Take the Train and Make the Journey Part of the Adventure

By Samantha Khoo

November 2022 FEATURE
main image

THE YEAR IS 1885, and Malaya is under British colonial rule. A symphony of steam locomotives resounds from the bowels of Perak state – the land of tin mining. Operated by the Malayan Railway, or Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB), it primarily runs to transport tin.

Immediately thereafter, Malaya’s railway system expands rapidly, connecting cities across the Peninsula, and by 1923, it extends into Singapore.

Today, Peninsular Malaysia boasts a railway network of 1,800km, providing intercity access on three main routes. Along the west coast, the Electric Train Service (ETS) starts from Padang Besar at the border of Thailand, and on the east coast, the Ekspres Rakyat Timuran (ERT) begins in Tumpat, Kelantan. These two rail lines meet in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, connecting to the southern region by Ekspres Selatan that runs from Gemas to JB Sentral in Johor Bahru and across the border into Woodlands in Singapore.

Crossing Borders

Mohd Faizal Che Aim, also known as BCA Faizal, is a solo rail adventurer who traverses multiple countries by rail as a hobby. His lengthiest trip was from Penang to Oslo, Norway, spanning 43 days. In 2018, he crossed off a bucket-list item: the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest track stretching over 9,200km across China, Mongolia and Russia. While many desire to reach their destination as quickly as possible, Faizal prefers immersing himself in a foreign land and spending days in the coach with strangers as they “are all part of the adventure”.

His interest in trains started from childhood. When he entered the workforce, he would use up his annual leaves to ride intercity trains within the country. He took a leap of faith and resigned from his job when he turned 40 to feed his appetite for train travel. He sold kuih on the side to fund his train jaunts.

“I think it is an experience everyone should try. You learn new skills when travelling by train, like rationing your water and food for the whole journey. You interact with new people, too, even though they may look intimidating,” he says.

Faizal at a railway station in Beijing on his solo travels.

Faizal also organises trips for adventurous Malaysians who want to experience the sleeper trains on the East Coast Line, running from Gemas to Wakaf Bharu. This route is aptly dubbed the Jungle Railway as it travels through dense forests and passes lush national parks, limestone hills and villages.

One of the trips organised by Faizal on the East Coast Line.

“Many people ask me, ‘Is it true that there is a sleeper train in Malaysia?’ when in fact, KTMB has already had this asset since 1993,” Faizal says. The coaches are equipped with double bunk beds and curtains for privacy. There are also simple meals you can buy from the cafe on board, so food is not a concern.

Berths in the third class coach of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Photo by: Faizal.

Not too far from home are the rail systems in Thailand. Take the ETS to Padang Besar and you are just a train shuttle away from Hatyai, the shopping haven of Southern Thailand. Ong Guen Chiew completed three rail routes in Thailand: Hatyai to Bangkok, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and Bangkok to Nong Khai, bordering Laos. For those seeking a getaway from the hustle and bustle of daily life, train travel is ideal as it “is imperative for busy people. It slows you down and makes you take your time to think and relax,” Ong says. “It is peaceful and tranquil, and I have read many books on my many train journeys.”

Ong also raves about the impeccable service offered by the hospitable Thai railway staff on board and the myriad food options available. “If you are taking a day train, the array of food is incredible. Along the journey, you will stop at various stations and small towns where food vendors will get in and out of the train to sell their home-cooked food and delicacies,” he adds. Food on sale includes grilled skewered meat, mangoes, packets of dates and even pad kra pow (basil pork/chicken rice).

The platform at Hatyai railway station.

Of course, one should not omit the fantastic locomotive tours in East Malaysia. Built in 1896, the Sabah State Railway is the only rail system you can find on Borneo Island. The old-fashioned diesel train serves as an essential public transport for locals in the small towns between Kota Kinabalu and Tenom. “People come specifically to experience the old trains. Since there are no chairs, people either stand or sit on the floor while looking out the wide-open door,” Roslina Japar describes these old trains in comparison to the newer, electric ones that have started servicing the same line.

Aboard the Sabah State Railway. Photo by: Roslina Japar.

“Adrenaline junkies can kill two birds with one stone as this train is the only way to get to Sungai Padas for whitewater rafting. It is a scenic journey because you can see the river and also the forest interiors of Sabah,” says Roslina, who often ventures into rural spots in the state.

(Above and below) The old train servicing the Sabah State Railway. Photos by: Roslina Japar.
Sungai Padas is one of the views along the Sabah State line. Photo by: Roslina Japar

Alternatively, you can also book a four- to five-hour tour on the charming, 120-year-old steam train that transports the imagination of tourists to the British colonial era, equipped as it is with antiquated interiors, tiffin-style lunches and on-board crew dressed in olden-day uniforms.

Rail Travel Eases Anxiety

Many people love vacations but dread the commute. Most of the journey is often spent anticipating the moment we descend from the plane, bus or car. However, train vacationers will tell you a different story. For avid train riders, the journey is a big part of the entire adventure.

Imagine taking in the breathtaking landscapes from your window, or the rhythmic chug-a-lug of the train as it lulls you to sleep in your berth until the break of dawn in a new town. Travelling by train offers an experience that planes, buses and cars simply cannot.

Plenty of space in the Thai trains. Photo by: Ong Guen Chiew.

Ong points out that there is plenty of space to move about and one is not confined to their seat. The toilet facilities are always available as there is no need to arrive at rest stops to use the loo. Pack as light or as heavily as needed since there aren’t any hard and fast rules about carry-on luggage.

The next time you go on a holiday, check if your destination is accessible by rail. It could be thrilling and full of exciting moments or relaxing and peaceful. Whichever it is, it will be a journey filled with precious memories to take home.

Samantha Khoo

is a personal blogger since her teenage years who has always enjoyed stringing words together. Her dream is to live off-grid in a cottage with all the coffee, ink and paper she can have.