Reply to comment

To Kuala Lumpur by Train

How Not to Get to KL Unless You REALLY Like Trains

There are a number of ways to get to KL, but the one we took was not for everyone. In retrospect, I am pretty sure it was not really for us. We went by overnight train from Singapore to KL, then back again.

Which Class?

There are three classes of service, the first two don't count with kids. Third class is a seat; you sit in it for nine hours and look out at the black night while people around you cough and make grunting sounds. Second class is a long train car with double-decker bunks lining each side, maybe 50 people sleeping with only cloth drapes around themselves, like in the old movies. Unless Marilyn Monroe is in the next berth, you lay there awake for nine hours and look out at the black night while people around you cough and make grunting sounds.

That leaves first class, the way we went. You get a closet, er, small room, with two bunks. There is a small toilet (it was OK) and a shower (the water was scalding hot with no practical way to adjust and the towel issued was the size of the bikini I wish my wife could still wear). There is a TV, which did not work at all enroute to KL, and played only “The Rail Channel” on the homeward leg. This channel was mostly old cable TV shows from the US that were derivatives of funny home video shows. Or, perhaps they were just real home videos somebody left on the train, I could not tell. I know this because the kids actually watched the show, basically because it was something on TV and they will stare at water evaporating if it is on TV.

First class also gets you a complimentary supper and breakfast. With images of liveried waiters and a dining car from the Titanic set in mind, I was disappointed to learn that the choices were sardine, chicken or tuna fish sandwiches for supper, and your choice of the two of the three you didn't pick for supper for breakfast. Plus coffee in the morning, which was surprisingly not fish-flavored but almost would have been better if it was.

Singapore Station

The trains leave Singapore from the Singapore Rail Station, which requires actual time travel to get to. No one knew where it was located, including staff at the so-called nearest MRT station (Tanjong Pagar) or the two taxis it took before the second driver accidentally went past it and I saw the sign. I left a trail of breadcrumbs and stomach bile behind me, so you may find the station easier. It is in what must be the only bad neighborhood in Singapore; I am convinced that the authorities specifically built the bad neighborhood just for the train station, like we do in the US for Greyhound bus stations downtown.

Once inside, you can imagine how the building must have looked kind of cool in 1923, when it was opened, with its high, arched ceiling and Malay countryside murals. Since it did not appear to have been painted or cleaned since 1923, you will need to use your imagination. Try to enter through the side door, which is covered with metal grating, for the full effect.

Though the fares are pretty decent (see the Malaysia Rail web site for details), if you board at the Singapore end and have not pre-paid, then you get to pay the Malaysian Ringgit price in Singapore dollars, for a neat 30 percent markup. Better yet, they take cash or AMEX only, allowing me the privilege of sticking my VISA card into an ATM machine that looked like it should have been on the side of a milk carton.

You board the train about 30 minutes before its 10pm departure in a scene out of Schindler's List. The platform is dark, with some orange light, and lots of confusion. Most everyone else on the train seemed to be a Malaysian person working in Singapore and returning home, carrying with him/herself the largest suitcases and bundles I have ever seen. Most of this stuff was being moved around the platform.

All Aboard

We boarded the train and found our two cabins (only two bunks per cabin and we are four). Nobody checked out tickets, and after the train lurched to a scary start, I had to go back out and close the doors open on both sides, at each end, of the carriage. It was kinda cool, in a James Bond-like way, to be facing out on to the moving, dark, countryside.

Then the train stopped. Then it went ahead a bit. Then it stopped again. Then we settled into bed. Then the ticket guy came. Then we settled into bed. Then the supper and breakfast sandwich guy came. Then we settled into bed. Then the tiny towel guy came. Then we settled into bed. You get the picture. After awhile more, the train started moving in a regular manner and we settled into bed for a few hours sleep.

Then the train stopped again, now about 11:30, at the Singapore outbound immigration checkpoint. The inspectors came aboard and made everyone get off the train, including our kids in pajamas, for exit checks that involved standing in lines much longer and slower than the airport for seemingly less purpose other than to amuse the Immigration inspectors. I kept waiting to hear that we were actually being used as extras in a remake of Sophie's Choice.

We did get back on the train, and after several announcements made at volumes that would neuter puppies about our many planned stops, followed by the same announcements by in English, presumably just for us, we settled into bed. The rest of the evening and into morning was spent creaking and grinding and stopping and starting and generally learning that trains make an amazing variety of sounds, even when standing perfectly still.

(For the last few romantics out there, not all night trains are like this. I've taken sleeper trains all over Europe and Japan, and enjoyed a nice, rocking, restful sleep each time. Don't give up on the notion, just skip this journey.)

Arriving Safe and Sound and Tired

The good news is that upon arrival at 0630 into the brand new KL Central Train station, all was pretty well. The new KL station is as modern and efficient as the Singapore end was old and grimy. People were very friendly, places to eat were open (there is even a McDonalds there) and you can change money at 0635 if you wish to. We found a line of taxis waiting and began our adventures in KL tired but certainly with a story to tell.

I am told that the flight from Singapore is not much expensive and takes less than an hour. You get free peanuts and a soda. No sardines.

You can learn more about rail travel in Malaysia at the Malaysian Rail web site. You can book tickets online, and they even have Quicktime videos of the train cars and sleeper berths.