The train was a little late arriving at KL Sentral – about an hour and bit, actually – but as it had started its journey in Bangkok that wasn’t entirely unexpected so we were fairly cool about it. We’d heard that the advertised journey times didn’t include the time spent at borders, where checking passports, scanning baggage and waiting in queues took a lifetime so a delay was, well, inevitable. The station in KL is new and a major transport hub; it was full to the brim with travellers, heaving with life, shops and market stalls but well-signposted and easy to navigate – a foreign but altogether not unpleasant experience. A separate waiting area was set aside and cordoned-off for First Class passengers and although all the seats were full by the time we arrived we were left in no doubt that we were getting something special for the princely sum that our tickets had cost.
A six-hour journey on the Ekspres Sinaran Selatan promised to be scenic and relaxing but it would require sustenance. The service on the train included a buffet trolley but, to be honest, I’m not comfortable about what’s on offer on the Stansted Express so, after a quick conference with Mission Control overshadowed by visions of what Malaysian catering might deliver, self-catering was the answer. Having some regard for the well-being of my stomach and determined to keep my relationship with the toilets on the train completely platonic, we set off in search of carry-on food. In a land where eating at street kitchens is a national pastime that was quite an adventure. There was a lot on offer in the station and it was being consumed with gusto at every turn but most of it was yellow and if it wasn’t granular it was kind of wet. We had something of a frantic half-hour but by the time the arrival of the train was announced we’d assembled from the most unlikely outlets a clumsy but reasonable picnic; nuts, bottled water, apples, bananas, some funny-looking sandwiches, dry biscuits and chocolate bars.
Uniformed attendants ushered us onto the platform and into the sleek, polished metal coach. It was only as we stepped into the pink-liveried interior that we became aware of some alarming scratches along the outside, peeling paint, a carpet that was worn smooth in places and several double-glazed window units that had lost their outer pane. Some of those that were intact had fogged with condensation but the windows around our seats allowed some visibility, even if they were a little dirty. There were large, flat-screen TVs at each end of the coach, both with carefully drafted but badly spelled notes stuck to them apologising for the inconvenience of their not being in service. The seats, colours coordinated in a fetching orange, were akin to airline seats and equipped with footrests, reclining mechanisms and fold away tables. Unfortunately, they had carried a lot of passengers and made a lot of trips since they were installed so none of these luxury features worked and I suspect that the tables were best left where they were, wedged in the dark and sticky recesses of the seat arms.
But it was comfortable enough and we settled to friendly smiles and greetings from fellow passengers. The decrepit décor was soon of no consequence as the Malaysian scenery took over and unfolded before us. The express rattled along the uneven and narrow tracks at a pace that wasn’t really slow, but couldn’t honestly be described as fast either. Small towns, villages, views to forested hills, rain forest and a truly frightening amount of oil-palm plantations drifted by on each side. It was a fascinating way to see Malaysia and as we went further south I became more appreciate of the Man in seat 61. The journey was what we’d hoped for and was a relaxed way to travel the country. Anyone who has time should see Malaysia by train, although getting your hotel to provide a packed lunch would be worth the effort.
The catering trolley did arrive but not until the threadbare aisle carpet had been meticulously and noisily swept by a young lady with a carpet sweeper – the first time I’d seen one used in any kind of accommodation that wasn’t stationary. It was a pointless exercise but a charming cameo. Although we accepted the small complimentary cake and bottle of water that was offered, our own food was by far more appetising than that yellow stuff we’d been curious about at KL, served here in a semi-liquid form in small, plastic boxes. I guess it’s a matter of what you’re used to; there was a murmur of understated excitement as the trolley cluttered into the coach so the food is clearly considered a highlight of the journey and it was consumed with silent enthusiasm. I was happy to pass on the meal, a decision reinforced later when I squeezed into the tiny toilet and barely avoided slithering down the gaping hole in the floor that opened ominously and unencumbered onto the tracks below. Bracing myself between wall and door I had a passing thought that there were practical advantages in being male.
The towns along the route – the express officially grinds to a halt six times before reaching the border with Singapore – provide a fascinating insight into regional life in Malaysia and once again proved that making the journey by train was by far the best of the options available. The character of Malaysia’s colonial past was frequently reflected in the buildings and names on shops as well as the exchange of passengers, where first a Chinese and then a Malay or Indian community predominated. Towns with such exotic names as Seremban, Segamat and Kluang are significant stops before Johor Bahru, just before Singapore. Border controls in Malaysia are tiresome and move at glacial speed with lots of officious stamping of documents by suspicious and unsmiling officers. Johor was no different. All passengers had to disembark, remove their baggage from the express and wait in line below signs proclaiming death to anyone found with drugs. I don’t know about you but in every movie I’ve watched where someone was stopped at an Asian border with drugs secreted in their bag, from Bangkok Hilton to Bridget Jones, the tourist was innocent and the police immune to protest. I knew I hadn’t been watching our bags all the time. In the heat and intense humidity I wilted under the scrutiny of the border guards, trying but failing to avoid eye contact and certain they had me marked as a trafficker worthy of further examination. It seemed an age before, with a rare but curt smile, we were invited to start the long walk through the entire length of the customs building and back to the distant express. I was expecting a hand on my shoulder at every step.
But that was the border; it had been the last stop for the majority of passengers so we rattled slowly over the causeway spanning the Johor Strait and into Singapore like a ghost train. Very quickly, the rural nature of Malaysia was replaced with a verdant urbanity of modern buildings, overpasses, expressways, roads and traffic. Singapore always looks like it was built last month and even though I’d experienced it previously the contrast with Malaysia was startling. It was sunset as the express crept the short distance into Tanjong Pagar, the Malaysian-owned terminus on the island. The journey had been surprisingly enjoyable despite the train now being past its best and a little seedy. We were about two hours late but pleased that we’d made the decision to let the train take the strain and planned to use it going north the following week.
Kate collected us and we were whisked off to catch-up and recover. I reckoned I had about six hours before I was due to meet my guide and head back into Malaysia for a trek into the rain forest.