Day 69: Kota Bharu & Gua Masang, Malaysia. We had a relaxing start to the day, including a long snooze-on which was much needed after yesterday’s crazy o’clock start.
Just before midday, we walked to the local supermarket to buy some snacks, where Lil caused a bit of a kerfuffle by going in the out door. At least this time she knew to choose a ladies-only checkout on the way out. The couple of items she bought were shoved into a plastic bag, then the receipt was taped to the outside of the bag, and then one of the security guards stamped the receipt as she walked through the exit door. Such a lot of process – and very manual too.
Then we got a Grab car to Wakaf Bharu railway station, about 5km west of Kota Bharu city centre. Thankfully we were able to easily buy tickets for today’s East Coast Line Service, also known as the Jungle Railway. The East Coast title is a bit of a misnomer, as the train runs through the centre of the peninsula, only hitting the coast at the start of the line at Tumpat, at the border with Thailand.
The railway, which runs over 500km from the northern border with Thailand all the way to Singapore, was constructed by a Tamil workforce and paid for by the British, in several stages between 1910 and 1935, in order to transport rubber and tin from the jungle. At the time it was considered an engineering marvel due to the terrain. During the second world war around half the track was pulled up by the Japanese occupiers of Malaya and re-used to build the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ that runs through Kanchanaburi, where we stayed six weeks ago. The rails were all replaced after the war.
We were over two hours early for the train, so we sat and had coffee at the small cafe and shop at the station, then Lil decided to go for a stroll to the local town, less than 10 minutes walk away. She came scurrying back pretty quickly as she was (quite literally) the talk of the town – everyone stopped and stared as she walked past – guessing they don’t get many non-muslim visitors there.
The train pulled into the station right on schedule. We climbed aboard, picked two seats and slung our backpacks in the overhead luggage rack. For third class, the train was pretty comfy – padded reclining seats, decent leg room and (at least some) air conditioning. The interior plastic trim was an interesting shade of green.
Wakaf Bharu to Gua Masang is a five and a half hour journey, with around 35 stops along the way. Some of the stations are absolutely tiny, often no more than a small wooden shed or just a table and chairs with a canopy. The further we got into the heart of the jungle, the more curious we became, wondering what it must be like to live in such small villages, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was an incredibly scenic and very comfy trip, and the time flew past. During the trip a lady walked through the carriages selling crunchy guava slices with sugar and salt, so we bought some to try it out – absolutely delicious.
We got lots of curious looks on the train too – we were the only non-locals, and people were clearly a little bamboozled by our western clothes, and Lil’s red hair and pale skin. At one point, Lil woke from a snooze to find a small girl literally standing and staring at her. When she saw Lil wake up, she gave her a big smile and ran away. She came back several times throughout the journey to check us out again – and was very intrigued by our phones too.
There were lots of kids on the train with their parents, and very few had any screens to entertain them. Instead they talked or slept or played with toys. And of course we had to be sitting next to a little boy who sang ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’ over and over. We’re guessing kids must learn English songs in school or at home, although they converse in Malay.
We arrived in Gua Masang (which means ‘Civet Cat Cave’) at 8.20pm. Our accommodation was 10 minutes walk away, along a very dark road with no pavement. We slung our bags into our room and headed straight out for dinner.
Despite Gua Masang being a small town and it being after 8.30pm on a Wednesday evening, there were lots of local eateries to choose from. We were starving, so were happy to stop at the first place we passed. Lil had a great chicken and fried rice dish, and Jim had seafood with noodles, including some prawns that Lil said looked straight from a horror movie, with huge long claws sticking over the edge of the plate.
We had a quick stroll around the town after dinner, then headed back to the guesthouse for an early night. Tomorrow we continue the train trip, this time a much shorter two and a half hour journey to Kuala Lipis. And doubtless we’ll get lots more stares from curious people along the way.