The Worst Train Journey Ever: Singapore to Kuala Lumpur 

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My family and I once went by overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia, then back again. Epic train journeys are what real travel is all about to me, maybe you, too. Here’s what happened.

Which Class?

There are four classes of service, the first two don’t count with kids. Third class is a seat; you sit in it for nine hours or more and look out at the black night while people around you cough and make grunting sounds. Second class is a long train car with double-decker bunks lining each side, maybe 50 people sleeping with only cloth drapes around themselves, like in the old movies. Unless Marilyn Monroe is in the next berth, you lay there awake for nine hours or longer while people around you cough and make grunting sounds. First class is all of the above, plus a little wash basin of your own. If you go for the bunks, bring along a sleeping bag or blanket if you chill easily, and certainly bring along some safety pins to close the drapes securely.

Deluxe Class

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First class seat – Image Source: Yesica

That leaves Deluxe class, the way we went. You get a closet, er, small room, with two bunks. There is a small toilet (it was OK) and a shower (the water was scalding hot with no way to adjust, and the towel was the size of the bikini I wish my wife could still wear). There is a TV, which did not work at all enroute to KL, and played only “The Rail Channel” on the homeward leg. This channel was old cable TV shows from the US, that were derivatives of funny home video shows. Or, perhaps they were just real home videos somebody left on the train, I could not tell. Kids watched the show, because it was something on TV and they will stare at water evaporating if it is on TV.

First class gets you a complimentary supper and breakfast. With images of liveried waiters and a dining car from Titanic in mind, I was disappointed to learn that the choices were sardine, chicken or tuna fish sandwiches for supper, and your choice of the two of the three you didn’t pick for supper for breakfast. Plus coffee in the morning, which was surprisingly was not fish-flavored but almost would have been better if it was.

Singapore Station

The trains used to leave Singapore from the Singapore Rail Station, which requires actual time travel to get to. Nobody knew the location, including staff at the so-called nearest MRT station (Tanjong Pagar) or the two taxis it took before the second driver accidentally went past it and I saw the sign. I left a trail of breadcrumbs and stomach bile behind me, so you may find the station easier. The station is in what must be the only bad neighborhood in Singapore; the authorities must have built the bad neighborhood just for the train station, like we do in the U.S. for Greyhound bus stations downtown.

Good news: the trains now leave from Singapore’s Woodlands Station, much nicer and easy to reach via Singapore’s MRT mass transit, plus a bus ride.

Though the fares are decent, maybe US$20 for the cheap seats, if you board at the Singapore end and have not pre-paid, then you pay the Malaysian Ringgit price in Singapore dollars, for a neat markup depending on exchange rates. Better yet, they take cash or, oddly, AMEX only, allowing me the privilege of sticking my VISA card into an gross ATM machine. I didn’t fall victim to any fraud, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it for the length of the trip. Don’t be me – buy your tickets ahead of time, online.

You board the train about 30 minutes before its nighttime departure in a scene out of Schindler’s List. The platform is dark, with some orange light, and lots of confusion. Everyone else seemed to be a Malaysian person working in Singapore and returning home, carrying with him/herself the largest suitcases and bundles I have ever seen. Most of this stuff was being moved around the platform. There’s also a daytime train, but where’s the fun in that?

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All Aboard 

A new high-speed rail line will be built in 2016.

Image Source: Hype

We found our two cabins (only two bunks per cabin and we are four). Being that Malaysia is an Islamic country there is a requirement that unmarried persons sharing the berth be both male or both female, though I’m not sure how aggressively that is now enforced. Nobody checked our tickets, and after the train lurched to a scary start, I had to go back out and close the doors open on both sides, at each end, of the carriage. It was kinda cool, in a James Bond-like way, to be facing out on to the moving, dark, countryside.

Then the train stopped. Then it went ahead a bit. Then it stopped again. Then we settled into bed. Then the ticket guy came. Then we settled into bed. Then the supper and breakfast sandwich guy came. Then we settled into bed. Then the tiny towel guy came. Then we settled into bed. You get the picture. After awhile more, the train started moving in a regular manner and we settled into bed for what we hoped was at least a few hours sleep.

Then the train stopped again, now about 11:30, at the Singapore outbound immigration checkpoint (now all centralized at the Woodlands Station, so some of the drama is lost forever.) The inspectors came aboard and made everyone get off the train, including our kids in pajamas, for exit checks that involved standing in lines much longer and slower than the airport for seemingly no other purpose than to amuse the Immigration inspectors. I kept waiting to hear that we were actually being used as extras in a remake of Sophie’s Choice.

We did get back on the train, and after several announcements in Malay made at volumes that would neuter puppies about our many planned stops, followed by the same announcements by in English, presumably just for us, we settled into bed. The rest of the evening and into morning was spent creaking and grinding and stopping and starting and learning that trains make a variety of sounds, even when standing still.

Arriving Safe And Sound And Tired

The good news is that upon arrival at 6:30 in the morning into the brand new KL Central Train station, all was pretty well. The new KL station is as modern and efficient as the Singapore end was old and grimy. People were friendly, places to eat were open (there is even a McDonald’s there) and you can change money at 6:30 am if you wish to. We found taxis waiting and began our adventures in KL tired but certainly with a story to tell.

I am told that the flight from Singapore is not much more expensive and takes less than an hour. You get free peanuts and a soda. No sardines.

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