It’s been said that train travel is “the best way to see a nation’s backyard”. Who said it, I don’t know; and internet searches proved futile. Perhaps it was Paul Theroux. If you know the source of the quotation, please write in and enlighten us – you can use the comment form below.
Back in 2003, we published an article by Rowena Carr-Allinson about her trip from Bangkok to Singapore by train. She did it in style aboard the luxurious Orient Express. Sadly, such a grand trip was not on our agenda. We took the somewhat shabby KTM Intercity from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore – Service No.1, the Express Rakyat.
We’d not seen much of Malaysia’s countryside before as we have always flown into and stayed in Penang or KL in the past. This six-and-a-half hour journey was intended to fill this gap in our experience. We could, of course, have simply flown from KL to Singapore but we wanted to try something different. The train is much cheaper than flying – a first class seat costs a mere RM 68 compared with AirAsia’s cheapest rate of RM 109 when we looked, and that was excluding AirAsia’s baggage surcharges. And also, by the time you factor in the long trip out to KL’s Low Cost Carrier Terminal, the waiting times at the airport and faffing about with security etc, the train only takes an hour or so longer and is a lot less hassle.
There are night trains which ply the route and offer sleeper cabins, but we travelled during the day so we could enjoy the views. More about that later – be prepared for a lot of rubber plantations and palm trees.
We had booked first class seats in an air-conditioned carriage. There was plenty of legroom and the seats were comfortable. However, the decor and furnishings were generally shabby and a bit grubby. The carriage would benefit considerably from a bit of a make-over. They did, however, have a large flat-screen Samsung TV at the front of the carriage showing films such as The Golden Compass and promotional information about their services. Watching films might have been an entertaining way to pass the time, but “watch” is the key word here as there was no sound.
Smoking was not allowed inside the carriage, but at the front there was a place to stow luggage between ours and the next carriage. There, they had thoughtfully provided a little pull-down seat and an ashtray for the puffers aboard.
About an hour down the track, friendly staff came round and offered free drinking water and a snack. Neither of us ate ours as they looked like some kind of unappealing buns. Mine had a picture of corn on it while Dave’s had chocolate. We thought we would simply give them away to other passengers, but the first two of our neighbours whom we offered them to politely declined so we quickly got the impression that the locals didn’t particularly like the food either.
The train continued to clank, clatter and whurp its way through palm trees. And more palm trees. There seemed to be quite a lot of new construction going on too, of what looked like bridges and roads. There was also one site which looked as though they were building a new airfield.
We rattled past more palm trees. And more construction sites. So much for this treat of seeing the Malaysian countryside. We also passed through some towns. The rubber industry was very apparent in that there was an abundance of large Dunlop signs and hoardings. In one small town every second business seemed to be in the motor industry in one way or another – car sales, traders, repairs.
Back in the countryside we saw some brand new villas, juxtaposed with corrugated iron dwellings and traditional-style wooden houses. But each new villa was isolated and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It made me wonder who would want to live there, but I could only speculate. Perhaps they were for plantation managers? I expect the owners would live somewhere more accessible and probably in something a bit grander.
The temperature inside the train was fine. I’d brought along a thick, fleece jacket and a pair of socks as I really dislike sitting in a refrigerated atmosphere. Thankfully I didn’t need them.
There were two toilets at the rear of the compartment. One was a Western-style “sit-down” toilet, the other was an Asian-style squatter. Both were equipped with grab-rails – thankfully, as the train lurches from side to side quite alarmingly on some of the faster stretches – and were relatively clean, roughly on a par with some of the UK’s seedier InterCity trains. Both also had sinks with full hand-wash dispensers. It soon became apparent why the dispensers were full – neither of them worked. However, Dave managed to dispense some himself by opening the dispenser and getting some liquid out of the bottle. And then he discovered that there were no paper towels.
One mildly interesting break from the palm trees, more palm trees, the terracotta-coloured earth and the construction sites was Paloh Station. This is a neat little station with colourful flowering shrubs. The station-master obviously takes great pride in the appearance of the place. It made me think of Bhowani Junction. The book is set in 1946/7 in a small railway town when the British were pulling out of India. Most of India’s railways were run by Anglo-Indians – people who fitted into neither the Indian nor the British community and therefore formed their own, much of it built around India’s railway network. But I have digressed. Paloh just looked a little bit different from the norm in that it was so pretty.
We later passed through Kluang station. It looked as though the station was sited in a grubby old part of town, but there were modern skyscrapers in the middle distance and relatively high hills in the background. A man was sitting on a bench accompanied by two identically dressed little boys. They were well scrubbed up and squeaky-clean looking. I surmised they were waiting for the arrival of someone special.
The train continued its erratic drum beat, lurching and shoogling towards its destination and as we approached Singapore, the conductor handed out immigration cards. Then a cleaner came round to remove the rubbish bags, which had been thoughtfully provided for us at the start of the journey.
The train halted one last time at Johor Baru, where we were checked out of Malaysia. And then we took the short final journey across the causeway and into Singapore!
As we struggled to get our luggage off the train a very helpful lady in uniform (on closer inspection of her name badge, we discovered that her name was Joyce and that she was an auxiliary police officer) pointed out an unused trolley and even went and fetched it for us. We then made our way towards Immigration. The passage through Immigration was relatively straightforward (helped by Joyce advising us that we could take the trolley through) although Dave was held back as his handwritten (and hand-corrected) passport was thoroughly checked. After a short delay we were allowed to proceed, although Dave found that he was admitted for only 30 days instead of the 90 usually granted to Irish passport holders. (UK passport holders get 180.) Customs was similarly simple – just a matter of passing our bags through the scanner. And then Joyce was on hand again at the end to point us in the direction of the taxi rank.
In fact, the only snag about the Woodlands checkpoint and train station was the complete lack of toilet facilities. Dave went on a long hunt to try and find one, but in vain – he eventually managed to find someone to ask about them (yes, Joyce again!) and was told that the nearest toilets were at a snack bar just over the road from the exit. We decided to hold it in until we got to the hotel, which was a relatively pleasant 20-minute journey away by taxi.
You can book this train trip online and even choose your seats. To sum up, if we were to be travelling from KL to Singapore again, I would definitely choose to go by train rather than air. It’s a lot less hassle and provides a relaxing interlude from busy airports.
You can find out details of train times – and book seats online – on the KTM Berhad website.