“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the places and moments that take our breath away” – anonymous
Why don’t people travel by train any more? Our modern times have seen rapid air travel taking the place of longer but far grander journeys by train. It seems the true romance of travel is long forgotten as we transport ourselves across continents in a flash. We view the countryside from a height of 40,000 feet and barely catch a glimpse of the rivers, the valleys, the towns and farmlands below. To get the real feel of a country, there is no better way to experience it than by train.
With the lure of tropical Asian landscapes too strong to resist, I decided to embark on a train journey from Malaysia to Thailand. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia seemed like a good place to start the overland adventure. It is easy to get to Kuala Lumpur from other major cities and I chose Bangkok as my destination city because again it is a major hub for onward connections.
Kuala Lumpur is a well-organized, clean city with good infrastructure. The public transport system is efficient and most people get around the city by monorail or taxi. Beware though; there are legal and illegal taxis. If arriving by air, this can be confusing for the first time visitor. As the drive is over 1 hour into the city, I would recommend using the official airport taxi/hotel service desk. In fact, on arrival, I was approached by one of these helpful officials who organized a comfortable private car for me, which was the same price as a taxi.
I was taken directly to the Mutiara Hotel (the former Hilton), a beautiful five star hotel, which opened its doors as a totally refurbished hotel in March 2003. The Mutiara even has its own monorail station! Being centrally located, made it easy to get to attractions like Times Square, a huge multi storey-shopping complex featuring the new Cosmo’s World, Malaysia’s largest indoor theme park. Times Square is a shop-till-you drop experience with over 6 floors of shopping and is open until 10.00pm daily.
There are 5 major theme parks in Kuala Lumpur, but with only a 3-day stay I managed to make only one outdoor theme park. Sunway Lagoon is about as much fun as you can handle in a day. This place is waterslide heaven, with a variety of slides and other options such as tubing, surfing on long boards in the massive wave pool, floating down the lazy river and swimming under the massive waterfall feature. A huge suspension bridge takes you from the water park area to the theme park area and is one of the best vantage points for watching the surfers and boogie board riders cruise the sets in the giant wave pool.
The theme park area of Sunway Lagoon features roller coaster rides, a Wild West themed ride, a river rafting log ride (guaranteed to get you wet) and many other choices. The size of this theme park alone would warrant a 3-day visit to experience all the rides and take in all the attractions.
After a full day of thrills and spills at the Theme Park I was more than ready for a relaxing train journey and made it to the central railway station for my evening departure. I was once again impressed with the organized and modern facilities at the Kuala Lumpur Central Railway Station. The computerized boards displayed minute-by-minute updates of train times, the staff were very helpful and best of all the train left on time at 8.00pm.
I settled in for the 15-hour train journey to Hat Yai, Thailand, in my 2nd class air-conditioned sleeper car. The carriage was a basic dormitory style sleeper with bunk beds and little privacy curtains covering each bed. I was the only foreigner in my carriage and the locals seemed very intrigued by my presence. As in all of Asia, I found the locals extremely friendly and always willing to help and make contact with a foreign traveler.
The bunks were made up with clean white pressed linen and the bed was very comfortable. We must have passed the actual border in the middle of the night, and I was pleased to discover no passport officials came on board and woke us, an experience I have had in other countries traveling by train.
The food on board was fairly standard including items such as noodles, chicken, rice, cakes and a selection of drinks. I had the choice of making my way to the dining car or waiting for the trolley service, which trundled through the train selling hot and cold drinks and snacks.
Once the dinner service was over and people began to settle in for the evening, I noticed there was no dimming of the lights. I inquired with the conductor when it got really late and was advised the lights were permanently switched to the “on” position and under no circumstances would the train personnel turn them off. Next time I will be prepared with eyeshades.
With bright lights beaming down, I was pleased I had packed my own music and happily plugged in, drowning out the other sleep deterrent posing a threat – the family chatter going on in the very next bunk. As I was traveling during Malaysian school holidays the constant singsong chatter from the local family next to me, including kids giggling and the odd baby wanting to be fed on demand, simply blurred softly into the background. Lulled by my chill out music and the pleasant rhythmic rocking of the train, I managed to catch a few hours sleep.
The border stop formality happened after breakfast. Everyone had to disembark and one by one we all got our passports stamped. It was very orderly, as most things are in Malaysia and about 45 minutes later we were back on board enjoying the ride through the beautiful countryside, passing small villages, rushing rivers, scenic rice paddies and farm fields.
On arrival at Hat Yai Train Station there was a procession of open air taxi trucks eagerly waiting to take passengers into town. With great speed and efficiency I was taken to a car rental agency in town. A car and driver were organized on the spot and I continued with the next leg of the journey – a 150km road journey to Krabi.
Krabi is a stunningly beautiful area in Southern Thailand. It lies across the bay from Phuket (180km) and is becoming increasingly popular with foreigners. An international airport opened 3 years ago and it seems Krabi is destined to be the next Phuket.
