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With the “Jungle Railway” through Malaysia

It has many names: Jungle Railway, Jungle Line, Jungle Railway or East Coast Line. In the timetable notice is the name “East-Line Malaysia”. But even here I am not sure whether it is the official name.

In any case, all the names stand for the railway line that runs south from the coastal town of Tumpat in northeast Malaysia through the jungle. At Gemas she meets the railway line along the west coast. Here the train journey continues towards Singapore. In this blog post you can find my travel report from the ride on the jungle train. Further down in the post you will find more experiences and lots of travel tips for planning your rail travel adventure.

Content:

Travel report: Rail travel adventure jungle railroad

While trains at speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour on the west coast are creating a new era of railroading in Malaysia, there is still a romance of railways on the parallel railway line through the jungle. You shouldn't be in a hurry when traveling on the Jungle Railway, the speed of 50 kilometers per hour is rarely exceeded.

I start my journey on the jungle line in Wakaf Bharu, a few kilometers south of the starting point of the route in the state of Kelantan. From here it is a stone's throw to the Thai border. There is also a rail connection to the neighbors, passenger trains no longer run here.

My journey with the “Jungle Railway” starts in Wakaf Bharu.

With the thinned-out timetable, travelers have to plan their journey in the Jungle Express a little. A non-stop express train runs once a day to Johor Bahru (JB Sentral) on the Singapore border. In theory a good travel option. Practical but impractical, as most of the route is covered at night. Anyone who takes the jungle train in Malaysia would also like to experience the landscape and local color.

A little rail travel adventure awaits here in eastern Malaysia.

Compared to the express train, the regional trains (“shuttles”) are more interesting. Here travelers are traveling in one class. You have to do without wooden benches and open windows through which the steamy, humid air blows into the wagons. The wagons are all air-conditioned.

The doors are open all day for this. Where the smokers meet is probably also the best place for photographers. There are heavy penalties for open doors and smoking, but that doesn't bother anyone.

Smoking and open doors are prohibited ...

... which, however, can no longer be read when the door is open. ;-)

The East-Line leads south first through the lowlands. Shortly after Pasir Mas the railway line leads along some rice fields, mighty bridges span brown rivers. The train stops every few minutes at a settlement or a major station.

At each station the train gets full, lots of passengers. Some have spread out between the store's crates on the train.

Only rarely seen: the train driver is given a token. Whoever has it is allowed to drive the single-track route.

At Kuala Krai, the train empties in one fell swoop and the trader now has enough space again to prepare her mangoes. Peel, cut into wedges, add bags of sweet and hot powder and the travel snack is ready. The basket in which she carries her goods through the wagons is filled in a few minutes.

The saleswoman in the Jungle Railway prepares mango snacks.

Outside, banana trees keep clapping against the windows. Ferns fan gently over the outer wall of the car and sometimes the leaves of a bush hiss for a split second when the door is open in the car. Those who cling to the outer handles have to expect a regular slap on the fingers.

Yes, it really does exist, the jungle. At least in places. And there the railway line seems to be waging a constant battle against nature. The lane for the rail tape is only a few meters wide. If there were no trains running here for a long time, the route would probably soon no longer be seen, the vegetation is too lush.

Shortly before Manek Urai, raindrops patter on the window of the jungle train. It can get briefly wet along the route. At the beginning of February - during my trip - is also the rainy season in eastern Malaysia.

Sometimes the train passes through a brief rain shower.

The locomotive pulls the “Jungle Express” at a leisurely pace through the thicket. Again and again the jungle clears and the train stops at small stops. Sometimes there are villages with only a few houses where the train stops. A short whistle, then the journey continues through tunnels, over bridges and through lush green in countless shades.

Jungle Railroad on the way through the jungles of Malaysia.

Shortly after Dabong station, the train stops on the open track and reverses again after a short waiting time. At first it is not entirely clear why we are going back to the train station. We don't stop at the house platform but at the second platform, where there is actually no platform at all.

Here we are waiting for the return train. The advantage: you can see the market next door from here. Most of the passengers jump off the train and enjoy local specialties, fast food and the clothing stands. A train station with direct access to the market - just great!

In Dabong the train stops right next to a market.

Around 40 minutes later, the locomotive whistles for departure. Then all passengers should already be on the train, because a few seconds later it will depart. The journey continues through the thicket, goats and chickens can be seen in the settlements. Adults and children wave as they drive by and are happy when I wave in return.

