This post is not a ripping yarn. It’s a reflection on a short trip that might be useful to anyone heading the same way. For travel details that are not in the text check the WOOF Guide at the bottom of this page.
To get most of the way from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, en route to Indonesia, I let the train take the strain. Firstly by overnight sleeper (destination Butterworth 14.45) from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station to Hat Yai (arriving at 06.35). Then not continuing on the main line via Butterworth and Penang to Kuala Lumpur but instead taking the eastern route, crossing the Malaysian border at Rantau Panjang, very near to Su-ngai Kolok, and then from Khota Bharu heading south on what’s called the jungle line because it runs through the jungle serving many small and relatively isolated communities along the way.
British Embassy travel advice warns against all but ‘essential travel’ through the parts of southern Thailand this line runs through. ‘Islamic’ militants have been engaged in an ongoing terror campaign here for years. Two weeks before my trip a bomb killed people in Yala, a town through which the line passes a couple of hours before reaching the border. A month later another bomb or two ripped up some of the tracks. Take care.
For balance the Tourist Information office, the railway information office and anyone else you ask in Hat Yai says it’s quite safe to go that way; the railway line is well protected. Most of the time.
Armed soldiers join the battered old, naturally air-conditioned train as it pulls out of Hat Yai (10.18 in theory, later actually) and the view becomes pretty very quickly. Green, lots of green. Flowers on station platforms. Pineapples growing beside the line.
As we pass through Yala all is quiet but there are more soldiers on the platform of each station we pass after there, all of which are wrapped-around by eight foot, barbed-wire topped fences. Closer to the border I see several armoured personnel carriers, a few roadblocks and very many black-sandbagged sentry posts and guard houses.
So no need to hang around in Sungoi Kolok, best to get across the border sharpish. Despite there being a railway bridge – with railway track – crossing the river that forms the border, and despite the proclamations of Thai-Malay friendship that adorn the road bridge that opened in 1972, no trains cross the border here.
Clocks jump forward by one hour.
To continue by train, on the jungle line itself, requires a bus ride to Pasir Mas or Khota Bharu where you can catch the Malaysian trains.
Khota Bharu must be a contender for the city with the most hotels with the worst rooms at the worst prices. A $20 Thai hotel room might come with a swimming pool, even if you might not want to swim in it. In Khota Bharu $20 will get you an always tatty, sometimes smelly, often damp, possibly dirty room without a view, most likely without a window. And worse if you want to spend anything less.
It turns out Khota Bharu does not offer much in the way of entertainment either, especially on a Friday when in ‘the Islamic City’ all but a few shops and restaurants are closed. I did come across a body-building competition and a gathering of Volkswagen Beetle enthusiasts (and their lovely cars) and it is possible to get steak and (too few) chips for £3. So not all bad but overall, if you’re pushed for time then Khota Bharu is probably not the place to spend much of it. If one night is necessary, it’s enough. But there is a way to avoid even that.
Getting out of town on the jungle line is best achieved in daylight as it is the view from the train that you have come for. This gives good reason to skip the train at 4.18am (No.81) and stay in bed as late as 5.15am to catch the No.91 train at 6.16am (No.91). This service runs all the way to Singapore (18 hours) should you wish to go that far in one hop.
It’s a 15 minute, 20MR taxi ride to the train station which is actually at Wakaf Baharu. Trains are either Express trains or Jungle trains. The former stop less often and cost more than the latter, though they are still cheap. The latter stop everywhere and are really cheap. The journey time difference is not so great. Most of the time.
If you don’t want to go any further than Gua Musang to begin with there is a train (No.83) at 7.48am that may better suit those who enjoy a lie in.
The option I took was to take the 6.16am Express train with a ticket for Gua Musang (3 hours, 18MR / £3.50) and to hop out at one of half a dozen stops along the way, if I liked the look of a place, knowing the following 7.48am departure train would be stopping there if I wanted to resume my journey.
I think a better, time-saving and Khota Bharu-avoiding option would be to leave Hat Yai on the early train (07.20 to 11.20), cross the border and take the bus to Pasir Mas to connect with the jungle line train at 16.02. Then go as far as Dabong (arriving at 18.22) and spend the night there.
The jungle line, already never unattractive, becomes really quite pretty after Krai, the train tunnelling half a dozen times as it climbs noticeably into the deep green of the forested hillsides. I liked the look of Dabong on the map and I liked the look of it as we approached along the orange-watered river so I left the train there (at 9.09am), left bags with the station master and went for a wander.
On closer inspection I liked sleepy Dabong, population 2,000, even more. I let the late-running No.83 (due at 10.54) leave without me – there are always more trains tomorrow – and took up residence at The Rose House which is the nicest (and maybe the only) place to stay in Dabong. It’s a better place to stay by far than any I saw in Khota Bahru (and I saw many). It’s smart, clean, fresh – and friendly. No pool though.
