It took indentured Tamil labourers eight years to build the 500km-long jungle railway from Gemas, southeast of KL, to Tumpat, on the northeast coast near Kota Bharu. The first section from Gemas to Kuala Lipis opened in 1920, with the full extent of the line following in 1931. Initially it was used exclusively for freight – tin and rubber, and later oil palm – until a passenger service, originally known as the “Golden Blowpipe”, opened in 1938. Today the route is mostly served by trains from Singapore, with just one daily service from KL.
By dint of its very existence, the line doesn’t pass through virgin jungle; instead much of the route south of Gua Musang is flanked by regrowth forest and belukar-type woodland, and the line often dips through cuttings below ferny embankments, or skirts the backs of kampung gardens, within eyeshot of bougainvillea and fruiting rambutan and mango trees. On the final section, the mountainous, river-gashed terrain is replaced by plantations of rubber, pepper and oil palm, which – given their sprawl of uninterrupted vegetation – actually look more jungly than the real forest. None of this is to detract from the fact that as a way to encounter rural life, a ride on the jungle train can’t be beaten, giving you the chance to take in backwater scenery in the company of cheroot-smoking old men in sarongs, and fast-talking women hauling kids, poultry and vegetables to and from the nearest market. For the unadulterated jungle railway experience, you need to be on one of the slow local trains, which call at just about every obscure hamlet on the route, some with Orang Asli names.
Rolling stock is worn and fairly ordinary, dating to the 1980s; the only advantages of the so-called “first class” carriages seem to be air conditioning and slightly larger seats. Buy tickets at the station if possible (you shouldn’t need to book in advance except on express services during school holidays), though you can also pay the conductor on board – indeed, you often have to, as rural station offices keep erratic hours.
The Jungle Railway’s official name is the less romantic “Sektor Timur & Selatan” (East and South Route), managed by KTM. Timetables (wktmb.com.my) are to be taken with a pinch of salt, as delays aren’t uncommon – cattle grazing along the track sidings cause constant problems for train drivers. It’s not unknown for trains to show up early either; be at the station fifteen minutes ahead of the scheduled departure. Occasionally you may find the time on the ticket doesn’t match the timetable, in which case ask station staff for clarification. Even if everything appears to be going to schedule, note that there’s only one set of tracks on long stretches of the route: delays elsewhere may mean your train being held at a siding or even reversing for an extended period to let an oncoming train pass.