The most beautiful section of the Jungle Railway ...

It gets dark about an hour before my destination in Gua Musang. As I get out of the car, I can see the towering limestone cliffs with their wooded peaks in the moonlight. I am always fascinated by these colossi. You remind me B. to the Wulingyuan in China, the Halong Bay in Vietnam or the rocks and islands around Krabi and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.

... is located around Gua Musang.

The next morning I can enjoy the scene in daylight. For me, around Gua Musang is one of the most beautiful sections of the Jungle Railway in Malaysia.

The limestone cliffs are lined with dense forests. In between there are again small villages, which until not so long ago were not or only with difficulty accessible by roads. It's hard to imagine.

I am fascinated by the rugged ...

... and overgrown limestone rocks.

Shortly before Kuala Lipis it gets flatter. Banana trees alternate with lush greenery until the first oil palms can be seen. "Nice" is what you think at first. For me, palm trees are simply part of a ride on the jungle train.

Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil and palm kernel oil after Indonesia. Huge plantations are laid out along the railway, for which the jungle has to be cut down. The monocultures bring short-term, high yields, but bring big problems in the long term. In most cases, the production of palm oil and palm kernel oil is anything but sustainable.

Oil palm plantations can be seen further south.

In Kuala Lipis, the train journey ends in daylight. From here, only the night train continues south in the dark, the landscape remains hidden from my eye.

If you don't want to wait for the train in Kuala Lipis until 1 a.m., simply take the return train a little way back. Double enjoyment, so to speak, when looking at the great landscape with the limestone cliffs and the jungle plants that try to take over the railway line for themselves.

Green in all shades of color along the jungle line.

I start my journey with the night train in Gua Musang. It is the last night train in Malaysia; trains only run during the day on the railway line along the west coast. Shortly before 11 p.m. it is pitch black. I'm lying in the bed of the sleeping car and looking through the window with great effort. To where I was able to enjoy the great landscape during the day during the trip with the jungle train.

When I wake up at dawn, the train is already south of Gemas. This is where the “East Coast Line” and the “Jungle Line” come together. Now the journey leads through extensive oil palm plantations. In the late morning the train will be in Johor Baharu. From there it is only five minutes by shuttle train to Singapore.

There are some nice encounters on the day trains.

Travel tips for the jungle railway in Malaysia:

The starting point of the jungle railway in Malaysia is Tumpat, in the south the jungle line meets the west coast line at Gemas. For those traveling from north to south it is practical to get on e.g. in Wakaf Bharu (if you come from Kota Bharu) or Pasir Mas (if you come from the Thai border).

Train in Dabong Railway Station in Malaysia

Security warning for southern Thailand

There is a travel warning for the border region in southern Thailand. The Austrian Foreign Ministry names a high security risk (security level 3) for the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and Songhkla. The travel warning will probably remain in place for a long time, as conflicts between security forces and Muslim sections of the population have been simmering here for a long time.

More than 6,000 people have died in bomb attacks in the aforementioned provinces in the border region with Malaysia since 2004. There can still be terrorist attacks there, as last on August 23, 2016 near Pattani. It is not advisable to travel to these provinces unnecessarily. According to the Bangkok Post, bombs exploded three times on the railway line between Hat Yai and Sungai Kolok, the border station with Malaysia, in 2016 alone.

Alternative route from Thailand via Butterworth

The safety warning for southern Thailand does not mean that you cannot start your journey with the jungle railway in Malaysia. Nor does it mean that you have to put yourself in unnecessary danger. One of the best options is to bypass the crisis area. First by train from Thailand to Malaysia (article will follow soon) to Butterworth. There a visit to Georgetown on the island of Penang is worthwhile.

Bus Butterworth - Kota Bharu

Buses run twice a day from Butterworth to Kota Bharu, on the east coast.

Depart from Butterworth Bus Terminal (next to the ferry terminal and train station):

  • 10:00 am day bus
    Very comfortable seats with sockets for charging the smartphone, lunch stop at 12 noon, travel time 6 hours, arrival at the large bus station in the southwest of the city. Price 38.40 ringgit at the bus station.
  • 10:00 pm night bus
  • Bus connections directly from Georgetown, (Departures: 9am and 9pm from Penang Island) are also offered. The bus stopped for lunch at the same time.
  • Online tickets for all four bus connections are available here *.

