Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Jungle Railway Experience

Trying to discover Malaysia but got tired of the usual kind? Then, you should try hopping into one of the trains that ply the east coast states of Peninsula Malaysia. You can choose to start the rail journey from JB Sentral in Johor Bahru, the southernmost city of Peninsula Malaysia, or you can save a 3 hour journey by boarding the train at Gemas, a transit town in Negeri Sembilan, about one and a half hour drive south of Kuala Lumpur.

In my case, I started my journey from Gemas after taking a bus from Tampin. I reached the Gemas Train Station at 8.45 on a sunny thursday. Still have some time since the Tumpat bound train’s ETD was 9.00am. The small town was considerably busy for its size. Eating stalls and shops selling mobile phone credit top-ups seem to dominate a quarter of the town. There were about half a dozen people queuing up at the ticket counter. I didn’t bother to buy one as I already bought mine via online at for RM34.

The train journey from Gemas to Wakaf Bharu (the train station of Kota Bharu, Kelantan) should take about nine and a half to ten hours. Therefore, a bagful of ration is recommended to be brought along. I had two bottles of large mineral water, half a dozen of Mars and Snickers and some small packed biscuits. I also bought two packs of nasi lemak, our local favourite at RM1.20 each from an elderly lady at the station.

Once on board, I discovered that, much to my dislike, my seat #10 was facing backwards. Fortunately there wasn’t much passengers and I quickly jumped to an empty seat facing forward once the train started moving. The train #14 I was travelling in departed from Gemas at 9.20am, exactly on time! There are also sleeper trains (trains #26 & #28) that depart much earlier in the morning and later in the evening. I purposely chose this day train as I wanted to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the journey. Well, that’s what this whole journey was all about anyway.

My second class (superior) coach was well air-conditioned with flat screen TV screening some Thai and Malay movies with English subtitles. I wasn’t paying much attention to it as I was more interested in finishing this motivational book by Robin Sharma titled “A Leader Without a Title” that I had been reading. I finished eating my second pack of nasi lemak when we reached Kuala Krau Station, almost four hours into the journey. From then on, there was a noticeable change of the landscape. The rubber and palm oil plantations scenery soon changed to a more dramatic and dense jungle with a few muddy river crossings. In some parts, there were canopies of trees on both sides of the rail track that formed a long and scary tunnel-like feeling. Soon after, we reached the Kuala Lipis Station. I alighted from the coach to stretch myself, get some fresh air and have a puff. I bought myself some freshly cut papayas for RM2 before re-embarking the train. Some peddlars went on board to sell their stuff but I chose to say no to them as I figured I had enough ration to last the journey.

The Gua Musang Train Station retains its old and rustic charm.
Less than two hours later, we were at the Gua Musang Station in the state of Kelantan. An iconic limestone hill serves as a landmark for this station. Again I alighted from the coach to take some photos of the station. When I got back into the coach, there were two young white guys seated in front of me. I quickly introduced myself and in no time I had a great conversation with Ted and Steve from Surrey, England. Apparently they just came back from a 3 day white water rafting trip of the Nenggiri River, about 40km away from the Gua Musang town. 

“It was just great” Ted exclaimed. “I would love to come again” he added, while enjoying the Mars candy bar that I shared with him. “And you should check out the prehistoric limestone cave” Steve suggested, referring to Gua Cha. Relics from the Hoabinh period, believed to be some 3,000 years old were discovered in the cave and are now being displayed at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. We also discovered that we all have something in common – we are diehard Manchester United fans!

“The view is simply wonderful” said Ted upon seeing a beautiful scenery of some limestone hills with lush tropical forest on the foreground. We were midway between Gua Musang and Tanah Merah station and the high altitude of the rail track provided breathtaking views of a multitude of sceneries – from dense jungle to limestone hills to some long river crossings.  The most interesting railway bridge was also found on this stretch, just before reaching Tanah Merah station. Here lies the Guillemard bridge or better known as the Kursial bridge. Completed in 1924, it is the longest steel railway bridge in Malaysia. Spanning 609m across the Kelantan river, the bridge was purposely damaged by the British army themselves to slow down the Japanese military’s advance towards the south during the World War 2. It was just too bad that we couldn’t capture any good photographs as the glass windows of the coach were quite dirty.

