The International Steam Pages

Malaysian Jungle Railway Part 2

The following article by Andrew Robinson originally appeared in the Ocean Beach Railway (New Zealand) News in June 2009 and is reproduced by the kind permission of the editors.

Click here for Part 1 

The station has 3 platforms, two of which are on an island and linked to the building by an over bridge. However, whenever a train pulled in to the busy platform 2, the passengers preferred to spill out onto the tracks without a glance for other trains using the main line and then drag themselves and their possessions up onto platform 1 and out through the concourse to the street. Departures were equally amusing, with most passengers remaining on the platform until the train was actually moving. They all politely took turns at boarding without any panic despite those on the platform continually have to quicken their pace to board.

Gemas is a busy junction between the East and West Coast main lines and the line to Singapore in the south. While there were no trains going in my direction for hours there were plenty of local and express trains finishing their days work at Gemas or forming north bound night services.

Inside the main concourse are a number of large murals provided by Siemens to commemorate their installation of the signally system and to demonstrate the differences in railways and landscape between their home in Europe and steamy tropical Malaysia. In the absence of a left luggage office or lockers, I chained my suitcase to the platform seats.

There are two preserved locomotives at the platform. One, named Temerloch was restored for a now defunct tourist venture and seems to still be in operating order. The other had some vital pieces missing but was still interesting. Both are of the same class and built by North British and is a Pacific of similar size to New Zealand’s Ab, although it has a different tender and cab outline and has 3 cylinders.

Meanwhile the station policeman was tracking me down. By a process of elimination he had deducted that the suitcase was mine and was concerned about “safety”. I am not sure if my suitcase was a threat to the station or whether the station inhabitants were a threat to it. However he offered to “watch it” so I quickly moved the offending case into his time warp office. I walked past his office an hour or so later and he was watching it intently and a couple of hours later he was still watching it, ready to act if it gave the slightest problem.

In the gathering gloom sightseeing options in the modest sized town were fairly limited. in the yard were several disused railway carriages, including some very similar to New Zealand’s 50’ steel panelled carriages, right down to the fittings. There was even a sleeping car version with a second row of windows for the people in the top bunk. Presumably the Malaysian and New Zealand carriages were inspired by the same British designer.

The bright orange plastic station seats did not seem a comfortable place to wait for the 2 a.m. train and competition for these was increasing which seemed odd given that there was not another train for hours. It is probably fair to say that they were not there for the fine dining at the refreshment rooms. I had settled for a chocolate bar, packet of crisps and a can of slightly sticky strawberry Mirinda. So I settled myself in the soft –padded seat of the steam locomotive, feet on the foot rest and drifted off the sleep. At a little after 1 a.m. I was awakened by the arrival of a passenger train so I grabbed my suitcase from the now sleeping policeman and dashed over the footbridge to board, only to be stopped by the guard who seemed genuinely surprised to see me. I handed him my ticket and after some thought he told me that the ticket was wrong. As the train had left Kuala Lumpur the previous day I needed a ticket for yesterday’s train!!

He shook his head and said “full up” but beckoned for me to board while he raced off into the darkness, returning a few minutes later with a full refund. As the train moved off I was left standing in the vestibule far too close to the cubicle housing the world’s smelliest toilet but pleased to be finally heading south. When the guard returned he announced that he had a second class sleeping berth for me. This was a good turn of events although I was unimpressed to have to pay a NZ$10 fine for boarding without a ticket, given that I had had a ticket when I boarded. The explanation was that all tickets issued from his book had to be accompanied by the surcharge.

The second class sleeping carriage had an atmosphere of a room that you would expect to find in the basement of a hospital, set aside for the failures. The interior was silent and cool, spotlessly clean with a lino floor. Down each side of the carriage were curtained off shelves, each presumably containing a sleeping body.

The train had quite smooth riding qualities and it did not seem too long until I was awakened by the guard calling out JB, JB, indicating that we were approaching Johor Bahru, my destination and the immigration point for the passengers continuing on to Singapore.

The station is smaller than some of the other major city terminals in Malaysia and has obviously faded in importance since independence but still has some architectural elegance although this is hard to appreciate as it is crowded out by modern shopping malls, ugliness and the multi-lane road to Singapore, with the immigration centre for cars and buses being just a few hundred metres away.

At NZ$10, the taxi ride against the early morning tide of commuter traffic was probably dearer than it could have been but reasonably exhilarating as the cab took on the motoring chaos. The hotel staff were very polite about my unusual arrival time and crumpled appearance and gave me a key to an elegant room.