Bus from Butterworth to Kota Bharu (daily connection)

Bus connections Kota Bharu - Wakaf Bharu:

  • Lines 19, 27 and 43 drive from the central bus station (Sentral) in downtown Kota Bharu to the train station in Wakaf Bharu.
  • The red and white City Liner buses stop on the side of the bus station where the 7-eleven is.
  • Fare: 1.60 ringgit, pay to the driver. Driver has change.
  • Driving time: 15 to 30 minutes, during the day there is often a traffic jam.
  • The bus stops in the center of Wakaf Bharu, not directly at the train station. From the bus stop you continue in the direction of travel to the intersection, there to the left. You should see the railroad crossing by now. After the level crossing, turn right to the train station. Travel time: approx. 5 minutes.
  • On arrival in Wakaf Bharu by train continue in the direction of the train and over the level crossing. About 100 meters further on, a wide road branches off to the right. Here is the town center. Buses from Wakaf Bharu to Kota Bharu leave near the 7-eleven, see picture.

The buses from Kota Bharu to Wakaf Bharu leave at 7-eleven.

Bus stop in Wakaf Bharu in the direction of Kota Bharu.

The Timetable of the Jungle Railway in Malaysia:

Allow me to do it “cheap & dirty”? It doesn't make sense if I type in nice tables for you and you still don't have all the information you might need to plan your trip with the jungle train. Here you will find the official timetable of the Jungle Railway with all train stations and intermediate stops, simply photographed.

Jungle Railway Malaysia Timetable. (click on the picture to enlarge and print)

The timetable has been in effect since February 1, 2017. Please note that train timetables in Malaysia currently change frequently. If you have a more up-to-date version for me, I look forward to your message!

The daylight journey on the Jungle Railroad:

Unfortunately, it is not possible to travel by express train in daylight. On the north-south route, train no. 27 traverses the most beautiful sections of the route at night. It works better from the south to the north, as it is just getting light in the most beautiful area, around Gua Musang.

I was on the north-south route. A trip with the jungle train over several stages is ideal here:

  • Day 1: Tumpat / Wakaf Bharu / Pasir Mas - Gua Musang
  • Day 2: Gua Musang - Kuala Lipis
  • Day 2-3: Night train (express train) Kuala Lipis - Gemas - Johor Bharu - (Singapore)

This itinerary also corresponds to my travel report. If you don't want to wait for the express train in Kuala Lipis until after midnight, just drive towards it. I got on in Gua Musang, if you like you can even drive back to Dabong without risk.

2nd class coach in Malaysia. Each wagon looks different in the shuttle trains.

Fare:

Rail travel in Malaysia is very cheap. A couple of price examples:
  • Wakaf Bharu - Gua Musang (Shuttle): 8 ringgit
  • Gua Musang - Kuala Lipis (Shuttle): 4 ringgit
  • Gua Musang - JB Sentral on the 2nd Sleeper Night Train (express train), lower bed: 51 ringgit

The lower beds are more expensive in the sleeper than the upper beds.

Tickets:

Tickets for the shuttle trains in Malaysia are sold shortly before departure. You can also buy tickets for the night train in advance. English is spoken very well at the ticket office. I bought all of my tickets at the counter.

Train ticket for the night train from Gua Musang to JB Sentral of the Jungle Railway.

The express train tickets can also be purchased over the Internet, e.g. directly from the Malaysian Railway KTM or e.g. as an online ticket from agencies such as 12Go.Asia *. For those who have a tight travel plan or who want to be on the safe side, booking tickets in advance via the Internet is definitely useful. The agency charges a small fee for its services. I tried it in Thailand, everything worked professionally and reliably. It is important that you do not rely 100% on the timetable and availability information for seats. At the time of this writing, 12Go.Asia is showing that no tickets are available for the night train. That is definitely not the case.

Express train 26/27 Tumpat - Gemas - JB Sentral (Johor Bahru):

The express train 26/27 is the last remaining night train in Malaysia. It connects Tumpat in northeast Malaysia with JB Sentral (Johor Bahru), the Malaysian border town to Singapore, on a daily basis. The entire journey from the Thai border to Singapore takes 17 hours and 10 minutes.

To be honest, I have the feeling that the night train is being driven to “wear and tear”. While the railway line on the west coast shines with modern trains, the line silts further east through the jungle and to the east coast. Much is broken in the wagons and looks badly maintained, such as doors, lamps or bed linen.