Not that I did not get wet. Thunder rumbled in from far away, stalking closer as the afternoon wore on. At 5pm a pleasant, cooling shower of heavy warm rain drops was welcome while it lasted. Half an hour later the tap was opened further and fifteen minutes of heavy rain were the prelude to a tropical downpour that filled the roads with water and forced even a bunch of ducks to take shelter in a half-built house. I joined them there along with a dozen chickens of various breeds and nine goats, staying until kidded by a brief respite that the deluge was waning. Walking back to the village the rainclouds cloaked the now invisible hillsides in mist, lightning creased the grey sky and the rain fell heavier than ever, only letting up after dark.
The 6.54am (2.6RM) jungle train out of Dabong stopped in still misty Kemubu for a passing train and breakfast. There was time to take a walk over the river bridge where the orange water boosted by the previous evening’s rain swirled swiftly by below. The station master, twenty-three years in the job, asked where I come from and suggested that my grandfather might have built his pretty, well-looked after little station. You never know; one of my grandfathers claimed to have built a lot of things.
Gua Musang’s (new) train station sits below and beside four big chunks of limestone rockery. It’s a dramatic setting for a small town that I did not stay in long enough to recommend other than to say it has banks and really good, cheap food – which does not much set it apart; everywhere in Malaysia has good, cheap food it seems. Jumping off the jungle train here (at 09.36) gives you time to have a quick look around with the option of catching the express that comes through (at 11.06, 14RM) which is what I did.
The jungle line where it runs between Gua Mesang and Kuala Lipis is where it really lives up to its name for me. All the Malaysian trains on this line are modern and air-conditioned but that’s not the feeling I was after. There is a £200 fine for opening the train door whilst on the move but no-one seemed to mind and to sit on the step, feeling the heat and smelling the sweet greenery up close is to have the best seat in the house. The tourist seat.
It was after lunchtime when the train pulled in late to Kuala Lipis, but no complaints from me. That was three of the best hours I’ve spent on a train in a long time.
Kuala Lipis is another small town, prettier perhaps than Gua Mesang and more worthy of an overnight stay. If you get through a visit without meeting Giri then he must be out of town. I found him helpful and overbearing, initially in equal measure, latterly leaning towards the latter. Take him as you find him, I’m sure he would be helpful in a crisis.
Kuala Lipis is the first getting off point if you are heading to Taman Nagara National Park, especially if you are wanting to go by boat (2/3 hours, 23MR plus 70MR for a taxi to the jetty at Kuala Tembling). It’s a lovely boat trip and a lovely park with at least one great place to stay. More about that below.
Alternatively you can carry on along the jungle line to Jerantut arriving at 14.20 and take the bus to the park from (90 minutes, 7MR, twice a day) from there.
After Jerantut the jungle line continues in to Gemas where it joins the west coast (main)line. I can’t tell you anything about this bit of the journey other than to say it’s supposed to be less jungly and more palm plantationy.
I took the option of taking the (hourly) bus to KL (3 hours, 29MR).
The WOOF Guide.
Bangkok to Hat Yai.
The easy option is to take the 14.45 train from Hua Lamphong that is going to Butterworth. It’s 875 Bhat (less than £20) for a comfy sleeper. The train is due into Hat Yai, where the line splits, at 06.55 but can run a bit late.
Bangkok to Yala is another option. I’ve not been to Yala other than to pass through it and at the time of writing I don’t think it’s a smart move to go there.
Hat Yai accommodation.
There is plenty of it, some of it cheap but a bit ropey. If you can afford to spread your wings a little then King’s Hotel – only 150 metres from the train station – with modern, clean rooms is good value at 750 Bhat. There are a few places offering a different kind of value for 250 to 350 Bhat, also close to the station. There is a handy map that’s available at the station information desk (on the platform). It has more than enough places to stay marked on it.
Hat Yai to Sungoi Kolok.
There are several morning trains from Hat Yai to Sungoi Kolok which is the last stop on this line (for now?). Trains leave Hat Yai at 05.52, 06.30, 07.20, 10.07, 12.13 and 14.20 – probably not all on any one day and the last two will get you the border after 17.00 Thai time which means you will be hard pushed to get across the border in time to catch the bus to Pasir Mas or Khota Bharu (they run until 7 pm Malaysian time – Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand).
At the border.
The Thai Immigration office is a (short, easily walkable) kilometre from the train station. It takes just a moment to get an exit stamp and a few minutes to walk through to the Malaysian side where business is conducted just as quickly. There is no need to accept an offer of a ride to the bus station; it’s about a two hundred metre walk.
The number 29 bus to Pasir Mas (26Km) and Khota Bharu (40km) leaves (until 7pm) not from the bus station but from the nearby roadside, opposite the Caltex petrol station (and appears to be free). Longer distance buses leave from the the bus station itself.
There are ATMs at the Caltex and the other petrol station.
Khota Bharu hotels.
