Train stations are interesting. They have that same exciting energy that airports have: where is everyone going? What’s their story? Will our paths cross again? Some stations are huge, with so many tracks coming together beneath a huge arched canopy. And the train cars are fun. Even the modern ones seem like throw-backs to another era. Clever knobs, hooks, handles and fold-out tables. And sleeper trains are best of all: pull-down beds with private pouches and little night lights.

Our train from Bangkok would be our home for 22 hours, and take us south all the way through the narrow strait of Thailand which is sandwiched between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, where we’d finally disembark at Butterworth, Malaysia. From there we’d figure out how to continue on to Singapore and eventually, Bali. Our goal was to get home asap and acap (as cheaply as possible), because this “quick trip to a Bangkok toe-nail doctor” had already cost much more time and money than anticipated.

Our train was clean and comfortable and seemed fairly new. We had purchased 2 specific sleeper lofts, which we discovered would remain unavailable to us until the porter unfolded them at bedtime. The seats below had different numbers but were empty for the time being and so we used them. Hours of typical Thailand countryside passed by our windows: wet fields of rice and other green crops reflecting the sky; interspersed with entire villages made up of stick-figure shanties with rusty tin roofs-and satellite dishes-which seemed absurdly out-of-place. At the infrequent train stops, food hawkers selling rice and chicken dishes, coconut juice, snacks and cigarettes would hop on and walk through as many cars as possible before hopping off to wait for the next train. Just before nightfall, a young couple from the States and their 4 young children got on and politely bumped us from our seats. (Actually, at bedtime we realized that we were still using their other seats too. We admired their calm approach to controling the chaos of traveling with 4 young children. But we were also a bit annoyed to recognize that most of them were sick with colds or worse, and they should not have been taking a public form of transit. Perhaps they had no alternative). We were a little cold in our separate sleeper lofts due to the constant AC and thin blanket, but still enjoyed the constant clickety-clack and train’s gentle rolling motion all night.

We were awakened early to a breakfast delivered to our bunks. We still had a couple of hours of morning light in which to see that Malaysia is more prosperous than Thailand: the satellite dishes now sat atop larger homes made of cement and plaster. From Butterworth, a popular, 10-minute ferry takes many cars and people across the narrow strait that separates mainland Malaysia from the island of Penang and the harbor town of Georgetown. Through the haze we could see a surprisingly large skyline ahead of us. Since we hadn’t anticipated this swing through Malaysia, we had no map, no guidebook, no reservations, and no clue about Georgetown (but had already planned on visiting it sometime). Furthermore, Malaysia was celebrating the same holidays that Thailand was, and so much was closed, and it was quite hot. Some strangers with backpacks larger than ours pointed us down a particular street. Large tourist buses clogged those first several blocks as we began to check into the hotels in search of a place to stay. We were initially discouraged by the high cost of run-down rooms, but kept moving, and split up to better broaden our efforts. The sidewalks were tricky to navigate. At one particular corner, Jennifer banged her head hard on a low arched threshold, and as I tried to help her, I stumbled into a tricky, sunken curb and gashed my shin pretty bad. Eventually we found a nice-enough room with shared unisex bathrooms and showers for about $13.

We rented a motorbike and were tempted to explore the area, but took care of business first instead. A few blocks away we found a bunch of bus line ticket offices and bought our seats to Singapore (or so we hoped-there were a lot of vague instructions about where to meet and when and what). With the transport logistics now (hopefully) addressed, we decided to relax a little and give ourselves 2 days and nights in Penang. This was a good decision, as we began to like Georgetown. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique architecture and a “cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in Southeast Asia.” As is so common in Asia, the real character of the town emerged at night. The sidewalks swelled with amazing food carts, and the cafes spilled out near the streets -busy now with tri-shaw peddlers. Firecrackers and huge spears of incense filled the air. We explored the town’s narrow streets and discovered artsy murals, steel sculptured wall art, a fabulous mix of faded colonial homes and detailed Chinese temples, a bustling Little India neighborhood (yummy food, ubiquitous gold shops), and a full-fledged traveling Chinese opera. (I liked watching the 2 musicians, sitting in small booths on either side of the stage, ala Klezmer musicians). A few blocks away, we were lucky to find an empty table at a large, bustling, outdoor food court, complete with singers on stage entertaining the diners with pop ballads.

We barely scratched the surface of Georgetown, and felt sorry to leave, but we shall return. Eventually we did get on the correct bus (via first a crammed shuttle van of confused passengers), and made it to Singapore despite the disorganized and mismanaged efforts of the entire chain of people involved. (Along with the ferry to Georgetown and our dinner in Little India, we observed 3 examples of chaotic mismanagement and absent customer service at places that should’ve figured things out by now). Our bus was full, and it was raining hard. Within 30 minutes a small ceiling leak forced (just) me from my seat (not a care from the driver or assistant). With nowhere else to sit, I ended up on the aisle steps near the driver for hours. Great view, but I could also see what the other passengers could not: an easily distracted driver whose skills I questioned. I sat there, ready to take the wheel at any moment.

We dropped passengers off at Kuala Lampur, which looked worth revisiting through the rain-streaked windows. It’s surrounded by interesting mountains sort of similar to those in Guilin, China, and has some really unique skyscrapers. We finally reached Singapore at 11:30 at night, 14 hours after departing Georgetown -and 4 hours later than scheduled. We worried that our pre-arranged hostel would be closed as we walked the midnight mile towards it, but were then greeted warmly by the couple behind the front desk. Our single beds were each inside private, stacked “pods” with a curtained opening just at one end. Interesting concept, and cheap -especially for Singapore. We slept like babies.

We flew from Singapore to Bali the next rainy afternoon, where our trusty driver Nick met us at the airport. It had been a unexpectedly long and trying trip. But, my toe was cancer-free, and we covered the entire length of Malaysia by land -something we’d always hoped to do. Upon walking into our home in Ubud, we found some delicious pumpkin soup that our neighbor Ruth had made for us.



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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Matt Colonell
    Aug 25, 2014 @ 15:48:32

    Glad you made it home all right. What a multi-modal journey! Makes you appreciate the true distance between Bankok and Bali. Your spontaneous travels are an inspiration to me and Rita, who (as you know) like to plan everything down to the smallest detail. 🙂


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