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Malaysia’s jungle railway


The muezzin called people to their first prayer of the day as cockerels crowed in the distance.

Local people, laden with bags and boxes, milled around me on the platform. A small boy looked at me sheepishly and I tried to get a smile from his big brown eyes but to no avail.

Young and old were waiting for the 0623 Malaysian Railways train to depart Wakaf Bahru (CORRECT) on its journey down the Malay peninsula to Singapore. A few other backpackers were on the platform too but the Jungle Railway caters mostly for Malaysians travelling between the towns of the interior. It wends its way through the jungle stopping at small settlements on the way.

The train, which originated in Tumpat, a town on the coast close to the Thai border, left on time. My tickets were booked weeks earlier in Singapore and the blue-shirted ticket collector questioned the destination as if there are not many people who get on at Wakaf Bharu, in the conservative 94% Malay state of Kelantan (CORRECT), planning to head all the way down the peninsula from its north eastern corner to its southern most tip.

But I was keen to see the country and the people and was happy so sit in Seat 1A for the next seventeen hours and watch the Malaysian world go by.

Half an hour into the journey and it was suddenly light. Tall palms, which had been silhouetted against the awakening sky, were now fully visible. The houses of the town started to thin out and neat rows of palms began to fill the landscape.

Small houses on stilts, surrounded by banana plants, make up the small villages that line the railway. Market stalls and mosques pass by as the world outside starts its day. We begin to head into the jungle stopping for a long time at several small stations.

The first large place on route is Kuala Krai. It stands on the confluence of two smaller rivers which form Sungei Kelantan and flows back to Kota Bahru. We have been following the wide, orange, muddy river for miles and, although there are few visible settlements, there are small boats tethered up every so often giving evidence of human life somewhere in the impenetrable jungle which has given way to the regimented plantations closer to the towns.

We stop for a long time in the middle of nowhere. Barely awake myself I gaze at the close up view of butterflies and insects flitting around the lush greenery.

There are many Malay women travelling on their own on the train. Their heads are covered in beautifully coloured, delicate scarves and they talk to each other confidently as the journey progresses. Many are waved off by entire families at stations and I wonder where they are going.

I am the only single, white female I have seen and although I exchange smiles with older maternal-looking women I am largely left alone. I am accepted as a passenger like everyone else and can continue observing the every day goings on.

Young men smoke and chat between the carriages and children travelling with mothers are pampered with games and treats on the long journey.

We pass into Pahang state at Gua Musang. The town, whose name means ‘Cave of the Fox’, is surrounded by legends of animal offerings made by hunters in raging storms, of lightning splitting rocks and of foxes (musang in Malay) disappearing into caves. Mysterious pillars of rock housing these legends are visible from train.

Pahang state is the largest state on peninsula Malaysia and two thirds of it is highland tropical rainforest. There are larger gaps between stops as we skirt the edge of Taman Negara.

This area (literally National Park in Malay) contains naturally evolved flora and fauna that has been undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. This 4343 square km tract of primary forest is believed to be the world’s oldest and is home to rare animals such as the Indochinese tiger, Sumatran rhino, Malayan gaur (a kind of ox), Asian elephant, leopard, tapir, and kancil (or mousedeer) not to mention the abundant lizards, snakes, monkeys, birds and insects. The area is teeming with life which can only be imagined from the train.

Next stop is Kuala Lipis, an isolated town deep in the jungle, which claims evidence of Neolithic life. Before the railway it took two weeks to reach Singapore from here on trails hacked through the virgin jungle. To make life easier, the current network was built in the 1920s by the colonial government, to transport tin ore out of the interior. No mean feat for the engineers dealing with the jungle wildlife, the rivers and the monsoons.

Having left Taman Negara behind its southern gateway town of Jerantut is reached in the early afternoon. Here lots of people get off and head into the heart of Malaysia. At this point the jungle really ends.

I stand up between the carriages for a while and enjoy the smell of the outdoors and the refreshing rain and wind through the open door.

Thunder and lightning punctuate the monotonous landscape of plantations of stout palm oil trees with sprouting fronds and tough, thick trunks. They stretch off into the distance in regimented lines, planted at uniform intervals. Tall and thin, silver barked trees with leaves mainly at the canopy house bags collecting sap for rubber production.

Arriving at Bahau in the late afternoon signifies our re-emergence into urbanised society. It is a large town with Petronas service stations and more expensive cars and houses. Only 250km from Kuala Lumpur, in the state of Negeri Sembilan, it has a cosmopolitan population; Malays living predominantly in the surrounding villages, Indians in the plantation estates and Chinese in the town itself.

There are more Chinese faces getting on and off now. A mother dishes up a plate of rice and a hot, delicious smelling accompaniment, for her son and a large Chinese family with lots of boxes cram into seats and spill into the aisles, jostling and arguing amiably.

A Hindu temple is visible close to the tracks. We are definitely getting further south. The range of different cultures becomes more apparent as we leave Malay proper behind.

At Gemas the train stops for about an hour giving people the opportunity to get off and grab some food. However, there is no indication of this on any kind of timetable or in the form of an announcement so I don’t risk leaving the train but stay on board with my book and supply of crackers.

Here, at the border of Johor state, is where the east and west coast railway lines meet. Nearby is the site of a fierce two day battled which raged between the Imperial Japanese Army and the Australian Imperial forces during the Battle of Malaya in World War Two, resulting in Australian withdrawal. There is a memorial near the town which stands as a reminder of the more recent history of the jungle as a theatre of war.

At the southern tip of the peninsula is Johor, Malaysia’s most developed state. It has been a constitutional monarchy since the time of Sultan Abu Bakar (the Father of modern Johor who became the first Sultan in 1886) and is home to the private army of the Sultan of Johor.

The 2.75 million population is 54% Malay and 35% Chinese. The changing demographic is illustrated by the faces boarding the train at the many suburban stations we stop at on our way to Johor Bahru and the gateway to Singapore.

Malaysian immigration officials board the train to check passports and customs documents. By this stage the train is crammed full of younger people playing on their Gameboys and mobile phones. Immigration is a very quick process and as the train moves on you hardly notice it has passed over the causeway and into Singapore. Everyone jumps off and runs to the immigration lines with an unexpected sense of urgency.

The majority of the passengers leave at this point and stream off into Woodlands, a northern residential suburb of Singapore. I am one of the few passengers travel on to the main station at Tanjung Pajar.

The faces of the people getting on and off the train have changed with the landscape as the train moved down the entire length of the country of Malaysia from the conservative northern states, through the jungle interior, to the more cosmopolitan towns closely linked to Kuala Lumpur and the island of Singapore, my final destination.

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