The Jungle Train

Post date: 30-May-2011 17:50:03

In November 2010 I decided to travel from Singapore to Kota Baru in Malaysia, mainly because it was very very far away, and also reachable by train. Singapore is at the southernmost tip of Peninsula Malaysia and Kota Baru is on the northeastern border with Thailand. You can take a train the whole way - it's called the Jungle Line. It leaves at 4.30 a.m. from Singapore and arrives at 6.45 p.m.

Most family and friends thought I was totally insane. The trains after all are run by KTM, the state-run train service. You will struggle to find the timetable on their website, indeed even find their website. I found it on someone else's. On-line booking - we can only dream. But I have fond memories of train journeys as a teenager and I wanted to do what the Malays call "balik kampung". Balik kampung literally translates to go back to your village. Though I am not Malay (I am Chinese Malaysian) and I don't have a village because my family are from KL, I did want to go back to the kampungs I remember from my childhood, where people lived in houses on stilts with chickens running underneath and the kids (including me) played jacks with 5 pebbles. Plus I was keen to revive my almost forgotten Malay, which I learnt as a child in Indonesia.

I found that - and more. I stopped off half way at Kuala Lipis (= middle of nowhere), and stayed in a kampung called Kuala Medang with a family who spoke no English at all, playing jacks with their little girl, then carried on to Kota Baru where I carried on my Malay practice with a very underutilised taxi driver in the rain. Booking this escapade was the first part of my adventure. My friend had seen something about the Malaysian homestay programme on Singaporean TV but details were scarce and by the time I found the website on Friday, the "Visit Malaysia" tourist office that could have helped me was closed for the weekend. Since I was planning to head off at 4.30am on Monday, I had to take matters into my own hands and call Kuala Lipis myself. I reached Pak Mohammed only to discover he didn't speak any English. In halting Malay I told him I'd call him back tomorrow, planning to enlist a friend's help to book. When I got off the phone I realised that copping out to a friend was not the point - I was supposed to be learning! So I asked my Aunty Lee Leng if she had a Malay dictionary. She lives in a big house with a lot of books so the search was on. In the event we came up with a pamplet from the 50's teaching "Bazaar Malay" to British servicemen. Really, it should have been in a museum somewhere. Nevertheless, with this I went on to book my stay and pick up from Kuala Lipis station at 1.30 on Monday.

I thought I ought to tackle my journey with more resources than my Bazaar Malay pamphlet so Sunday, before leaving, I went to the local bookshop to pick up a proper Malay dictionary. Singapore has 3 official languages, English, Mandarin and Malay, to reflect the diversity of its populace. Not that you'd know it from the dictionary section of Times Bookstore, Holland Village. All that was on offer was a sorry looking phrasebook. On principle I took the manager to task about it (he claimed he'd just sold out of the last dictionary but we both knew he was lying), but I was running out of options, so the sorry phrasebook it was.

On the train into Malaysia you knew when you'd left Singapore when the rubbish started appearing by the tracks. The train was slow, stopping everywhere, but offered great scope for jungle and people-watching and went right through the heart of small towns with odd looking stations that definitely had some Victorian design features. Admittedly the jungle-watching wore thin quite quickly and one plantation looks much like another though. I had bought curry puffs and snacks in Singapore station and quietly munched on these as the sun rose. I perused the sorry phrasebook wondering at the person who had written it. There were 3 ways to order wine, a glass of wine, a glass of red wine, and a bottle of wine. Wine is not something that’s readily available in non-English speaking restaurants in Malaysia. Ways to order a beer were not given. The small dictionary at the end of the book was equally baffling. They gave the word for a horse (not a native animal and probably only seen on racetracks), but not a monkey, ubiquitous. Everything was definitive - there was no word for if, but or maybe in the whole thing so you either went somewhere and did something, or you didn’t, there was no scope for alternate possibilities. I began to wonder if I should have stuck with the Bazaar Malay, because this was bizarre Malay, and came to the conclusion that the author was a pedantic alcoholic with a gambling problem, who’d probably never actually been to Malaysia.

When we arrived at Kuala Lipis (on time), I looked around expectantly. No sign of any Pak Mohammed. Um. I think the literal translation of what I said was "look me tomorrow Kuala Lipis station one and a half o'clock". I definitely hadn’t said “maybe” I’ll be there, or “if I don‘t miss the train” since that was not part of my vocabulary (I had to text my mum later, to get those words). There was a tourist office there but it looked ominously closed. I peered desperately through the tinted windows. A passer by sensed my panic and offered to call Pak M, and was just doing so when he appeared, with 2 other friends in tow. Apparently they'd been early and popped off for a snack. That's very Malaysian - any opportunity for food.

