From the Perhentians we had to make our way back to Kuala Lumpur in order to fly out to Northern Thailand, a trip that would take us from the North Eastern corner of Malaysia all the way back down to the south of the peninsula. One option was to get an overnight train direct from Kota Bharu and arrive in KL early the following morning, which would have been perfectly simple. But since the start of the trip we’d been hearing about the Jungle Railway, a slow train that snakes its way through the Taman Negara (the largest tract of protected forest on the Malaysian Peninsula), offering beautiful scenery and a more rewarding experience.
After a boat from the islands, a bus to Kota Bharu (the next big town), and another bus to Wakaf Baru (the train station just outside of town), we were happy to learn that, yes, the Jungle Railway would be running the following day, but that we would have to be back at the station by 3:30am, as the train chugs through anytime between then and 4am. Looking for somehwere to camper down for the next few hours and hopefully get some rest before the long journey ahead, we walked around the town looking for a guesthouse or hostel. After many hand-signalled enquiries we were directed to a closed junk shop with dusty windows. Our knocks brought a nervous face to the windown upstairs, and when we said ‘guesthouse?’ she showed us to wait and then disappeared. Ten minutes later, a tall stern man came stalking past and led us through the many security gates and decidedly creepy store to a door at the back, through which he then disappeared. Already a bit hesitant, we stood around listening to some shouting behind the door until our tall host returned and beckoned us to follow him up a small, dark staircase, where he showed us a room that looked as if it had come straight out of Norman Bates’ home in Psycho. We were both waiting for an old woman to jump out of the cupbourd and attack us. I think the host could see the consternation on our faces, as his stern countenance suddenly melted as he jumped onto the bed with a goofy grin, like a groom on his first night of honeymoon, and started patting the duvet next to him saying “hmmm, very comfortable!” In the end, we could not justify spending 50 Ringgit each (an extortionate price, even by KL standards) on a room that was actually too creepy to sleep in, so we thanked him and left. Relieved to get out with all our vital organs, we walked briskly to the bus station and made a little deal with fate; if the public bus heading into Kota Bharu (the big town) hadn’t arrived by 18:30, we would simply go and sleep in the station. Luckily, we were spared a night at the deserted station and got the bus into town where we easily found a completely uncreepy (but also unremarkable) hostel for the night.
After a 2:30am wake-up, we were back at the platform just after 3, waiting and watching as our fellow passengers filed in slowly. They were mostly middle-aged women carrying large bundles and packages whose contents will remain a mystery. Smiles were exchanged as people unloaded their parcels and took up waiting with the rest of us, and there was quite a bustling little crowd by the time the train rolled in. We took our seats and got comfy as there were still about three hours of darkness in which we could catch up on some sleep as our carriage slowy rocked through stop after stop. Soon the women with bundles were replaced by boisterous young schoolkids, and the carriage was filled with their lively chatter and the heady smells of their fried rice (with chilli and anchovies) breakfasts. They were deposited at the school stop shortly after it started getting light, and in their place we were joined by young mothers and a good mix of regular daily commuters.
As the morning became lighter, we were surrounded by increasingly dense forest, which broke only for each little village and their stations. Through our windows we watched a wonderful kaleidescope of people and snippets of their lives pass us by. Market bound old ladies shouted to one another under the burdens of their heavy loads, families gave happy welcomes, or said sad goodbyes and people of all ages sat around in the nearby noodle shops, waiting or simply passing the time.
The further we continued the more vivid the forest views became, as we chugged in and out of green canopies and marvelled at the enormous limestone formations that suddenly jumped out of the dense vegetation. Railway bridges ferried us across rushing rivers, and long dark tunnels helped us through the mountains, and back into the verdent greens of the Taman Negara. Then all of a sudden it ended, and we were surrounded by barren orange hills covered with burned tree stumps and mounds of cleared vegetation. These soon became the vast palm and rubber plantations that were to flank us for the rest of the way to Kuala Lipis. It was a stark and alarming reminder of the rampant deforestation that has transformed the Malaysian Peninsula. It was a sobering reality check at the end of a magically beautiful journey.
In Kuala Lipis we had to walk about 2km to the bus station, where it was quite easy to get the bus KL, and then it was the monorail and another bus to the airport. We booked our Air Asia (terrible service, but cheap-ish) flight to Chiang Mai for 7am the following morning, and since the airport is so far out of town, we decided to sleep there until we could check in at 5am. Our plan was to restuarant jump between all the places with wi-fi (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Old Town Coffee co.) and take it in turns to rest. But luck was not on our side, as this was the night that all the restaurants were undergoing a mandatory pest control activity. So at midnight, all of us restauarant hoppers were suddenly homeless, and within minutes, the area surrounding the terminals came to resemble a bomb shelter, with people occupying every available bit of floor/wall space.
Bleary eyed and exhausted, we finally boarded our plane the following morning. After three days of travelling we arrived in Chiang Mai, having taken a total of one boat, five busses, two taxis, two trains and one plane to get there.