Train Journey, Bangkok Southbound to Singers
Take that iconic train journey Bangkok southbound to Singers! I did this journey in February, 2013.
Start your journey here – Hua Lampong, central station in Bangkok.
This place has that truly oriental flavour and architecture, the type you've seen in guide books. Quite inspiring really, flowers, strange procedures, diesel fumes and all. If you sit on the platform prior to departure you will see the team of train attendants lined up and harangued prior to starting their duties (look closely and you can see it happening in the pic above). On this train (not the first time I've travelled on this leg) I have found the attendants pleasant and helpful. You need to book at least one day ahead to ensure a berth – I did this by fronting up at the station and buying at the counter, easy and sure. A terrific resource for all train travel in this part of the world: seat61.com.
The ‘next station’ indicator – Sam Sen – is not digital. The conductor slides in a new one after each stop. Check the carriage manufacturer.
Take a dump here, or…
or… here, if you like that kind of torture.
Brush teeth here (it’s in the public corridor).
This trip I was unable to reserve a berth right through to Butterworth due to the fact that Chinese New Year was happening, so things were way busier than usual. I was able to book a sleeper to Hat Yai, but on arrival there had to buy a seat to Butterworth. Don't expect to get a lot of sleep however because the tracks are in less than perfect condition – Thais do have a problem with maintenance as you will know if you have ever set foot in the country. 'Rough as guts' as we say in the Antipodes.
This pic shows the depth to which I was forced to sink in order to avoid ending up with beer all over my face!
It's a long trip, 13 hours or so, and although in earlier times this train pulled a restaurant car, this time not, so stocking up with food and drinks before embarkation is a good plan. My original intention was to go straight through to Butterworth but I decided to decamp and spend the night in Hat Yai, reason being that the trip had taken it out of me and I felt like a rest was in order. Not having been to Hat Yai previously I was eager to see how it looked. The place is obviously richer and more vibrant than some other provincial cities I've seen (Korat, for example).
Early morning start.
The train Hat Yai to Butterworth was due to leave at 7 AM so an early start was required – some food is available at the station (of course), buy a ticket and wait. Horrifyingly the train was full already, and with no seat reservations this meant facing the idea of a 7-hour journey standing up. Was preparing mentally to get off the train when a savvy Turk to whom I'd been talking on the station appeared and told me he had a seat, what a hero. Most of the passengers were Chinese Malays returning home from celebrations in Thailand and in good spirits, friendly and good company for the Turk and me. For most of the journey there were passengers standing.
The train arrived at the Thai-Malay border an hour or so later, and it's everybody out, luggage included, and into Customs. Surprisingly well organised with a whole trainload of people processed in less than an hour.
So, proceeding into Malaysia the first thing I noticed was that the train (the very same train) up to now bumping along in Thailand and very noisy because of that, was suddenly smooth and quiet. You can see much track work going on in Malaysia and the results are excellent. A lesson for the northern neighbours…
Typical of the upgrade effort – new Station and tracks under construction at Butterworth.
At Butterworth new train tickets must be bought, giving you the chance to break the journey, most people would visit to Penang Island for a few days. I did this and found it all very worthwhile. Take the ferry across (ferry terminal a short walk from Butterworth RS) or take a cab for an expensive introduction to the island – your dark skinned driver has much info he loves to impart. Dark skinned people do all the service jobs here – same the world over. The history in and around Georgetown is fascinating, most of the town is a world heritage area, and there's plenty to see and do on the island.
Well preserved building in Penang.
Pedal power in Penang, very comfortable, and themed! Check the cars parked behind – not an SUV amongst them.
Lovely little restaurant in Penang.
Kool cycles seen in Penang, can’t believe that front tyre, reckon the guy got it out of the boot on his wife’s car (old Nissan Cedric no doubt)..
Atop Penang Hill, well-proportioned sculpture, the craftsman taking care to be totally lifelike – yes dear reader, there is right breast with a nipple behind that left arm! Which left arm I hear you say. Haha!
