Station to station across Malaysia

Jeremy Atiyah takes the train from Singapore to Bangkok via the old Penang town of Georgetown

WHY IS there no great Eurasian rail terminus in Singapore, commanding a network of long-distance trains to Peking, Moscow and Paris? I bet there would be if the Singaporeans had anything to do with it. But until Laos discovers the train, Thailand is as far as rail travellers from Singapore can go.

Luckily a two-day journey to Bangkok was enough for me. Which was why I suddenly found myself last month in the station cafe in Singapore, listening to the rain. A single line of track ran away north through a dripping forest of potted palm trees. The coffee tasted odd.

Even odder, Singapore's train station is technically a part of Malaysia. I enjoyed the anomalous experience of passing through Malaysian immigration before checking out of Singapore (20 minutes later at the border). But the train was surprisingly dull inside. No ducks on the luggage rack, no peasants squatting on sacks of rice. It might have been the 9.20am from Euston to Birmingham, and I was sitting in a big quiet armchair. The other passengers included an American school teacher who was larger than an entire Chinese family.

It didn't take long to cross this minuscule country. Suddenly I was on the causeway to Malaysia. Grey waters, a narrow strait, a road lined with trucks. We hit land: this was mainland Asia, stretching all the way to Calais and Ostend. After Singapore, the first impression was of trash. The second was of corrugated roofs, flapping laundry, spindly coconut palms, shacks and muddy streams.

Some of the housing looked remarkably British. The Malaysian countryside featured bungalows and terraced houses with red roofs. But inside the train I was soon feeling rather bored. The air-conditioning was so cold that I might have been on an unheated train in Norway. Except that the earth outside looked red and tropically forested. Hours later we were rumbling through misty Kuala Lumpur, which looked little more than a thinly scattered web of flyovers and distant skyscrapers.

Night fell like a stone. The air-conditioning was now so fierce I had a headache. Only on arrival at the oddly named town of Butterworth at 9.30pm could I finally escape into the reality of hot, wet, salty breezes from the Indian Ocean.

Along with late-working commuters, local teenagers from Butterworth's pubs and a few scraggly backpackers, I strolled through to the terminal for Penang ferries. We made the 20-minute crossing overlooked by the bright lights of Georgetown.

Disembarking, I suddenly became a king, lounging back in a rickshaw with my hands behind my head. Nor did the Cathay Hotel dispel the illusion. It was only a tenner a night, but from the outside its columns and Corinthian capitals looked palatial. Inside, I heard footsteps on the ceiling; there was a woman eating noodles under a fan and an old man sweeping the floor. May the human race always be blessed with such arrivals.

Georgetown was the perfect stopover from Singapore. Half a century ago these two places had been twins. Originally founded as "Straits Settlements", both were small islands off the Malayan peninsula, packed with industrious Chinese immigrants. But while Singapore has now joined the aristocracy of world nations, Penang has mouldered on magnificently. Look at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, for example, set up by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who were also responsible for Singapore's Raffles. While Raffles made the transition to a modern five-star hotel, the Eastern & Oriental closed down for an agonising refurbishment. Looking for it, I found a shell.

An improbably cool breeze blew in from the murky mountains of mainland Malaysia. I passed a British war memorial to "Our glorious dead. 1914- 1918". This was the Padang, a moth-eaten piece of muddy grass marking the centre of town. Cocks crowed, bells from a Hindu temple rang out like those from churches. I passed the grimy brick walls of a 200-year-old British fort, still the major architectural feature of this sad old town.

Who could have built that fort? In the local museum I found a bewigged statue of Captain Francis Light, who founded Georgetown in 1786. He was interested in cinnamon, cloves, cumin, pepper, chillies, star anise and tamarind. I cared more about the fact that this was a town where backpackers could catch ferries to Medan in jungly Sumatra.

The last stop before the jungles took over? That sounded just about right until I noticed that it was also a town where old Chinese clan associations had set up their kongsi, or temples, for the worship of their ancestors - benevolent self-help societies for people of the same surname. I visited the Khoo Kongsi, as large as a council estate, comprising entire blocks of homes built around alleyways and courtyards. Old Chinese music rattled from doorways. The main temple, full of hanging lanterns, was a vast chaos of ceramic shard decorations, gilt and swooping swallows. Later I dropped in on the Kuanyin temple. Amid pillars of entwined snakes, blackened burners and huge incense sticks three metres high, I found that people had scribbled notes with their prayers on them: "Biology I, 11- 12.15pm. Give me a good grade please."

In my years of visiting China I had never seen anywhere half as Chinese as this. I dropped in on the Hangchow Cafe and sat at a round marble-topped table under a sooty ceiling. "Life's greatest imperfection is melancholy wisdom" ran a Confucian saying on the wall. A Portuguese sailor in the corner was coughing his guts out. Ancestral portraits on the wall going back to about 1919 included a man whom I suspect to have been the first Chinese in history to wear a tie.

The following afternoon I crossed back to the mainland. Destination: Bangkok. Eat you heart out, Virgin Trains! Even my second-class compartment contained immaculate couchettes that folded down after dark, with curtains that drew across to protect sleepers' privacy.

The border, too, was stress-free. Leave the luggage on the train, sir! Step this way to have your passport stamped! But where, I asked myself, were the belligerent officials rummaging through my rucksack? Unavailable on this border, it seemed.

The next morning I woke up in Thailand, with white cranes flapping across muddy paddy fields. We passed ramshackle houses on stilts and temples like peaked meringues. Hua Hin station, when we got there, looked like a temple in itself, surrounded by sodden grass and cows.

We rolled into Bangkok two hours late. Not bad for a two-day journey, I thought, as we crawled, at snail's pace, into Asia's traffic-jam capital.

FACT FILE

singapore to bangkok by train

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah's flights to and from Singapore and Bangkok were courtesy of Singapore Airlines. Trains run daily between Singapore and Butterworth, departing Singapore early morning and arriving in the evening. First and second-class seats are both perfectly comfortable and, from Singapore, cost S$127 first, S$60 second (about pounds 45 to pounds 22). From Butterworth to Bangkok a train departs every afternoon, arriving in Bangkok the next morning. Very comfortable second-class sleepers cost S$95 if bought in Singapore. Reservations can be made through Malaysian company Ktm Berhad (tel: 00 603 2757269; fax: 00 603 2736527).

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