Now some people might doubt the rationale of a single woman getting into a car with 3 unknown men but I was encouraged by their new T-shirts with the "Visit Malaysia" logo brightly embroidered on the shirt pockets so carried on. We managed to make conversation in stilted Malay and English in the car, and I was eventually deposited in a Kampung called Kuala Medang, at the house of a woman whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to feed her guests as much food as possible. Four meals a day seemed standard, along with visits to see the “kampung industry”, many of which seemed food-related like fish farming, fruit growing and juice pressing, noodle making, rubber tapping, rice planting and threshing, elephant ear making (a type of snack), and dodol making, which is made from coconut milk and palm sugar cooked down to a type of toffee.

Overall, I enjoyed her cooking much more than I expected (never having liked Malay food all that much), and I helped her with some of the cooking. The single worst dish I ate though (and it’s fairly high on the all-time worst dishes list) is when I brought home a fish that I’d fished in the village fish ponds - a kind of catfish. This appeared on the dining table looking rather yellow and pungent - a durian fish curry. Now I will eat durian - many people won’t, it’s a pretty stinky fruit - but I do think the fish/durian/curry combo is the worst of all possible smelly worlds. I can‘t think of a better use of the word foetid. Even worse of course I was expected to eat quite a lot of it because I caught the bloody thing. That was one recipe I did not ask for.

Whenever she wanted to cook, she rolled out the cooking mat, plonked herself down on the floor, pulled out her knife and board and started chopping. I wasn’t quite clear of the significance of the cooking mat (it was not particularly easy clean, for instance), but I helped a bit with some of the cooking. One evening after dinner, around 9pm, the cooking mat went down again, and out came some enormous containers of potato curry. It seemed she was settling down for some Curry Puff making. I was thoroughly game so plonked myself down too. After guidance of how to roll the elaborate pastry whorls, we proceeded to make around two hundred of these things. That in itself was OK but my bum did go numb after the first hundred! I was forced to retire to the dining table in defeat. She was able to sit in the lotus position or whatever no problem, but for me, propping myself up with one arm and rolling pastry with the other, it wasn’t exactly ergonomic comfort. You may by the way wonder at the huge quantities made; I think she put them into the chest freezer and removed them bit by bit for guests for afternoon snacks. From Kuala Lipis I carried on my marathon journey on the Jungle Train through jungle and plantations up to Kota Baru. There was some confusion about the time of departure, which might have been 1.30pm (according to the KTM website my sister looked up), 1.36 (what was printed on the ticket I bought), 1.51 which was the time confirmed by the announcement, or 1.59 which was when we actually left. Perhaps there was another time there somewhere which meant it was early. My lovely hosts waited on the platform to wave me off, complete with golden goody bag for the journey loaded up with curry puffs and at least one more meal. My hostess had seemed rather disappointed I didn't eat more to build myself up for the journey, but I had had a big breakfast with nasi goreng, goreng pisang and the curry puffs already just two and a half hours before.

On arrival at Kota Baru I was whisked off by a delighted and rather bored taxi driver to another kampung (in the rain), where I had booked quite a range of activities, batik making and cooking lessons. As possibly the only tourist in the entire state of Kelantan, I had no problem with availability. It certainly was different to Kuala Medang, and I faced a new set of challenges far beyond the durian fish curry.

I had been warned that it was monsoon season but I really hadn’t grasped the reality of the “north-east monsoons”. It came down in ropes from the time I arrived to about 1 hour before I left. My flipflops had already conspired to give me blisters from wondering around Kuala Medang so I was in my Birkenstocks - let me tell you they are not ideal for wet weather. Obviously they are not enclosed, but also, with all the suede, they never dry out!. Every morning my heart would sink as I put my feet into the soggy slippers ready to face the day. I still didn’t look as miserable as the chickens though, sheltering in the eaves and doorways of houses, wondering whether they could evolve the ability to swim. The one plus point - no mosquitos. I think they had all drowned.

My by now quite friendly taxi driver, always available, took me on eating trips to town and other random places to eat local delicacies like Ayam Percik and Nasi Kerabu, or should I say Kerablue since it is rather a strange colour. He ate Nasi Air which translates to water rice - didn’t sound the most appealing dish in the world. Especially given the amount of water that was falling all about. We practiced my Malay and he marvelled that a single woman could travel alone, he’d never seen it before. “Just like a man!” he said.

I took cooking lessons with a Malay woman who seemed strangely reluctant to measure anything, given that she was formally giving lessons, and managed to get my handbag infested with red ants from the leftover banana fritters I made and then forgot about it my bag. However, when a tree in her garden just keeled over onto corrugated tin roof of the house, causing us quite a fright, apparently from sheer weight of water, I should have taken the hint. The chickens would have gone long ago, if they could.

Eventually though the endless rain and damp got the better of me. When my “dry” clothes actually felt like they’d been freshly wrung out and the bed felt rather like getting into a swimming pool, just from the humidity, it was time to pack my bags and call my sister to book me on the next plane out of there. Thanks, sis, for braving Air Asia’s booking system and rescuing me….

Quite a lot of curry puffs