April 11, 2012
We didn’t expect our first Asian train trip, from Singapore to Butterworth, Malaysia, to be an all night affair. The approximately 400 mile (645 kilometer) journey was to take us 12 ½ hours and the train was scheduled to arrive at 9:20pm, just in time to take a 15 minute ferry ride to Penang Island and settle in for a good night’s sleep at our hotel. But things didn’t quite work out that way.
We reserved our tickets by email and when we went to pick up and pay for them in Singapore, we were forewarned that there was track work taking place in Southern Malaysia, meaning we would need to be taken off the train and bused around the maintenance to a station about one hour north to join another train. No matter, this would make the train arrival just a little late, we were told.
Two days later, we arrived at the Singapore train station, located at the top of the island, and just a stone’s throw across the border from Malaysia. The train left just a few minutes late and we immediately traveled on to a bridge over the waterway separating the countries of Singapore and Malaysia. After the sparkling skyscraper buildings, neat as a pin streets and urban sprawl of Singapore, what a difference there was when we first set sight on Malaysia. Here we saw things more indicative of Southeast Asia: low crude stone or bamboo structures, untidy streets and jungle vegetation.
After about an hour we stopped at the town of Kulai. We were motioned off the train to waiting buses. The drive north took another hour as we sped along a modern highway. At Kluang another train was waiting for us and we continued our journey. We discovered later when talking to others on the train that there had been two recent cargo train derailments which necessitated the track work. The original line was built by the British in the 1880s and all along our journey we saw other maintenance being done, as well as several new stations being built.
As we left Kluang we admired the view out of our window. There were green, rolling hills, coupled with more groves of palm trees than we had ever seen. Palm oil is a big crop here. Amidst the jungle, we also saw rubber trees, brought in by the British during colonization and a historically important Malaysian commodity. We were fortunate to speak with an older Malaysian gentleman on the train who told us some fascinating stories about growing up in Malaysia during World War II. He told us that he remembered B-29 planes flying over him when he was playing as well as the differences between British rule and Japanese occupation.
All of a sudden the train began to slow down and then came to a halt. We were now in the middle of the jungle in the blazing midday heat and humidity. There were no announcements made but at least the air conditioning kept working. We noticed staff getting off the train and heading to the engine. One of the other westerner passengers on the train ventured outside and then came back to report that he had been told that the engine had failed. Not only that, but it was a new Chinese engine and none of the staff knew how to fix it.
We continued to wait and an hour passed. Train staff got off and on the train and used their radios to call for advice but still no announcements or official status was provided. Then we heard from others on the train that that an engine was being sent from our last stop, Kluang, to tow us back. We were well into our second hour of waiting when the engine showed up. After it attached to the train we were slowly towed backwards for almost another hour. Once we arrived in Kluang it took quite a while to unhook this tow engine and maneuver the replacement one into place. By the time we finally commenced our journey again we had lost about 3 ½ hours. That, coupled with the slight bus transfer delay, put us at least five hours behind schedule, according to our calculations. We tried to confirm this with the train’s staff, but any inquires we made were only received with friendly but noncommittal responses.
Most of the passengers left the train when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur at about 7pm. Inexplicably, the train stayed at this station for almost two hours before leaving. Each time we asked the staff when we were leaving we received responses of “10 minutes”, or “20 minutes”, but we could only wait and see what happened next. Kuala Lumpur is about halfway between Singapore and Butterworth so once we left again we guessed that we had about six more hours to go.
The train was nearly empty after leaving Kuala Lumpur so we were able to stretch out across the short two seat rows and try to get some sleep. It was uncomfortable and the night passed by slowly as we slept in fits and starts. The train continued to make station stops at about 30 to 60 minute intervals throughout the night. At about 3:45am we made yet another stop. Headlights from a car turned on from our side of the train and two women got out. They got into our train car, full of energy and with their cell phones in hand. As the train left the station they received what seemed like an endless stream of texts and calls, all with their ringers on full blast.
Their ringtones and giggles made it impossible to for us to sleep so we tried to look outside the window to see if we might be close to Butterworth. It was very dark but we could make out that we were traveling close to the Indian Ocean coast, which was a good sign. Finally, at about 4:20am, a train staff member told us that the next station was our destination of Butterworth. We left the train at 4:47am, just a few minutes short of being 7 ½ hours late.
Our next concern was how to get to Penang Island since the ferry would not be running for at least another hour and we did not want to wait. However, the train station looked deserted when we and the handful of remaining passengers disembarked. As we walked toward the street there was one taxi driver waiting. He turned out to be an angel in disguise. He quoted the going rate for the 45 minute drive over a toll bridge to the island, was friendly and even gave us a little narrated tour of the island as we drove to the hotel. He told us that he had been waiting all night for the train to arrive without knowing when it would be there as no one was manning the station. We also were told that the train is perpetually late. For example, the night before it had arrived at about 2am.
We arrived at our hotel at about 5:30am and got a few hours of sleep before beginning two full days of sightseeing on Penang Island. We enjoyed the historic and cultural buildings, representing British colonization, as well as the Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic religions. The food was also a fusion of cultures with such dishes as noodles containing Indian curries. Malaysia was an interesting place, and even though getting there was challenging, we are glad that we included it on our expedition itinerary.