Absorbing the Ambience of the Peninsular North by Train

loading Masjid Zahir remains imposing after a century.

THERE IS SOMETHING romantic about railways. In Penangite Wan Phing Lim’s essay, Slowly, Slowly into the Night, she documented her journey from Johor to Butterworth, clattering through a cross-section of the peninsula. For Lim, the far north remained out of reach. But now the electrified Komuter Northern Sector stretches from Padang Rengas in Perak all the way to the Thai border. Having the chance she did not have, I caught the commuter at its terminus, sitting back as the train raced north.

History and the City


Wind turbine and mosque at the coast of Kuala Perlis.

The Alor Setar Tower dominates the skyline of Kedah’s capital to an enormous extent. It overshadows the rows of low-rise shophouses and even the former Istana Kota Setar, now repurposed as the Royal Museum. The Kedah royal family has since decamped to Anak Bukit, but the capital remains dotted with royal relics. These range from the stately Balai Nobat, the drum tower, to the ruined beauty of Istana Sepachendera.

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Despite its reputation as a quiet city, two of Alor Setar’s most famous sons (and fierce political rivals) have held the top civilian post in the government. One was born at the Istana and the other in a poor neighbourhood across the river. Tunku Abdul Rahman led a life of luxury before going into politics and leading the Independence delegation, while little needs to be said here about Mahathir Mohamad. It is no surprise that the Alor Setar Tower was built during his first tenure as Prime Minister.

... it is a mistake to romanticise these distant places. They are ultimately human spaces, where drivers and passengers chat on public buses and familiar faces haunt coffee shops.

Although far from places like George Town and Melaka, the people of Alor Setar are aware of its tourist potential. Near the terminus of the Wan Muhamad Saman canal, where the first Chinese settlers to the place arrived, a few trendy establishments have sprouted. One of them is Caffe Diem, in the heart of Pekan Cina. The café is housed in a former prison, which later morphed into an opium den. Today, it is a family-friendly café and a magnet for local hipsters. Despite this, it still slots neatly between the hardware shops and familyowned restaurants.

History is etched into the city: it has witnessed destructive conflicts with Siamese, Bugis and Japanese troops. It is not far from the ancient Hindu settlements in the Bujang Valley, and it was within the walls of its royal palaces that decisions were made which led to the first stages of British domination of Malaya.



Caffe Diem occupies the site of a former prison-turned-opium den.

The Northern Sector’s rolling stock formerly serviced the Klang Valley Sector, and some of the trains still bear old route maps. Pelabuhan Klang–Batu Caves. Seremban–Tanjung Malim. Perhaps I might have once been onboard this very same train, but plying a different route far to the south.

Up north, the last traces of plantation finally vanished. I was used to seeing the landscape being disfigured by oil palms and it was wonderful to see vast paddy fields instead. In the distance, mist and rainclouds shrouded faraway mountains. The train outstripped a motorcyclist on a bund, and flooded paddy fields looked almost like lakes. Egrets sifted through the water, taking flight in vast white clouds. The names of the stations that we passed grew more unfamiliar. Gurun. Kobah. Kodiang…

At rain-soaked Padang Besar, a huge roar went up from the commuters and travellers crowding onto the narrow platform. Hundreds fought their way onboard once the doors opened, with others vainly trying to disembark quickly. The Northern Sector’s ridership had grown very quickly, having swelled from 500 to over 11,000 daily commuters just two years after the service was introduced. But the crowding was a small inconvenience for the ability to traverse over 200km of track at top speed for a modest fare.

In the borderlands, you are never far from where Malaysia blends into Thailand, and where modern divisions had finally established after centuries of warfare. But they remain artificial. We are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the region. Not far from Padang Besar are the mass graves in the jungles near Wang Kelian – a grim reminder of regional human trafficking and the ongoing refugee crisis.

Malaysian Journeys

A Hindu temple at the foothills of Bukit Lagi.

Kangar lies some distance off the railway line. The Perlis state capital was busier than I expected, crossed by motorists on Jalan Kangar-Alor Setar and dominated by the heights of Bukit Lagi. Low clouds shrouded the hill in the evening, and it was cool enough to wear a jacket. It is a small city but you can find everything that you need – banks, a university and a courthouse. But there have not been enough opportunities for youths, many of whom have left home for George Town, Johor Bahru and KL.

There may now be new trains coming this far, but the far north continues to feel remote. The late Rehman Rashid’s memoir, A Malaysian Journey, began with him musing at the Thai border, freshly returned from a self-imposed exile following Ops Lalang. More recently, Lam Ching Fu travelled the north entirely by public transit, documenting his adventures in My Journey by Bus. His book captures a slower pace of life that was in danger of vanishing. But it is a mistake to romanticise these distant places. They are ultimately human spaces, where drivers and passengers chat on public buses and familiar faces haunt coffee shops. Their counterparts in the cities lead vastly different lives, but deep down we share a vestigial common memory of hardship.

Clear skies broke through the next morning. I pulled into Kuala Perlis, where the town abruptly gave way to the coast. The rotors of the wind turbines in the compound of the Al-Hussain mosque were still. Ferries docked at the terminal, awaiting traders and tourists journeying to Langkawi. The open waters of the Andaman Sea glittered. It was time to slowly make my way south.

William Tham has been published by Buku Fixi, Looseleaf, Calibre and more. His new novel, The Last Days, by Clarity Publishing is now available.

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