The room had a commanding view over a sea of old shop-houses in all directions with grubby roofs interrupted only by American owned high rise hotels erected in the pre 1997 economic boom when foreign investors demanded to be part of the new generation high growth cities within the Asian Tiger Economies.

I had just finished freshening up and settled down for a bit of quiet time to reflect on my adventures when the phone rang; my local friend had sensed my arrival and was ready to show me the town.

We took the local bus back to the central city. The bus had dark tinted windows verging on black. This hid the mass of humanity on the inside that the people on the outside were battling to join. As the bus had a conductor it was permissible to board from the rear. With my feet on the bottom step it became necessary to fight off the closing door until the people ahead of me had moved further into the interior. The fare was around 50c but to give the correct fare required an extraordinary number of coins.

Therefore extensive dialogue commenced with the conductor as we tried to match my coins up with his change and fare. Suddenly the amount he wanted changed, we had passed into the next fare zone which meant that a couple of coins in my pocket exactly matched the ticket price.

Arriving downtown we explored a couple of the city’s large shopping malls. There were a couple of small but well presented stores selling computer software with slightly fuzzy covers and prices a fraction of those available elsewhere. I was appalled to see live fish being sold in tanks so small that the goldfish hardly had room to turn around. They were being treated as arty nic nacs rather than living things.

Next, we did a walking tour of the administrative quarter of the city with its distinctive towering town hall before checking out the Istana Besar, the Sultan of Johor’s former residence. The large lavishly landscaped mansion serves as a museum. The interior is equally as impressive as the exterior with huge rooms furnished with beautiful hand crafted furniture. In need of some refreshment we stopped at the large shopping complex on the edge of the Strait of Johor to try the hard jelly that is sold as a delicacy there. The outlook seemed slightly bizarre, clearly visible across the strait was Singapore, a modern economic powerhouse with a reputation for extreme cleanliness and firm governance, while on this side of the strait was a country of diverse cultures and values and despite having had impressive economic growth, was a complete contract to its neighbour less than a kilometre away. The sterile looking watch house on the Singapore Immigration checkpoint seemed to cast a sobering shadow across Southern Malaysia as it surveyed the horizon for anything untoward approaching the border.

After passing through the Malaysian Immigration Centre we caught a Singapore Bus Service vehicle for the short trip across the causeway to the Singapore equivalent. I was amused at the Scooter Lane which allowed riders to pass through immigration without dismounting before racing through a narrow fume filled corridor to emerge onto the causeway.

At the sparkling clean spacious Singapore checkpoint, everyone walks past an infrared camera that alerts staff to anyone with an elevated temperature and potentially carrying an infectious disease. Another bus took us to the Kranji MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station. Both the bus and rail service operate every few minutes from early morning until around midnight; Singapore public transport is equaled by few in the world.

Alighting at Harbour Front, we took the aerial cableway (Gondola) to Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a former Coastal Defence area for Singapore but is now totally given over to leisure with a couple of resorts, beach, Monorail, Merlion (Singapore’s Icon) historic fort, wax museum and even a volcano experience.

It is also the southern-most point in mainland South-East Asia (despite being on an island). It also marks the southern most point in my journey, an adventure that had taken me from the edge of Southern Thailand, through a route less travelled to the modern city-state of Singapore and now to the seascape looking toward Indonesian Islands and hundreds of ships at anchor; with oil refineries flaring off gas in the distance.

At least, I thought that was as far south as this journey would take me. However, having watched the smart Catamarans speeding past Sentosa Island, I was becoming curious about where they were off to. So the following morning I returned to Singapore’s Habourfront complex (formerly the World Trade Centre but hastily renamed possibly following the dramatic end to its New York namesake).

The majority of ferries were destined for Batam Island, an Indonesian island just under an hour from Singapore. The girl at the ticket window seemed hesitant to take my money and wanted to know what it was that I was going to see and do there. She didn’t grasp that the attraction lay in the journey rather than the destination so I ended up agreeing with her that I was going to the beach. With the decision made, she vanished with my passport and money; returning some minutes later with tickets, passport and neatly filled in departure card and an arrival card for Indonesia.

After a rapid trip through immigration I boarded the Penguin Express, an Australian-built high speed catamaran. The vessel was definitely a working board and showed signs of wear from the years of carrying commuters and was not as glamorous as tourist boats of the same type.

