The over-night train from KL towards Thailand departs at 8pm, so after a coffee and early dinner with my friend Wai Kit, he dropped me off at the staion a little early. It was not easy to find a sign indicating the platform for the intercity express trains (did I mention the poor navigation in Malaysia?) but it was the same place I arrived in this afternoon, so I managed to spot it. There was only a line thrown across what is a landing on top of stairs leading down to the platform below. People are sitting in the waiting area but the departure time is already getting very close. Many of us have now stood up and started forming a queue, which quickly was broken into layers of people surroudning the roped opening. Clearly, they are going to check your ticket before allowing you to the platform, which will become a bottleneck. No automatic machine, no systematic queue control. So typically Malaysia.
As expected, people come down the stairs in a hurry (it is already departure time and there hasn’t been an official announcement of how much of delay it has been adjusted to). There are a couple of train officers who help you identify the car. It is not difficult to do… your ticket has “Coach” box where the car number is printed, which corresponds to the number/alphabet next to the door. The Singapore – KL train was alphabet, while this train was using number. My sleeper 2nd class car was coach no.10. The officer points at the car right next to the stairs we came down. I quickly make my way inside.
I climb into the top bank. There is really no space to put your bag so the larger backpack will have to go on the floor under the bed on the lower bank. There is not much head space and the roof curves in a bit. Now I understand why the top is slightly cheaper than the bottom. Under me, parents with 2 little kids. They keep asking for the parents attention and there’s non-stop movement. I was really tired but couldn’t sleep till late. Around 10pm it got quiet and I finally dozed off, only to hear another family join our car at the bed nearby. Next time I felt the train slow down, and I peeked outside my small window to see it was Ipoh. According to the time table, it is around midnight. Okay, back to sleep!
The bed is firm and train really does not rock so much, so it is a comfortable journey. Another major stop somewhere, and then I was woken by the conductor opening my curtain slightly to check I’m awake. Is it already my stop? 5 minutes later, the train stopped at Butterworth station. The problem was, they announced the approaching station in Malay and English, but did not call it Butterworth, I’m pretty sure of it. Could there be another, say, old name of the station they commonly use? But that would not be helpful to the foreign visitors, may of whom happen to visit the island of Penang just across the water. The ticket says Butterworth, the station signs only say Butterworth. Hmm…
I scrambled out of bed, grabbed sweatshirt and guidebook and waterbottle scattered across my bed, and with 2 small backpacks across both shoulders, I stepped into a slightly chilly and crisp night air at 4.30 in the morning.
I sat on the bench around the station like everyone else, as nothing seems to be moving yet. But then I found out that the first ferry to cross to Penang was around 5.30am, so I followed the sign that points to go around the back of train station building and found the ferry. RM1.20 gets you to the island, the return journey is free. If you don’t have coins, there is an officer waiting with stuck of coins for quick change. So much for cost effective use of resources… But the gate itself is a self-operated one with coin slot – it counts up to RM1.20 before unlocking itself. Sure, that would be less costly to have automatic gate, yes. Oh well, that’s Malaysia. Give it up.
My cousin’s in-laws have recently moved here and from the little I heard they’ve set up a B&B. Since I have hours before the next train out of Butterworth, I decided to drop by for coffee. But it was 2 hours early and I saw the sign for ‘public beach access’, so I turned the corner. Along the way, a corner house with the same house number as my relatives place caught my eyes, for some reason. I stood there for a second feeling something strange how the house just caught my eyes like that. But according to the bus driver who told me the bus stop to get off, the house was supposed to be on the other side of the highway, not on the beach side, so I walked on for another 50 metres and found myself on a quiet sandy beach.
It was so beautiful and calm that I was tempted to just jump into water for a swim. I just had a rough night on a sleeper train surrounding by excited kids. I could really use a swim. But there is no sign for designated swiming area like you see on the beach in australia. Obviously this is too early for people around here to swim (around 7.30am now) and I did not know whether there is any stinger (jellyfish) problem around here. (And I watched ‘Seven Pounds’ only a week ago!) So I decided to give up the swim, but took the shoes off and enjoyed the sand under my feet. Apart from a sole fisherman who’s cleaning his net on the boat and a few people walking and cleaning the beach, it is very quiet. It is a beautiful place.
