Saturday, July 26, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

The Jungle Line

Wakaf Baharu station [Enlarge]

Debating where to go from Pulau Perhentian Besar we decided that Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur should be our next destination. There are lots of ways to get there—luxury coach, regular bus, minibus, plane, and the train. Buses take about six hours, quickly crossing to the west coast and zooming down the characterless multi-lane highway.

The Perhentians are close to the start of the 'Jungle Line', which finds itself on a few of the lists of great railway journeys of the world. This long, winding, single-track line snakes from the north-east corner of peninsular Malaysia down to Gemas in the south-west, where it intersects with the main line between Bangkok and Singapore. On the twelve-hour route, it twists and turns as it rises gradually into the Malaysian highlands, passing through hundreds of kilometres of... jungle! No surprises there. Reports and opinions vary. Some people are enchanted by the wonderful views of jungly jungleness, some people are disappointed at the lack of real jungle (saying it's just straight rows of non-native palm plantations). Others are bored rigid by the coccyx-numbing slog.

This time there was no contest, it had to be the train. We knew we'd regret it if we didn't. Time to stock up on some more of our traditional railway fare, Doritos (or local equivalent).

On Perhentian we had come up with a new plan following our stupid journey there from Thailand. It's a very simple plan. We're going to slow down and not try to make multi-stage journeys in one day. So, putting our new plan into action we did the journey to Kuala Lumpur in two steps. Day one: speedboat from Pulau Perhentian Besar to Kuala Besut ferry terminal, then a leisurely taxi to Kota Bharu, the capital of Keralan state. Day two: another taxi to nearby Wakaf Baharu station, then catch the train through the jungle to Kuala Lumpur.

Kota Bharu. [IMG_4581]
Ideal Travellers' House [Enlarge]

Our plan meant staying the night in Kota Bharu, giving us the chance to see this allegedly ultra-conservative Muslim city. We booked a super-cheap hostel, Ideal Travellers' House. At 22.50 ringgit (GBP 3.50 / USD 6.89) per night for a double room, it was the cheapest place we've ever stayed. It was very basic—for the money we got a bed, a washing line and a cockroach—but there was free wi-fi, the place was clean and the owners friendly.

Kota Bharu had a bit of a frontier town feel to it. It is indeed quite conservative, but it's nothing compared to, say Syria. We couldn't get a beer from the convenience store, and there were more headscarves than in other Malaysian towns, but that was all we noticed.

At 08:00 next morning we left for the station. The drive took much less time than planned, only fifteen minutes. So we found ourselves sitting on the platform early, waiting for the ticket office to open so that we could collect our internet-booked tickets. At 09:00 Glenn went to pick up the tickets. The man in the ticket office took our confirmation number and pecked at his keyboard. He then entered a catatonic state for about ten minutes, during which time he hardly moved except for his fingers, which occasionally bashed out a few more keystrokes. It seemed there was a problem with our reservation.

As the queue behind Glenn grew embarrassingly long (there was only one guy at the desk, so everyone was waiting for us), a train came into the station. The ticket man shouted through the glass "After train!" and then he promptly disappeared out back! It seemed he was not only the station's ticket clerk, but also the flag waver.

Glenn noted that the long queue behind him was now stretching out of the ticket office, and almost out of the station itself, but that nobody seemed remotely concerned about having to wait, even though our train (the only one for most of the remainder of the day) was now due in about five minutes. Malaysians are laid back, but surely this was too much to bear even for them? In our local station at home, the situation would have caused a lot of tutting, gazing at watches, and much shuffling, arms folded, from one leg to the other. Strangers would probably even start talking to each other. But here, you got the feeling this wasn't unusual.

The ticket man eventually came back, only to do some more keyboarding and then disappear again, this time to make a phone call to head office. Eventually the problem was identified: the web site had given us a confirmation number containing a hyphen. Due to a system incompatibility the ticket man should have converted that hyphen to a zero before entering it into his computer. Only he obviously didn't know that, and instead he very publicly blamed Glenn for writing the code down wrongly. (Yes, we've checked and we didn't.)

No doubt you've already guessed why the locals weren't worried about missing their train. Yes, of course they all knew it was late. In fact, the train that had arrived and left while Glenn was trying to get the tickets, was our train still going the other way up the line on its previous journey! Once we'd worked this out, we chatted with a Swiss-Dutch family of five who were travelling to Kuala Lipis, about six hours down the line.

The train made up some time on the turnaround and arrived only 45 minutes late. So, finally, we were underway.

Seen from the Jungle Line train. [IMG_4590]
Limestone cliffs and jungle [Enlarge]

The journey was long, but not boring. The scenery was always interesting, and in case we tired of it the train staff were showing back-to-back pirate DVDs on the flat screen TVs at either end of the carriage. The AC was so icy cold that we had to put our warmest clothes on. The toilets were shockingly clean with toilet paper, soap, running water and hand towels. True, a lot of the jungle had been replaced by palm plantations, but we get to see quite a lot of primary rainforest, including monkeys swinging in the trees (yes, honest). The glimpses of line-side Malaysian life were fascinating. In places the scenery was stunning. The sun set as we reached Gemas, where the train was turned around to head back northwards on the main line to Kuala Lumpur. We finally arrived at KL Sentral station at 22:30 and checked into our hotel, which we had carefully chosen for its walkability from the station.

It's worth noting for people who arrive at this post by googling for the Jungle Line, that we were on some sort of special Friday-Saturday-Sunday service which runs all the way from Wakaf Baharu to KL, so you don't need to change trains at Gemas. We've heard very bad things about the toilets on the regular weekday services, so don't blame us if you travel in the week and find it not as we describe!

It was late, we were tired and stiff. If we'd gone by bus we'd have been there mid-afternoon, but we would have missed out. Would we make the same journey again? Probably not. But are we glad we did it? Definitely! As ever, the long, interesting way is well worth doing, but only once!

Map of Day 608-609

Day 608-609
Pulau Perhentian Besar to Kuala Lumpur

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Sez said...

This Jungle Train sounds wonderful.

In the meantime, could you possibly tell me how long this section took you?

"Day one: speedboat from Pulau Perhentian Besar to Kuala Besut ferry terminal, then a leisurely taxi to Kota Bharu"

Also, was it fairly easy to pick up a taxi at Kuala Besut Jetty after getting off the boat? We will probably want to catch a plane from Kota Bharu back to KL and I'm interested how long one needs to give this section of travel.

Glenn Livett said...

Hi Sez,
Thanks for your comment. Have you thought about taking the train instead of flying?
Anyway, on the way back from Perhentian to Kota Bharu, we bought an all-in-one transfer from our hotel on Perhentian, including the boat and the taxi. So we don't know how hard it would be to find a taxi in Kuala Besut, as the guy was waiting for us when we arrived on the speedboat.
However, we imagine it will be very easy to find a taxi because there are hundreds of tourists passing through every day. You might get ripped off though. Maybe it's best to just book a transfer from your hotel.
In terms of time to allow, I seem to recall it was around an hour from Kuala Besut to Kota Bharu.
Enjoy your trip!

Miiiin said...

I'm thinkin of travel the jungle line in december. Was it a daytrain you took? Cause I want to take a daytrain but I can't find any. What site did you use to book the tickets?