It is easy to be drawn into the spell of Krabi with its beautiful secluded bays and beaches, its huge dramatic limestone cliffs and sea caves that you can explore by canoe. National parks surround the area and the busy little town of Ao Nang seems to be the central hub of all activity in the area. Ao Nang has only two main streets with an abundance of street cafes and open-air restaurants lining the beachfront. It is a popular spot for European families.
Away from the bustle of Ao Nang I found a perfect hideaway at a secluded bay about 8 kms from town. The Sheraton opened in March 2003 and this resort style hotel offers a tranquil, quiet and totally stress free break with all the conveniences and luxuries of a 5 star hotel. In keeping with the natural beauty of the area, the Sheraton resort is styled in an eco-friendly manner.
The resort is built around the mangroves and during the day you come across many different types of wildlife. At high tide the mangroves come alive with mudskippers (a fish with feet), fiddler crabs, mud crabs, goatfish, mullet and shrimp.
“One monitor lizard has already returned”, Greg Findlay, the General Manager told me. He went on to explain how the resort had engaged in a full environmental study before the resort was built. Everything had been designed to have minimal impact on the natural habitat. Most of the mangrove area has been preserved and all the water used at the resort is treated and recycled (to water the grounds).
Many birds including Kingfishers spend their time in the mangroves, and on more than one occasion I spotted a few Sea Eagles. One species of wildlife that you cannot miss is the Sheraton’s very own baby elephant RaRa (meaning active – and she is). Every afternoon she takes a bath in the ocean and you have the opportunity to help wash her and even swim with her if you like.
Island hopping by either speedboat or long tail boat is easy to organize. The famous “James Bond Island” of Phi Phi is only 45 minutes away or if you prefer a more secluded uninhabited island there are many options available. Snorkeling and exploring the white powdery sand beaches with lunch included is a great way to spend a day.
Day trip options abound. These include exploring the sea caves by canoe, rock climbing adventure tours or even elephant trekking (only 7 kms from Ao Nang). If cobras take your fancy then the King Cobra Show appearing every night, is worth a visit. The show culminates in the snake master kissing the cobra. The second act of the show treats the audience to cock fighting and, on Friday nights, Thai Kick Boxing is hosted for locals and tourists alike.
The next leg of the journey was a 9-hour day train called “The Sprinter”, from Surat Thani to Bangkok. Trains are Government run in Thailand and are very efficient. It was a pleasant journey passing small villages, cruising through farmland, clattering over railways bridges and catching glimpses of Buddhist temples and old ruins along the way.
Most villages in Thailand have at least one wat (Buddhist place of study and prayer) and, if you are male, you must spend one week of your life as a monk. There are 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and it is the expectation that males enter a wat for training between leaving school and entering a career or marrying.
On arrival in Bangkok, the noise and chaos is the first thing that hits you. It is a bustling, vibrant city with so much to do and see and one could never get bored there. The taxi service is fast and efficient and all taxis are metered. Most rides are around 50Baht (US$2). The roads have greatly improved and the traffic congestion minimized now the skytrain is in operation. Also people are out walking the streets in Bangkok. It feels alive and exciting. Thai people are very friendly and I always felt safe walking around the city.
Thailand boasts that it has the best food in Asia, and I totally agree with this claim. Fresh food is available everywhere, with a huge selection of Asian style cooking, not just Thai. You never seem to be more than 5 minutes away from a restaurant or a food vendor. The shopping complexes have the largest selection of food and quality cafes I have seen anywhere – from Italian to American food. The Asian food variety is just astounding.
The river is a great place to start exploring Bangkok. It is possible to hire your own long tail boat and take your time, visiting the temples, canals and even the floating markets as you wish. Sunset is a magical time to take in the scene and watch the lights of the city, temples and shrines come to life. I stopped at a riverside restaurant for dinner and was pleasantly surprised to find a night market setting up right outside.
By 9.00pm this was a bustling colorful local market scene, with everything imaginable for sale, from brand name clothing and shoes to CD’s and ski jackets.
An interesting day activity was a visit to a local shopping center with a movie theatre featuring convertible cars fitted inside. It was actually a drive-in, but the cars were stationary. Thai waiters serve you throughout the movie and you eat from the dashboard of your ‘58 Chevrolet.
Thailand is a kingdom and the Thai people have great respect for their monarchy. The royal anthem is played just before a movie starts screening and everyone must stand for the King. Also, TV and Radio Stations broadcast the national anthem at 8.00am and 6.00pm, over loudspeakers. All Thais must stop what they are doing and stand during the anthem. The king’s portrait adorns the walls of most shops and train stations and everywhere you go in Thailand you are reminded of His Majesty.
As I boarded my Garuda flight back home, I really felt I’d had a taste of Thailand and Malaysia, having traveled through the two countries overland by train. It was a fantastic adventure and I wondered again why people don’t travel by train anymore? I really don’t know, but perhaps you will try it just once and be pleasantly surprised by what this leisurely mode has to offer.