03 August 2007
A few weeks ago, I decided to take a quick trip up to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (KL to the locals) via rail. I love traveling by train and looked forward to the journey and the chance to get a feel for KL in anticipation of a longer stay next April in conjunction with the Malaysian Grand Prix. Taking the train is much more convenient in some ways - you don't have to be at the station hours early like at the airport, you can stretch out and enjoy the smooth ride in not-so-cramped quarters, you can escape to the dining car for a bite to eat on the way, and you arrive at KL Sentral, in the heart of the city, instead of the airport in Sepang, 50 km south of the city. Plus, you get to see the countryside on the way.
I awoke on my morning of departure (it was the Saturday morning after the hash, so I didn’t get much sleep) to pouring rain. Not a drizzle - pouring. That meant I was not going to take the MRT to the station. Of course, I was running a bit late, so a cab would have been the likely choice anyway, but now I had to call one instead of simply hailing one on the street. My cab arrived at 8.25. My train was due to depart at 8.40. We made it through the storm to the station by 8.36. I wasn't the only one arrived just in time, and the station attendant pointed us to the platform and the waiting train.
The old train station in Singapore is at the southern end of the island, just across from the port entrance, but it is actually part of Malaysia. The signs are written primarily in Malay, with English on the second line. As soon as you walk onto the platform, you see a sign welcoming you to Malaysia, and you clear Immigration and Customs right there before boarding the train. I quickly went through Immigration, and they just waved me through Customs (Malaysians are more laid back than Singaporeans), which was good. Because just after I took my seat on the train, we took off.
The accommodations were okay - the train car was clearly older, a little beat up on the inside. But, I didn't expect the height of luxury - I was just excited to take the trip. The conductor announced a seven-hour trip, but it took us an hour to wind up through Singapore, and then we had to stop to clear Singapore Immigration just before we got to the Straits of Johor. In Johor Bahru, we had to wait for a clear track, another 30 minute delay. But, I didn’t care. I had two seats to myself, some good reading, and plenty of music on my iPod. Plus, I was able to get a good kopi, with a thick layer of condensed milk, from the dining car.
The train ride was actually pretty nice - it took about nine hours to get to KL, and I had a neighbor for an hour or so who smelled like the thousand cigarettes I’m sure he smoked just before boarding (and who, I am convinced, stole my cool silver pen when he left). The ride is a bit rougher than what you get on Amtrak, but not too bad (if you didn’t get up to walk around). There is one thing, however, that I could do without. As a passenger on Malaysian Rail, you have the privilege of enjoying Rail TV, which is a television with a VCR (yes, the tape) machine at each end of the car. The movies were terrible. I didn’t want to watch Lady in the Water in the theatres; I got to see it twice in 24 hours on the train. But, I can just not listen, right? Unplug the earphones? No chance - there are no earphones. They play the sound over the car’s speakers. So, even if I didn’t want to listen, I am forced to. It was terrible.
The movie annoyance aside, the ride was quite beautiful. The train travels through hundreds of kilometres of lush scenery, stopping at numerous small towns along the way. Everything was amazingly green. And then it all turns to this massive city, KL, around 5 in the afternoon. You arrive in bustling KL Sentral, which is the central terminal connecting the intercity rail, airport express, and three local light rail systems (there are two subways and a monorail, all run by different organizations, which means you have to buy separate tickets for each line). From there, a short taxi ride took me to my hotel (the very cool Hotel Maya, with its rooms featuring wood floors and a rain shower), situated directly across from the Petronas Towers. What an amazing sight!
The towers feature really interesting architecture, with a steel and glass façade designed to resemble motifs in Islamic art, in tribute to Malaysia’s Muslim heritage. I decided to not go up in the towers, as the free tickets are usually snapped up early in the morning and the skybridge that connects the towers is only 170 metres (41 stories) above the ground. Instead, I headed to Menara KL, or the Kuala Lumpur Tower. This rises 421 metres above its perch, the Bukit Nanas Forest Preserve. Yes, the tower rises from a rainforest. And it gives a beautiful, panoramic view of KL.
KL has a feel completely different than Singapore. It has that grit and vibe that Singapore, in its pristine, heavily-monitored state, does not. It is hard to explain, but those who have been to those two cities (or any city and Singapore) will know what I mean. Just a little more of an edge.
After the KL Tower, I headed out to Bangsar, an entertainment and residential area south of the city centre. I found several groups of expats as well as locals, out enjoying the rather cool night (for tropical standards). But, after some good Indian food (a great benefit of living in this region is the abundance of yummy Indian restaurants), the hash caught up with me, and I made it an early evening. But, not before one last look at the towers.
The next morning allowed for a quick trip to the Central Market, a huge indoor shopping area with local goodies showcasing the diverse cultures in KL (Malay, Chinese, Indonesian). I also took a stroll to the Petronas Towers and Suria KLCC, a huge shopping mall situated at the base of the towers. It was amazing in itself - floors and floors of high-end stores and fantastic food.
And when you walk out, there is one of the tallest buildings in the world. The skies threatened rain, but it thankfully held off until after I had taken the monorail (a fun way to get around) back to KL Sentral and to my train.
The ride back to Singapore was much like the ride up. Coffee, reading, music, scenery. And those d*** movies. When we reached JB, the Malaysian Immigration and Customs officials boarded and checked our passports. But, when we crossed into Singapore, it was everyone off the train to stand in line. This is where the true spirit of Singapore comes alive. “Kiasu” is the principle here of doing what you can to get ahead, or, literally (in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect), the fear of losing. You see it in pedestrians and shoppers, in the subways, even in cabdrivers who don’t want to yield. The nanny state has produced a population of me-first individuals, so much so that lately the government has officially encouraged Singaporeans to be nicer. So, how does one see “kiasu” on the train? Well, even before we had come to a stop at the Singapore Immigration building, actually well before we had slowed down to what I would call a safe speed, I could see dozens of people running past the train. These were passengers who had jumped off while the train still rolled at a not inconsiderable speed so they could be first in line at the Immigration checkpoint. Now, many of these folks were ending their journey here and would have friends pick them up (the station is near the Woodlands in northwest Singapore). Thus, they wouldn’t have to go through Immigration only to wait in a holding area before everyone had cleared and the train was reopened for boarding. But, it was just a bizarre sight to see people who had jumped at speed to be first in line.
When we finally reached the Keppel Road Station (the final destination), it was well past 10 pm. Yet, the station was alive with Malays eating and drinking at the food stalls and watching an old television. It really was like being back in Malaysia. And apparently the station serves good food. I’ll have to check that out myself and report back.
All in all, a quick but fun trip. I spent almost 18 hours on a train and 20 hours in KL. But, even with the small discomforts (and those d*** movies), I still say traveling by rail is the most sophisticated way to go.