The view from the top deck was stunning, with the gleaming highrises on one side and the lush green Sentosa Island on the other, all bathed in brilliant sunlight. After sedately leaving the pontoon and navigating the strait, we reached the point guarded by the historic Fort Siloso and could finally accelerate across the open sea. Singaporean industrial off shore islands containing oil refineries and other industrial plant were clearly visible, as were dozens of ships at anchor and ferries criss-crossing between the islands of the archipelago. As we drew nearer to the Indonesian territory, the nature of the shipping changed. Traditional wooden fishing boats, some brightly coloured, all with high bows made a refreshing change to the bulk cargo ships of Singapore. We passed a large steam bucket dredge lying at anchor.

The arrival at Batam Ampur was a little uninspiring. Part of the harbour “sea wall” had fallen over and wash from the ferries was devouring the adjacent road. After clearing immigration, I set off on foot to explore the island. The first job was to fight through the subdued taxi drivers, then the much more enthusiastic unmarked informal taxis who all offered special deals and were condemning of their rivals.

My first instinct when harassed by people touting for my money is to decline. This was especially instinctive when the prices were in the tens or hundreds of thousands of Rupiah. The spending power of the Rupiah is pretty weak but I was still feeling defensive while in the process of figuring out what it was really worth.

I set off along the coast on foot and left the town behind surprisingly quickly. In the sweltering heat and the lack of signage for anything interesting, I began to regret declining the offers of transport. Shortly afterwards a man on a motorcycle pulled up to find out where I was going. He produced an identity card that showed that he was a registered newspaper reporter. He was between jobs so was happy to show me around. Although I know nothing about motorbikes the low powered machine and the sleepy pace of the surrounding traffic suggested that the risks were manageable.

The first job was to deliver the other passengers to their homes before embarking on the tour. We visited the shopping area of the town of Nagoya and Batam Centre but was left a bit dismayed by the ordinary shops on the dusty streets.

We then followed the road to the top of the hill to check out the costal view. As Batam is an island, it is not short of coastal views and this one was a bit lousy and the sprawl of the town in the foreground did not add much charm to it.

A delicacy in South East Asia is the Durian, described as the “King of Fruits”. It is famous for being banned from the Singapore MRT trains and a number of hotels due to its unforgettable aroma. The edible part of the fruit is quite small but is encased in a large spiky outer skin.

While descending from the hill, the motorcycle gathered momentum. At the bottom of the hill was a sharp corner. You can imagine my concern when the motorcycle had trouble navigating the corner and nearly careered sideways into a roadside Durian stand. This hazard safely avoided, the next thing to be explored was the bridge linking the islands. Evidently, during the Suharto era, massive resources were ploughed into developing the country’s infrastructure, including commencing the construction of a 4- lane road between the 5 islands.

On some sections, only two of the four formed lanes had been sealed and seemed to be coping well with the traffic. We passed a number of traditional houses, some idyllically placed in small bays and surrounded by the jungle.

The first bridge was a long sweeping modern concrete structure of massive proportions with gleaming steel cables supporting the massive span.

The bridge would have looked impressive spanning the harbour of a large prosperous city, but sitting surrounded by jungle and linking a couple of lightly trafficked roads, it looked moderately ridiculous. Traffic always increases to fill any motorway constructed, so presumably the people of Batam and linked islands will eventually grow into their bridge, but in the meantime it seems a tragic waster of tax-payers money in this under-resourced area.

The locals have taken to parking on the outside lanes of the bridge and using it as a place to socialise. It must be one of the few places in the world where motorists are welcome to park on a major structure and admire the extremely elevated view of the motorway and natural landscape.

We traversed this next island and admired the similarly redundant but less spectacular second bridge.

When heading back to the main island we passed what looked like a bus shelter but contained Policemen. On seeing us, one of them raced out to his modestly sized motorbike; but fortunately he noticed it was starting to rain and he retreated back into his shelter.

We headed to a traditional Kampong, a village built on a wooden wharf above the sea. Although the main attraction is the fish restaurants that draw people from Singapore we were just there for a cold drink. Relaxing in hand-made wooden chairs above the lapping waves off the southern tip of Batam Island seemed a great place to finish the journey and reflect on the people I had met and the places I had seen between southern Thailand and this place, which is nominally an industrial satellite of Singapore manufacturing industry but in reality has a few interesting places to explore.

Rob Dickinson