The Jungle Line: A train ride into Malaysia’s interior
In 1938 a new passenger service named The Golden Blowpipe was added to Malaysia’s railway timetable. The train ran between Tumpat, close to the Thai border, 500 kilometres through the peninsula’s interior to Gemas. There it met the existing main line running between Johor Bharu and Butterworth. The name was a reference to the hunting techniques of the Orang Asli, the aboriginal tribes that inhabit the rainforests through which the railway passes. There was also perhaps a cheeky nod to the Golden Arrow, a glamorous boat-train service that linked London’s Victoria station with Paris. Today the route is affectionately known as The Jungle Line.
Built between 1910 and 1931 it was a significant engineering feat in its day, passing through virgin rainforest and bridging rivers that could rise and swell considerably at the first hint of rain. It was used initially for freight but where the railway goes so too do people. It wasn’t long before settlements had cropped up along the way.
The northern end of the line is at Tumpat but there is little in the town itself save for the railway terminal. The nearest city is Kota Bharu, the state capital of Kelantan, which is served by Wakaf Bharu station just across the Kelantan River. By 2026 it will interchange with a new station, the terminal of a 600 kilometre East Coast main line that will link the eastern coast of the country to the more developed west. Until then Kota Bharu will remain very much a city waiting to happen. That said it does have it’s points of interest.
There are numerous museums around town the most interesting of which is the Istana Jahar. This is a museum of royal customs and contains collection of weapons as well as exhibits and details of the rituals involved in marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. The building itself is a beautiful teak structure built in 1855 by Sultan Muhammad II of Kelantan for his grandson. To the right of Istana Jahar is the current Royal Palace. It boasts an impressive gateway but the Palace itself is off limits to the public.
An impressive gallery of street art fills the alleyways between Jalan Dato Pati and Jalan Ismail in the centre of town. Works ranging from the overtly political to the purely decorative. The tops the buildings that these artworks adorn shriek with the calls of what sounds like thousands of birds. They are, in fact, recordings of swiftlets. The idea is to encourage them to nest in the buildings so that, after the fledgelings take flight, the nests can be recycled as gourmet soup.
Back on the platform at Wakaf Bharu a mother studies her phone while four young children play, two old men sit at a table chatting while birds hop between the tracks in search of grubs. I invest in a bottle of water and some biscuits. A mynah bird eyes the biscuits hopefully but flies off when, with a blast of its horn, the 2.19pm to Gua Musang rumbles into the station.
The train is old and its three carriages boast numerous cracked windows but the air conditioning does work. There are a few people on the train but not too many, I find a seat next to a relatively clear window and make myself comfortable.
The ride to Gua Musang
For me it is a six hour journey to Gua Musang but most of the passengers will be making much shorter hops from towns to kampungs or villages and places that seem to be little more than a short raised platform with a name on. Between them bridges across rivers the colour of strong tea, past palm oil and rubber plantations edged with scrub and through cuttings that look more like the jungle than the jungle itself. Whilst the line had to be cut through virgin rainforest the mere building of it ensured that the forest itself was pushed back but it is still clearly visible in the distance.
On the train men and women in sarongs, the women sporting colourful headscarves and bags of vegetables. Men, sometimes with farming implements, stand at the ends of the carriage by the open doors where smoking is permitted. Hawkers walk up and down the train selling snacks, drinks and bags of oranges the size of ping pong balls that are sweet and fresh. As the afternoon progresses students on the way home from school consult with their smartphones, share giggles and feverishly type messages to one another.
Late in the afternoon we come to a halt on a siding at Dabong. The entire line is single track and the only places where trains travelling in opposite directions can pass is at stations. If a train is running late in one direction the other one just has to wait. Passengers emerge form the train, apparently used to these kinds of delays, and go off in search of a comforting bowl of noodles. By the time we get moving again the light is fast leaving the sky and there is another two hours to Gua Musang.
