Climbing aboard the Jungle Railway is the best way to get off the beaten track and explore rural Malaysia.
Don’t expect Orient Express luxury – this local train offers a no-frills experience, but for the camera-wielding tourist, the journey is full of thrills.
Cutting through the heart of the Malaysian peninsula, the Jungle train weaves through thick, remote jungle and chugs to a halt at little villages where tourists can hop off to get a taste of local Malay culture.
Singapore is a convenient place to start or end an adventure on Malaysia’s Jungle Line.
What the train lacks in comforts, it makes up for in charm and scenery
Leaving the urban jungle of Singapore behind by rail, the scenery soon changes to countryside, farmland and corrugated iron huts speeding past the train window.
Heading north, the train trundles along more than 100 miles of single track towards the town of Gemas – around four hours away.
As the gateway to the Jungle Line and the point at which the line intersects between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Gemas is a busy town considering its small size – better known as a transit point for travellers than a tourist hotspot.
Local ‘shuttle’ and intercity trains leave the bustling town daily, heading north through the thick of the Malaysian rainforest to the end of the line in Tumpat, near the Thai border. The journey between Gemas and Tumpat spans 300 miles.
The Jungle train – in its own charming way – is a run-down silver shell, powered by diesel.
The carriages are simple, offering second class and economy carriages, with no dining car and a temperamental air-conditioning system.
But what the train lacks in comforts, it makes up for in charm and scenery, as breathtaking views of the Malaysian jungle unfold out of the window.
The train regularly grinds to a halt at towns and villages along the way. Some stations and their platforms are well marked, while at others, their names are inked on wooden signs in the ground.
Local women in headscarves board the carriages, hauling oversized bundles of vegetables and wood. Observing men, women and schoolchildren hopping on and off the train is a great way to immerse yourself in Malaysian culture.
A sea of green trees rushes past the window in a blur, occasionally broken up by hilly terrain where sharp rock faces stand to attention beside the tracks.
Enter the Jungle
One of the most popular attractions along the Jungle Line is Taman Negara National Park, a lush 130 million-year-old tropical rainforest with a thrilling canopy walkway.
For less than £2 (in Malaysian Ringgit) you can take a perhaps not-so-casual stroll across these wooden planks, suspended 45 metres above the ground, and indulge in breathtaking panoramic views of the forest canopy.
If this is a little too much adventure, there are signposted walks throughout the jungle. Active-types will enjoy the hike up the 340 metre-high hill known as Bukit Teresik for sweeping views across the national park.
Your own Jungle Railway adventure
- Tickets for train travel in Malaysia can be bought at any station.
- You cannot hop-on and hop-off on one ticket and must buy separate tickets for each leg of the journey.
- Overnight trains run but are not the best idea if you want to see the scenery.
- Timetables are available at all major stations or can be downloaded on Keratapi Tanah Melayu (KTM – the train operator) website.
- To book train tickets click here: www.ktmb.com.my
- Visit Seat 61 – http://www.seat61.com – to check train times and to plan your journey.
- Travel light and take a backpack.
- Bring plenty of mosquito spray. Malaria is prevalent in rural areas of Malaysia; consult a doctor about medication before you go.
- Pack your own loo-roll for the train (and even some hotels). The train toilet is very basic (and occasionally breezy)!
- Snacks for the train are essential.
- A micro-fibre towel saves space and is quick-drying (useful for those extra sweaty moments when the air con stops working)
Taman Negara is easily accessible via Jerantut, a large town with shops, restaurants, hotels and ATMs – a leisurely three and a half hour train ride from Gemas.
Regular buses shuttle passengers from Jerantut to Kuala Tehan – the base camp for the Taman Negara occupying the heart of the rainforest.
Despite its rural location there is no shortage of hotels, shops and barge restaurants in Kuala Tehan, serving local dishes such as kaya jam toast – a peculiar but sweet mix of coconut and eggs often eaten at breakfast.
Venture deeper into the rainforest and you are likely to see fishing cats (a small, water-loving cat native to Southeast Asia), flying squirrels and some of the 350 species of bird that inhabit this rich environment.
At night the sounds of the jungle are magical, as a chorus of insects, birds and monkeys sing you to sleep.
Kota Bahru (station name ‘Wakaf Bahru’) lies further along the train line and is often the starting or finishing line for travellers on the Jungle Railway.
As the Capital of the Islamic state of Kelantan, Kota Bahru is a melting pot of Malay and Islamic cultures.
Wandering around the city’s vibrant market stalls and food vendors spilling onto the streets is a great place to acquaint yourself with local culture.
Kota Baru’s colourful indoor Central Market is one of the city’s major draws, as well as the buzzing night markets, where traditional Malaysian dishes are cheap and cooked to perfection.
Local delicacies include murtabak (an Indian style pancake stuffed with vegetables, lamb or mutton), ayam percik (marinated chicken skewers), and nasi kerabu (deliciously blue tinted rice with fish, vegetables and coconut).
Where to after the Jungle Line?
In the north, long distance buses leave from Kota Bahru to Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth and Georgetown (Penang Island).
From Kota Bahru you can cross the border to Thailand by taking a bus to Rantau Panjang.