The Sabrina Court hotel got my reluctant best-of-bad-lot business at $22. The room and bed-linen were indeed tatty, last re-equipped sometime in the 70s – maybe – but it did not smell and it was not damp. There was a window. That was the clincher. The staff turned out to be friendly, the water ran hot and the wifi worked. I slept very well. At a stretch I recommend it.
The backpacker places were particularly uninviting. Ideal guesthouse belies its name. There are a bunch of more upmarket hotels – all full at the time of writing, it’s easy to see why – where you can lift yourself out of this mire if you’re ready to pay $35 or more. Later a friend told me stayed in a good, cheap hostel. She could not remember it’s name or where it was.
The train from Khota Bharu.
This first requires a 5km taxi ride out to the train station at Wakaf Bharu. This is going to take 15 minutes and, extravagantly, costs between 15 and 25 Ringit depending on the time of day and other variables.
Alternatively you could overnight in Pasir Mas and take the train from there (app. 15 minutes after the Wakaf Bharu times).
The timetable does not show a stop at Manek Urai but we did stop there – to wait for another train to pass – it’s a single line – and for long enough to buy a great and cheap rice and curry (egg) breakfast on the platform.
The Rose House, Dabong.
Telephone .. 019 960 6789.
Six rooms. Shared bathroom. From 60RM. There is a kitchen, though unfortunately no cooking facility, a washing machine and a motorcycle for rent. There is no wifi but there is an internet place just around the corner that may open at some point.
Onward trains from Dabong.
There are three daytime services. The 81 (to Kuala Lipis) calls at 6.54am, the 91 (to Singapore) at 09.09am and the 83 (Gua Musang) at 10.54am.
Later on the 85 calls at 18.22 (to Kuala Lipis, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 15.46), the 29 at 20.57 (to KL, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 18.17) and the 27 at 23.01 (to Singapore, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 20.19).
I took the 6.54am Jungle train to Gua Mesang (2.6RM). It stopped only 15 minutes later in Kemubu and waited a good 35 minutes for another train to pass. This gave time for a walk to the river and the chance to buy another great curry (beef and bean) and rice breakfast. The passing train was running late so that put my train behind schedule too.
There are places to stay but I did not. Some, but not all of the banks have ATMs that take Visa and MasterCard. Head up to the main road. CIMB is a few hundred metres along on the left. Turn right and walk (further) into the centre of town for Maybank.
There are a few accommodation options. Some are pretty unattractive and best avoided. Hotel London is disgusting; Boris should sue. Another apparently doubles as a brothel. Others are overpriced and above themselves. Luckily the best of them all is not far from the station. Walk up to the road, cross over and drop down the stairs of a covered walkway lined with eateries. Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and 50m along the street, upstairs, is Hotel Jelai (one of two in town) which offers good enough value, clean enough rooms – the best with a view of the river – and decent wifi. I would not bother looking at any of the others unless this place is full (or you are looking for a prostitute).
I had a great meal at a small place with outside tables very near the station (on your right hand side if you are about 20m from the station and you looking at it). It only opens up in the evening but no worries, the place next door opens at lunch and the food there was excellent too.
Taman Nagara National Park.
Only one thing to say. Stay at Park Lodge (below). It’s a little away from the jetty area and the better for it. Great people, great place. Fan rooms 60MR (negotiate if you’re solo). Call or WhatsApp +60197731661.
Sorry, I did not stay long enough to find out anything other than where to get an ice cream.
A train leaving Jerantut at 14.20 will get to Singapore at midnight (?MR). Another leaving at 03.14 gets in at 12.30 (?MR)
If you’re wanting to continue by train to KL then the train leaving Jerantut at 01.08 (36MR) will get you in at 08.00.
In KL I think the Container Hotel is a pretty neat place to stay. Stylish in a way, clean, friendly, quiet, quite well located if your bags are not too heavy (it’s a 10/15 minute walk from the monorail) and reasonably priced for what you get in KL. (Dorms from 50MR, Doubles from 110MR. http://www.containerhotel.com).
Flying out from KL?
The monorail to KL Sentral and the bus (1 hour) to KLIA 2, the new terminal for AirAsia etc, costs just over 12MR. It’s just over 37MR if you take the train (30 minutes).
If you are pushed for time or just need a quick kip the same people who own Container Hotel have opened the first airport Capsule hotel at KLIA 2 (45MR for 3 hours, 90MR for 12 hours). http://www.capsulecontainer.com
Myanmar Visa Run?
This could be an easy, yet diverting and different, visa run from Yangon, one that does not need an overnight stay in Bangkok. it could be done with only two overnights (Dabong and KL). Take the 08.30 AirAsia flight from YGN to DMK and then the train (1 hour, 5 Baht) from Don Muaung airport to Hua Lamphong train station and be in plenty of time for the 14.45 overnight train (destination Butterworth) from the same station that kick-starts this trip. AirAsia flights from KL to Yangon at the time of writing were on offer for as little as $5.