The natural sceneries slowly changed to a different landscape as we passed Tanah Merah station. Padi fields and kampongs (villages) with the dwellers’ daily activities seemed to occupy most of the scenes. Ted and 
Steve went to the end of the carriage, opened the door and took photographs of the beautiful countryside. By the time both of them were finished about 30 minutes later, we were already approaching our destination, the Wakaf Baru Station. We quickly unload our bags and other belongings from the goods compartment. I invited my new friends for a glass of teh tarik at the tea stall just outside the station. Ted and Steve seemed to agree that they would miss teh tarik once they went back to England. After exchanging our contacts, we parted. Ted and Steve would be going to Perhentian Island for their next destination while I planned to spend a couple of days in and around Kota Bharu, but for now, I better get myself refreshed at one of those budget hotels in town.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Slithery Attraction of Perlis

Snakes are not one of my favourite animals but a visit to Perlis would not be complete if we missed the only snake farm in Malaysia.

I was accompanying a good friend, Alreaq, for his business trip to Kangar in his brand new white pick up truck. The 650km drive from Kuala Lumpur to Kangar in the Ford Ranger XLT 2.2 Turbo Diesel was a very pleasant one and the truck’s breakthrough engine technology felt very responsive and smooth. Of course the six speed gearbox helps.  

The Ford Ranger reached the Snake and Reptile Farm, located at Bukit Bintang Forest Reserve near Sungai Batu Pahat at 2pm on a Saturday. I carefully chose a parking lot under a big tree to give some shade for the pick up. Situated about 10km from the state’s capital Kangar, the farm was initially set up more than 30 years ago as a research facility to develop serum for snakebites. I could see a large number of university students from a neighbouring state coming in two busloads.  

We proceeded and bought our entrance tickets. It was RM 4 per adult. We also needed to pay RM 1 per camera. However, camera phones were allowed without any charge.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ancient Kedah Revisited - Part 2

Day 2 started on a very positive note. There were excitement in the air and this could be clearly seen on the faces of the participants. Well, the simple but delicious breakfast of fried bee hoon (thin rice noodle) helped too!

Prof. Dato’ Dr. Mokhtar Saidin was already waiting for us when we reached the complex at about 8am. He brought with him about a dozen assistants, comprising of his Master and PhD archaeology students and volunteers from the local community. They would be assisting us in the excavation works. The Professor’s involvement and his untiring devotion to the Sungai Batu archaeological works since 2006 were clearly reflected by the successful findings and the preservation of the sites. Semi permanent structures are being built on top of each and every site to avoid degradation and deterioration of the artefacts while security officers are stationed at the complex to guard the place at all times.  

A short technical briefing was given by Prof. Mokhtar followed by the do’s and don’t’s by a senior assistant. We were each given a set of tools that consists of a small shovel, a mallet, a clinical mask, a dustpan, a paintbrush, a chisel, an ice pick, a rubbish basket and a face towel.

We finished our excavation works for the day at 4.30pm and were told that the unfinished works would be continued the following day by ‘the regulars’, who are mostly locals trained and paid to do the job.

That night, after a simple dinner, we convened under the moonlight and had a casual talk with the Prof. The topic was the history of Lembah Bujang as described in the various transcripts and archaic references from the ancient Chinese, Indian and Arabian traders. The popularity of Lembah Bujang as one of the world’s earliest iron smelting industry and iron exports was inscribed in the history. The high quality of the iron was mentioned in the Arabic and Indian transcripts as being used to make horse carriages and swords. It was a very enlightening talk and Q&A session and Prof. Mokhtar, being the expert in his field, seemed to enjoy answering all questions posed to him.   

On the last day at Sungai Batu complex, we were given a two hour personalized guided-tour of the whole complex by the Prof. himself. The complex comprises of administration buildings, iron smelting furnaces, jetties and stuppas, with the oldest being one 487BC concrete jetty. Can you imagine the ancient Kedah civilization already having bricks industry back then!  

The highlight of the 3 day event was the closing ceremony officiated by the Honorable Menteri Besar of Kedah, Dato’ Seri Mukhriz Mahathir. In his speech, he promised to give his full support to the Sungai Batu Archaeological Complex in terms of promotions and getting due financial assistance from the federal government. It was a big kenduri-like (locals get-together) atmosphere where traditional dishes were prepared for all to savour. The presence of the likeable VVIP also helped to add to the merriment of the event where he was seen mingling and shaking hands with both the locals and the participants.  

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