It's pretty obvious you're in a different country (from Thailand) right away. There is not the tide of humanity in Malaysia, only about one third the population of Thailand. Chinese culture is strong and widespread, but Muslim seems to be the predominant influence so get used to the controlling voice loud and clear morning and night. I'm guessing this accounts for the observation that there are not many women out and about. Dark skinned males are doing all those service jobs you see dark skinned women doing in Thailand. Plenty of Chinese and non Muslim Malays however, the females mostly unusually easy on the eye…
Oh, and there are rules!
It's no wonder these guys want to strike back, unfortunately they're a little confused about who their targets should be…
I'm not missing the dogs in Thailand either, only a few to be seen in Malaysia. Vehicles on the road – in Thailand most people’s wet dream is a Hilux or Ranger – pick-ups or SUVs – in Malaysia very few such vehicles, mostly small sedans with the dream being a Bentley or a Porsche….
Back to the journey. It's always a good plan to buy train tickets the day before, seats can be reserved. You can do this at the ferry terminal on the Penang island side (as well as at the station) but don't bother trying on Sunday 'cos it's closed, as is most of Georgetown.
The train from Butterworth to KL is better – newish, very smooth, not all that fast but the time passes quickly enough in the comfortable seats.
Modern Malaysian train, comfortable and quiet.
Scenery initially is magnificent encompassing all types of farming, forests, hills and mountains. You can stop off at Ipoh, but to do this you must buy tickets for each leg. Take some snacks and water (no alcohol – bear in mind this Muslim country tends to be strict about alcohol use).
Arriving at KL station is interesting, information not necessarily in your face. You can buy a voucher for a taxi within the station – do this and you'll be asked where you want to go (not unnaturally). If like me you haven't booked or researched a hotel, you can say 'to a cheap hotel' and if you're lucky as I was you'll be taken to Jalan Bukit Bintang – a busy street in a busy area, definitely recommended. Take your time selecting a hotel, anything from 100RM up and not necessarily on the main drag. There are literally scores to choose from in the area, and not heavily booked except in the Chinese New Year. Whatever your taste, you can get it here.
Attractions in KL are many and the easy way to get to them is by taxi, but they can be expensive. In theory metered but always get a price from the dark skinned driver. The way the taxi industry is organised is unusual. The taxi companies' (two of them) role is essentially to provide a framework for private drivers to rent a taxi or rent and buy a taxi. If the driver chooses he can own the car after 5 years of payments over and above the rent. The companies do not provide work, that’s up to the driver – he operates as a free agent. Seems to work.
One Petronas tower seen from the other. All surfaces visible here excepting glass are stainless steel, no wonder KL voices are still bitching about the cost.
KL night scene. Why indeed.
Now that IS a tea shop.
KL has very large and impressive parklands in the inner city, a part of which is a bird sanctuary. Well worth a visit to see lovely and exotic birds as close to being in their natural environment as you can get.
Bird in the park – Colour!
Bird in the park – Colour? Nah…
Street scenes are as different from their counterparts in Australia as you can get. Jalan Bukit Bintang where I stayed is alive from 8 AM to 4 AM. I woke at 3 AM, looked at the street below to see the roadway jammed solid with cars, the wide footpaths thronging with people, and street artists and musicians busking in several locations. The people walking along are 95% male, and they are being besieged by women urging them to take a massage in one of the many shops lining each side. The massage provision is quite tame compared to Bangkok standards, so if you looking for the whole shebang then team up with one of the ladies freelancing around the area. This scene has been playing out since dusk, and plays out every night, just the same.
Massage ladies (mostly from Cambodia) out hunting and gathering.
I went down for a look at 3 AM and felt completely safe (perhaps naively so), whereas in Australia you might feel somewhat threatened by the drunk bogans (Aussie speak, Wiki it) you’re likely to come across. No such thing here, no drunkenness for a start. Also saw a large team of workers at a construction site, working at 3 AM in trenches cut across a side street, laying large piping, lagging and welding same, their electrical generators adding to the street noise, in the 'cool' of the night, must have been around 27 degrees I guessed. Very impressive in the small hours.
Time to hit the tracks. Taxi in to KL central station and off to Malacca, one of those place names directly out of your school geography textbook. Actually the train does not go there, you must get off at Tampin. Pic below shows the new Tampin station and track taking shape.
