Malaysia's iconic "jungle railway" - one of the best train travels in Southeast Asia (2023)

It may soon become obsolete, but The Jungle Train remains a nostalgic journey through the heart of Peninsular Malaysia, past forgotten villages steeped in colonial history.


Dawn light shone through my top bunk window, waking me as our carriage crashed into the tracks. Outside, violet rays broke through the low cloud layer and thawed the moisture on the train windows, revealing misty, winding hills covered with viridian canopies. Suddenly, the two walls of the forest closed, almost touching the sides of the train. I sighed, but the train continued unscathed. I got up from my bunk and slid down the metal ladder, reaching for my boots.

I rode onEast City Expresstrain on the east coast line of peninsular malaysia. Contrary to its name, it never touches the coast, but the bordersOne of the oldest rainforests in the the forested interior of Malaysia. For this reason, the historic route is better known as the "Jungle Railway".

The Rakyat Timuran Express is the last train in Malaysia to use diesel locomotives, a significant difference from the West Coast Line's modern and high-speed electric service, which connects Singapore to southern Thailand in less than nine hours. But with news of a faster 665km east coast rail link opening up a new route along Malaysia's east coast (from 2026), the slow Jungle Railway, which takes more than 16 hours to travel, may soon become obsolete.

So I bought a one-way ticket (the bottom berth is only RM56 (around £10)) and rushed to experience one of Southeast Asia's most historic train journeys. For slow travellers, the Jungle Railway is the best way to immerse yourself in local history and is the most romantic way to get to the coral-encrusted islands of Perhentians and Redang off Malaysia's northeast coast.

The Jungle Railway connects the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula to the Thai border in the northeast. The best way to experience it is to start in the city of Johor Bahru, near the Singapore border, and head north. The train departs at 8:35 PM, allowing you to sleep through the first part of the journey as the train plows through the cities of the southern plains, and you'll wake up to stunning views of the ancient rainforest inland.

In the morning, getting up from my bunk, I went to the dining car in the middle of the train, where other morning guests were already drinking strong local liquor.coffeehouse(Malaysian coffee). Young women in headscarves sat alongside families and elderly couples, enjoying the scenery as the scent of toast smeared with coconut jam wafted through the air. I sat on an empty bench and looked out at the tin-roofed houses surrounded by patches of jungle and dramatic karst rock formations gliding past the train in the tropical morning light.

Since the 19th century, the jungle train has been the main means of transport in the interior of British Malaya, linking remote villages to former colonial outposts such as Kuala Lipis, the abandoned capital of Pahang state from 1898 to 1955. The British colonial administration built this route in 1885 to help transport goods across the country, naming the train the "Golden Blowgun" after the weapon that the Orang Asli Aborigines (Malay for "original people") used to hunt on this once impenetrable desert.

Malaysia's iconic

Travelers can disembark at Gua Musang station to explore the limestone rock formations (Source: Marco Ferrarese)

It took decades for the British to lay the line's 530 km of track through dense primeval forest, while settlements grew around the various stops. The service was finally started in 1938, finally connecting Tumpat, near the Thai border in northeast Malaysia, with the town of Gemas in Negeri Sembilan.

After breakfast, the first major stop was Gua Musang in South Kelantan, where I got off the train to explore the area and noticed hand-painted colonial-era wooden signs still hanging with arrows pointing towards the two opposite ends of the line. .

“After lunch, I used to go to the station with my family to watch the train go by. We counted the stars and waited for the monkeys to come, doing nothing, then walked back,” said Ong Siou Woon, who grew up in Gua Musang, where a large limestone rock formation towers over the Jungle Line Midway Station like the shell of a giant stone turtle.

Sometimes the trains had to stop and wait for elephants to pass or for [fallen] logs to be removed from the tracks.

The Jungle Railway was not designed for speed. "Sometimes the trains had to stop and wait for elephants to cross the road or for [fallen] logs to be removed from the tracks," Ong said, recalling the dangers of traveling by train 30 years ago when commuting to school. . in the southernmost state of Johor. Even today, the service still runs on a single track, forcing opposing trains to plan to pass each other at certain stations.

Malaysia's iconic

The Guillemard Bridge was built almost a century ago by the British (Source: Syed Mohd Badril Hisham Syed Abdul Khalid)

Soon after, we pass through the village of Dabong, home to the large limestone caves of Ikan and Keris (famous for the "Light of God" penetrating through a hole in the roof of the complex) and Jelawang Waterfall, 305m high, one of the highest on the Malaysian peninsula. perfect stop on this long journey. The trail then turned east along the bends of the Galas River before turning southeast, leaving the jungle-shrouded interior and returning to the plains dotted with rice paddies, traditional Malay houses and rows of tall coconut trees.

But the most impressive journey was about an hour before reaching Wakaf Bharu, the penultimate station on the line, where we crossed the black steel walls of the historic Guillemard Bridge, a landmark piece of British engineering that spans the Kelantan River. . Built in 1925, this 600m single-track truss bridge (the longest railway bridge in the country) was partially destroyed by the British during World War II to prevent the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army, which eventually succeeded in taking colonial Malaya between 1941 and 1945. It was built in 1925 and restored in its current state in 1948.

The train continued across the plains, arousing my admiration for the feat of building and maintaining this railway through the territory of tigers and elephants, and for the importance of the jungle railway in connecting remote inland settlements. Finally, with the final whistle, the diesel screeched to a stop at the tiny Tumpat station at the northern end of the line, bringing me back to reality. Just 10 kilometers from here, the Golok River marks the border with Thailand.

I disembarked with the few other passengers, headed for the exit, and stared at the old diesel car, in disbelief at how it had managed to get us across the country. Further, instead of the Islamic mosques I passed on the way, I saw golden Buddha statues and temples glistening in the midday sun. I thought a new rail link on the east coast would be hard to overshadow the charms of a slow journey through this steadfast remnant of Malaysia's past.

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