so that I can use their bathroom. It’s clean, but wet and with the same limitations as the train. At least neither are squats.

To the shrieks of children at the adjacent school I return to the station and buy some snacks for the trip, including an pack of savoury salted crackers with sweet banana cream between pairs. Quite yummy actually.

At the allotted time we show our tickets and head down to the platform. Across on platform one is a single sleeping carriage with a diesel locomotive. Further down another locomotive. Abandoned carriages wait on a parallel siding.

Our train is also locomotive hauled. Although the exterior is a bit run down, the interior is clean and the reclining seats thickly padded and comfortable. There are also wall power points available.

We’ve now left the modernised sections and the stations have low platforms and dirty yellow buildings. Our route takes us past marshlands where white herons fish for food and plantations of palms and rubber trees.

Two young men across from me play games on their laptops but I am content just to look out of the window, streaked by rain from the storms overhead. Unlike flying there is no fear of them in hear, cushioned and isolated as we are from the weather outside.

I chat briefly with B over Google Hangouts. She and Alex arrived safely in Singapore after a very smooth flight and have checked into the hotel. Then the signal drops out.

Due to the heat Malaysian life continues on into the evening. People gather to eat dinner from hawker stalls under the fluorescent lights of the sheltered food centres, to shop from minimarts or just head home to their families.

In between there is only the darkness of the lonely plantations.

I look at the clock on my phone. We should be arriving at Johor Bahru Sentral soon. It’s a tight connection to pass through immigration and make the shuttle to Singapore, so I’ll need to hurry.

When I see a number of people make ready to leave I collect my bags and go to the vestibule area. The area outside doesn’t look like the middle of a city, but what do I know?

We pull into a station and I open the doors and climb down the carriage steps. But it doesn’t look right. I ask a young lady and she tells me it’s the wrong stop. I quickly ascend again.

I wait in the vestibule area. The clock ticks past 8.40 pm. I can now see skyscrapers with bright signs growing like isolated trees in a dark field. Much development has obviously taken place here in JB over the past two decades, when it seemed like a smelly, dirty backwater compared with Singapore across the strait.

Finally we arrive at JB Sentral. It’s two minutes until the shuttle to Singapore departs. I can see the passengers rushing down to the train on the adjacent platform. Too late.

I head to the ticket office and pay 5 ringgit for a seat on the next shuttle, but that doesn’t leave for another hour. I should probably use a different means of crossing the border but I can’t be bothered to think about it and I would like to complete the train journey.

JB Sentral is a big building linked by pedestrian overpass to the shopping malls across the road. Despite the late hour the malls are thronging with shoppers.

I go looking for some supper. I’m not sure what I want to eat, my stomach says no to most options. Eventually I just buy a single curry puff.

I recall that ride long ago when sellers walked through the train singing “Karipap! Karipap!” selling the pastry wrapped beef or sardine snacks.

When I return there is already a queue forming at the shuttle gate. When the time comes we first show our passports and tickets to the railway staff, then pass through Malaysian immigration with their quick fingerprint scanners.

There’s another wait behind a glass door until the inbound shuttle passengers have disembarked. It’s late. Then we rush down to the platform where an old looking locomotive hauled train awaits.

The seat reservations appear meaningless as there isn’t any car 3 seat 61. The window is dirty and smudged but I still have a view of the causeway as we cross between the countries, a line of lights on either side separated by inky blackness.

When we arrive in Singapore there is another rush to disembark. I’m very disappointed to see that photos are restricted, even turning back towards the train. I ask a staff members and she confirms the signs. Singapore really takes things to the extreme sometimes.

I join the queue at Singaporean immigration, but when I arrive at the desk I’m sent back to fill in an immigration form. I’ve seen nobody else do it. I guess they were all prepared. By the time I get back in the line I’m the last one.

Once upon a time the train line from Malaysia stretched all the way across the island to the port area, ending in an impressive art deco style station. Twenty two years ago I was staying in Bukit Batok and enjoyed the drive along the railway line, which I caught later that trip.

But the station was on land still owned by Malaysia, so much of an affront to Singapore that the taxi drivers avoided it and the mostly Malaysians who used it. So a land swap was done, the line torn up and reduced to a small patch on the edge of Singapore at Woodlands. But not even Woodlands MRT, station, no. Instead you need to catch a bus.

I think I catch the wrong bus. It does go to Woodlands’ MRT station, but the long way around the block.

The station is still alive when I reach it, with marquees setup selling kebabs and other such food and a few twenty-four hour restaurants thrumming with patrons.

Fortunately I don’t loiter to snack. My MRT ride to Jurong East is announced as the last on that line. By the time I make it to Outram Park on my last train ride of the day it is announced that the last train has departed the station and the station will shortly close.

It is just after midnight. I try to sneak into our hotel room, but Alex has locked it from the inside so my card doesn’t work. I have to sound the doorbell.

It’s been a long, long day.

Has it been worth it? Absolutely! This is the most fun I’ve had on the trip. I feel like I’ve seen so much of Malaysia, like I’ve really travelled. Even stopping in an out of the way place like Gemas was an adventure. Train may not be the fastest way, perhaps not even the most comfortable, but it sure beats wandering around shiny shopping malls and tacky tourist attractions for a glimpse into the real life of a nation.

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