It was coming close to 9am, so I decided to find some local food for breakfast before visiting my relatives. I was walking back the way I came, and the house that caught my eyes earlier came into view, with my cousin’s mother-in-law, Ans, standing in font of it with her spraying the water. So it WAS the right house. I said “GOOD MORNING” and we laughed at my story of how I found the house only by accident. They treated me to breakfast and coffee (both needed), and also let me use the shower (VERY MUCH NEEDED – especially considering it will be another night on train!).
The house is gorgeous. I remember seeing the same furniture they had when they were living in Singapore before, but they are simple but of good quality. Typical practical but tasteful European lifestyle. The rooms upstairs are ready to welcome guests and I can see how people would end up staying for weeks rather than whatever they had planned before their arrival. They are expecting friends from all over to come by to stay, but if you are really keen, maybe I can ask for you… just remember, it is no ‘ backpacker class’ accommodation here. Very classy, very comfy, 2 steps to the beach.
Back on the bus for RM1.50 back to the jetty, back on ferry, which runs constantly, and I was now at Butterworth station again. Seeing it in the daylight, I see there is a large hawker centre in front. Wash down some Nasi whatever (Nasi is rice, yes, I know that much, but forget what the rest… I had the fried chicken wing and vegetables), then half way I realise I could have just taken it away so I could eat slowly on the train! It was hot so I was keeping cool in the air-conditioned waiting room in the station. Apart from a short 2-car train there is nothing. There is a sign for Bangkok train and it’s pointing to the right-hand side, which I think is the empty platform. Hmm, maybe the train is late. A train officer walks by and asks where I’m going. “Bangkok” “Oh, that train. You’d better go now.” Ah! That 2-car sad thing travels across the border to Bangkok??? 2.20pm, the train departs on time.
The train stops at the border, where everyone grabs only valuables and travel documents and make their way to first Malaysia’s immigration, on the right hand side of the building. You queue up to Malaysian or foreign passport queues, and get your departure stamp. The funny thing is, I do not have ‘arrival’ stamp for Malaysia, so I still have the Entry/Departure card, rather than normal one side of it. I quickly mention how it happened to the immigration officer, who seems to be quite familiar with it, and I give up both entry and departure portions of the documents (which I don’t need once I left Malaysia anyways), and my passport has a ‘departure’ stamp without ‘arrival’. That’s a new one. Walk along the corridor, now we queue up at Thai immigration, which happen to be on the left hand side of the building. Clear this and you are now in Thailand. Back on the same train, which is now pulled by a different engine, presumably owned by Thai Rail. Still 2 cars. Hmm…
The sun starts to go down lower and the light turns orange. Somebody comes down with a menu and notebook, taking order for dinner. The train picks up half a dozen more carriages now and it looks more like an international express train.
Among the 4 people in my and the other block on the other side of aisle, there are 2 Thai ladies, a Chinese Malaysian young man and myself. The Malaysian guy seems to speak Thai rather well and the three of them keep cracking up on some jokes. He says his wife is a Thai and that’s why he speaks. He is on his way back to his work site in Bangkok. The ladies are probably about 30 years old, probably married, and very chatty and laughs a lot. We talked a lot, often asking the guy for translation. This is one of the best things about travelling by train – how easily you meet many people around and start talking on and on and on… because you got little else to do!
The night falls and everyone hits the bank. My upper bank on this car doesn’t have a window. Shame. Also, this car’s lower bank is much wider than the previous one, more space difference between top and bottom. A few people get off before sunrise. There are some mechanical noise as their beds are converted back to the seats. We are also awake as the sun came up, and quickly our seats appear while I’m brushing my teeth. Seeing how well breakfast looks, and not knowing when the next long stop is (where I have enough time to shop breakfast either on train from those food sellers who walks in train, or on platform), I also ordered one. Food on train is actually not bad. Much better than some poor airline food, I can tell you.
At 10.30am, the train arrives in Bangkok.