There is a train that runs from Singapore up through Malaysia and into Bangkok. At a certain point in Malaysia, a town called Gemas, the track splits into two. One track goes up the west coast through KL, the other track is known as the Jungle line and it goes to a town called Kotu Bharu on the north-east edge of Malaysia.
One weekend I decided to take the Jungle line. I think of the train pushing its way through the Malaysian jungle while I sit at a window, peering into the wilderness. I think it’s a Thursday when I devise this plan and the only train ticket I can find is from this town called Gemas. I book the ticket, I organise a flight back from Kotu Bharu to KL late on the Sunday night. Two-thirds of my journey is organised. I just need to get to Gemas.
After work on the Friday, I take the train down to the long distance bus terminal in KL. I buy a ticket on the 6pm bus. A little electronic display tells me that it’s ‘on-time’. The problem with these displays is that it’s only considered late if it has not arrived by when it was supported to. So at 6:01 the display ticks over to ‘delayed’. An hour later the bus arrives. It’s late because today is the start of the school holidays. The roads are packed and the two-hour journey to Gemas has started an hour late and takes an hour longer than usual. I had expected to arrive at 8pm so I would have time to find somewhere to sleep. I arrive at 10pm, dropped on the side of the road in this dark tiny town.
Gemas only has three hotels. The first is a nice, three-star hotel that’s completely booked out. The second is made of old wood and I gingerly ascend the rickety staircase. I worry that any step could crumble, destroying the homes of the thousand spiders that live under each step. I suspect some of these cobwebs are load-bearing. At the top, the floor has been re-enforced with additional bits of plywood and timber, there is filth everyone and an attendant nowhere. I wander through the din and dinge but cannot find anyone. The third hotel is made of concrete, a little dusty but generally clean. There was no attendant here either but there were guests roaming the hall. I even saw a westerner duck into one of the rooms. I give him a friendly nod.
I press the buzzer again. I don’t think it’s connected. The reception area has a couch. I devise a plan where I will sleep on the couch in the hope that someone will walk past and demand I buy a room. It’s still 30 degrees but slightly less humid than during the day. The plan fails as whoever runs the hotel has gone to bed so no demands are made. The I’ll-just-sleep-here part of the plan also fails because every guest who walks past on the way to the bathroom, prods me and lets me know that there is a buzzer. Perhaps I should press it. Such delightful suggestions. It’s almost 11:30 now. It’s still too hot.
I knock on the door of the westerner, he’s light is still on. The door opens.
“Can I sleep on your floor?”
“Yes. Come in.”
I enter and we progress to pleasantries. His name is Tim, an English teacher working in KL undertaking the same trip as me. I lay down on the concrete, my messenger bag as a pillow. After five minutes of lying in the darkm, Tim hands me a spare pillow and then gives me the blanket. He doesn’t need it as it’s too hot. I take it gladly. Above me on the ceiling is a fan, spinning slowly around. It moves just enough that you can tell it’s operational but not enough to tell if it’s effective. Now is not the time to turn it off and find out its efficacy. Then came the mosquitos. When you’re already uncomfortably hot and trying to reduce the amount of clothing you can wear mosquitos always come in to attack the exposed skin. You have to trade off itchiness against temperature. I make my decision and wrap the blanket it around me like a cocoon and I try to sleep.
It turns out that bones make it hard to sleep. They’re all pointy in the wrong places and concrete doesn’t give. I wake up sore, tired and with a new appreciation for just how hard it would be to homeless. To do this every night. Tim’s awake too and I take him out to breakfast. He tells me about his students. Malaysians follow Islam because it’s in the constitution but in reality the big religions are Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Christianity. His students feel being ‘required’ to be Islamic is funny but a part of their heritage.
The train arrives at halfway between nine and ten. I board and find my seat for the next ten hours. I have a window seat. I am facing backwards. I have a pillar next to my head. It’s possibly the worst window seat on the train. The train pulls gently out of the station and into the wilderness. I gently crane my neck and watch as Gemas withdraws into the distance.
A narrow slice of the jungle has been cut away so that a single train track can pass through it. Huge swathes of jungle have been cut away for rubber and palm plantations. Rows of trees stretch from the edge of the tracks and off into the distance.
Will future generations grow up thinking that the trees in forests grow in ordered lines?
There are few spots left of the jungle and it’s dense and its strength can be seen in the abandoned buildings being reclaimed. Every crack and crevice exploited by tendrils as the vines wrapped themselves around the walls and slowly pull them apart.
The train makes numerous stops along the way. Small train-side farming communities. Dogs lay languid in the heat. Individuals alight to the loving arms of family. The doors of the train are always unlocked. So as we rumble through narrow valleys there will also be passengers smoking their cigarettes through the open doors. Or sometimes they are just kids standing at the edge watching the scenery go past. The train rocks back and forth softly as it’s turn this way and that. I stand back, far from the door. It would only take one unexpected jolt and you’d be out the door on the side of the track. No else is as cautious.
We arrive in Kotu Bharu in the evening. Tim and I find a place to sleep; one where we both have a bed. We head out for a beer. I thank him again for his generosity. Tomorrow we part ways. I will explore Kotu Bharu, capital of the most conservative state of Malaysia. Tim will take the early bus back across the mountains back to KL.