Taxi from the station down to Malacca is about the only option, although a bus does exist it didn't show up to meet my train. Taxi service is typically Asian. Only one taxi (a clapped out Nissan Cedric) but 2 parties wanting to go to Malacca. The price was 70RM for 2 people and 100 for 3. Bargained him down to 80RM for 3 people after being told that it was against the rules to share but of course that changed when it looked like he might lose some dosh. Got going and then it turned out that he wasn't going to take us to Malacca anyway, we had to change cars – into his son’s car, looking more and more dodgy by the minute. Reason given was that he had to service another train – I knew this to be complete nonsense – a glance at the timetable showed it. However it turned out well, but the twisting and turning gets you down after a while. What’s the point? I guess it’s fun in an otherwise boring day for them…
Malacca, has all the exotic history you can imagine, museums and preservation. One museum stood out for me, it’s the Customs Museum, free entrance with some very interesting exhibits, most of which are seizures that have been made over the years. One such is pictured below, a lovely piece seized to protect the impressionable locals from moral decline. A nude form carved from wood came across the water from India and apparently still able to do its damage years down the track. It's a beautiful job, pity we can't see it…
I can see this as the best coffee table ever – knees, elbows, a sheet of glass and you have it!
On the streets in Malacca around the Chinese new year it's pretty busy with the usual Asian approach to things, lots of flowers, lights and noise. Malacca is a place with all the tourist potential in the world, however some basic stuff needs to be tackled before the potential can be fully realised, e.g. build a train line to the town, smarten up the beach which is currently unusable and even fenced off in places, and conduct a course for the local taxi drivers on how to navigate within their own town. I was taken on the most roundabout routes possible to several destinations, one driver telling me my GPS was no good here – I could see we were travelling due north instead of due south…
Are there words for this?
If these guys have ever heard of global warming I’d be surprised.
Church behind the clock tower was built by the Portuguese in Malacca in 1753.
Gentrified riverside through Malacca, very civilised.
A few days later and a 60RM and 40-kilometre taxi ride back to Tampin station and on to the train bound for Singapore. South of Tampin the scenery is pretty much wall to wall palms as far as the eye can see, best to sleep through it. Also south of Tampin the track work and station renewal program has not made it there yet, so the ride gets rougher and progress is considerably slower, so no, you can’t sleep through it. The last stop in Malaysia just before crossing to Singapore sees Malaysian passport inspectors enter the train and quickly run through passports which they process on the spot, meaning that you are now in no-mans-land till you're accepted by Singapore. The train does not go to the lovely old station in downtown Singapore anymore, so be content with the utilitarian version just across the bridge from Malaysia. Visas and customs in Singapore done and… you're there! End of the line!
Singapore is necessarily a state where control is necessary – a very small island and 5 million bodies, so how does the state control, for example, the number of cars on the road?
Seems you’re free to own a car as long as you can afford it. They have at least two heavy imposts which you and I don’t have, namely the COE (certificate of entitlement) and the ARF (additional registration fee). The COE is in the market and currently sells for between $78,000 and $92,000 depending on the car, and includes things like a place to park your car. No on-street parking in Singapore. The ARF is based on the registered price of the car and for those up to $20,000 is 100%, $20,000 to $50,000 is 140% and above $50,000 is 180%, meaning that a Mitsubishi Mirage will see you part with a total of around $118,000+, while a mid range Hyundai hits the road in the region of $150,000. And a Roller? Hey, that’s BIG money. (Singapore dollars).
It’s Raffles hotel. Yes sir, you can park your Roller here. Thank you. Sir.
Singapore beach scene. That jagged look on the horizon is parked shipping. Clean water?
Lovely building and preservation. I guess you’ve got to have tenants…
Lots to see and do in Singapore, worthwhile to hang around for a few days, you might even get to see a scene depicted below, as it happens!
Article in ‘The Straits Times’, someone’s day not going well.
The article says the fire was attended by two fire bikes (!), a Red Rhino and fire engine. It also says that last year another Ferrari burst into flames, and statistics show that there has been an increase in vehicles catching fire. Wait a minute, can this be global warming? (don’t even think about insurance fraud).