According to legend, the area around Gua Musang was inhabited by hunters who would make offerings of animals in front of a cave in the limestone karst. One day, during a storm, a bolt of lightning split the karst in two. The hunters, believing the god of the cave was angry, knelt down to pray. As they did so, a pack of civet cats entered the cave so the hunters readied their bows and arrows, waiting for their quarry to leave. But the pack never emerged and when the hunters went in to look none could be found. From then on the cave was dubbed “civet cat cave”, or gua musang, the name later being conferred on the settlement that grew along the tracks.
The cave can be reached through the kampung opposite the old station, about 500 metres north of the new station and town. I start off back down the tracks, two young boys watching my progress with interest.
The kampong sits on a sliver of land between the track and immense karst walls, shaded by mango trees and banana palms. Painted yellow with a blue trim, the old station is boarded up, but the sidings seem to be in use; a blue locomotive at the head of a freight train stands cold and lifeless.
The cave is obscured by vegetation and getting to it requires a bit of climbing. The boys point the way but my open-toe sandles aren’t up to the job. Any civet cats in residence remain undisturbed.
Kuala Lipis, the centre of peninsula Malaysia
The two and a half hour run from Gua Musang to Kuala Lipis is the most scenic stretch of the whole line. The forest comes closest to the railway on the east side while towering karsts, each with a crown of green jungle, stud the western side. In karst sheltered villages, children stop playing to watch and wave as the train passes. In some places, palm oil plantations give the landscape a prickly texture as far as the eye can see.
Despite a late start we trundle into Kuala Lipis on time. The station is a delightful old wooden building opened in 1926. Sadly it’s days are numbered, As part of a modernisation programme a new station is already well under way next door and the old one will eventually be demolished.
Kuala Lipis was hacked out of the jungle at the confluence of the Jelai and Lipis rivers, almost at the geographical centre of Peninsular Malaysia. There had been gold mining settlements and trade in jungle produce in the area before the town was established, in 1887, but its boom years would come in the 1920s and 30s, after the arrival of the railway.
Outside the station on Jalan Besar is a colourful row of Chinese style shophouses, all baring their date of construction on the front. Some shops offer the instruments of modern life such as mobile phones while others look like they haven’t changed in decades. At the open sided Hotel Central, built in 1921, friendly locals sit and chat over lunch, coffee and the occasional banana fritter.
Ambling along it’s sleepy streets today it is difficult to believe that from 1898 until 1955 it was the state capital of Pahang. To the north end of the road is the old Masjid Jalan Masjid Lama Kuala Lipis, the former state mosque. It is a wooden structure built in 1888 with funds provided by a Yemeni merchant Habib Hassan. Down the hill is Jalan Jelai whose few brave businesses keep a wary eye on the river below. To the casual observer the river might seem to be a long way down but the waters can rise quickly and floods are frequent.
The attractive red building perched on a knoll overlooking the town is the former residence of Hugh Clifford, the towns first colonial administrator. It is now a hotel and Clifford’s ghost is said to prowl the corridors at night. Another interesting colonial relic, also said to be haunted, is the District Administration Building. A large stately building opened in 1919 and painted in the same deep red. These days it houses local government offices and the district court.
The Pahang Club is perhaps the oldest building in town. A black and white timber structure built in 1867. It was the first administrative building and Clifford’s residence until his own was completed. It became a club and the centre of Lipis society in 1926. Although the building looks a little forlorn and unloved now it is not difficult to imagine rubbers of bridge on the verandah and starched waiters carrying gee ‘n’ tees as the sun begins to set.
There is only one train in each direction between Kuala Lipis and Gemas and they both run during the night when there is nothing to see. So I ended my journey here, a colonial stiff upper lip against the tumult of the rainforest. But although modern buildings are growing around the edges of the town there are constant reminders that the jungle is not far away. On my last evening an emperor cicada, the largest of its species in the world, was buzzing helplessly around the lamp at the entrance to my hotel.