It all started with an errant cow.
Actually, there’s no way to pinpoint the trigger for the real sequence of events that led to the abandonment of our sleeper car at the Thai-Malaysia border, but let’s use a cow for the purpose of illustration.
So, a cow walks onto a train track in southern Thailand, just a few miles from the Malaysia border. She nibbles on the tender grass that grows so green and lush between the railroad tracks, connected with legions of humans in the simple act of reveling in blissful ignorance–a moment of peace and tranquility only fully appreciated through a nostalgic lens in the throes of chaos.
Then the train hits her. Kills her. And in the process, throws itself off the tracks. Several miles up the railroad track, our own train stops just an hour or so into our 13-hour journey.
I wake up from my nap on the upper berth that I’ve nested and primped for greatest comfort. Sheets of plastic isolate my dirty backpack and my shawl provides a barrier between my sweaty body and the clean, white sheets I intend to sleep in several hours later. The train has stopped at a very small station in southern Thailand for what seems like a very long time, and the sleeper car is getting uncomfortably hot. We rouse ourselves and find out what has happened: a derailed train on the single track to Malaysia. We have to wait while the track is cleared — not an easy feat in a rural area.
My irritation is minor. Our layover in Kuala Lumpur is the longest of them all, as we arrive at 5:00 am and do not leave again until 23:00. I see the bright side in a delayed wake-up call. So we venture out into a friendly, smiley town without a name in the spirit of adventure and procuring snacks. We rush back (what if the train left us?) and sit outside the station where we snack on pomelo, chase chickens, and fight off a bold cat while hearing proclamations of “just one more hour” through a twisted game of telephone complicated by translation between Thai, Malay, and English.
When the train finally departs 3 and a half hours later, the sun is firmly set. We stop again soon, only in the amount of time it takes to drink a beer and play a word scrambling game. We’re told to take all of our belongings and personal effects as we’re shuffled off the two car train and towards a nondescript, yet heavily fortified building in what appears to be an empty, well-fenced train depot and immigration station. We start to get nervous for all the wrong reasons: Andy has lost his immigration departure card! This re-entry stamp looks blurry! What if we hold everyone up with our complicated non-immigration visas for the purpose of education and all of the entailed paperwork! How embarrassing it might be!
An ignorant, contented moment cubed off in the train.
An extremely grumpy Thai immigration official barks orders at the 20 or so passengers, clearly unhappy about being roused back to the station at such an ungodly hour as 9 pm to deal with the human cargo from our delayed train. Andy and I are the last to get through immigration and customs, having dealt with his departure card issue with the help of a well-prepared Malaysian woman with a beautiful headscarf who always carries a spare. We’re happy to board our train, seek out the dining car that was supposed to be attached at the station, and relax until we reach KL.
Through rumor, hearsay, and poorly translated Malay, we learn there is will not be a dining car. We find that the group of confused, grumbling passengers milling about on the platform are looking so very confused and grumbling because not only is there no dining car, there is no train waiting for us at all! We’ve been abandoned at immigration and are to sleep here. Right here. On this hot, dirty piece of concrete. We can catch a bus in the morning. We can’t leave, there is nothing around the station. There is nothing you can do but wait here, on this concrete platform with its fluorescent lighting and perimeter of barbed wire.
I’m super grateful that the Chinese girl threw the fit that she did so well. She threatened to sue (who? a cow?), threatened to have everyone fired, and eventually led us all back on to our abandoned train car where we were able to sleep in the berths with the clean, white sheets.
Our growing hunger meant that we weren’t very frightened. Being the fine gentleman that he is, Andy sets off with a multicultural expedition team to find sustenance. He and Rene (our German companion in this misadventure who nearly agreed to hitchhike all the way to KL with me) walk all around the compound looking for a way out before being joined by a Malaccan with a keen sense of direction and useful Malay language skills. They walk several kilometers down the railroad tracks, sneak through a fence or an air vent (depending on whose version you’re listening to), and slide down a mud hill before finding a village with a restaurant who is willing to serve up just a few more meals before shuttering for the night.
While the boys feast on Malaysian steamed chicken, rice, and tea, I pace down the abandoned railroad car, testing the doors to make sure they can get back in and eliciting icy looks from one particularly cranky passenger who had arrived with a bicycle as his only luggage in the process. The Chinese girl with the effective temper tantrums is plotting out her escape rather loudly and I listen to her plan from behind my sleeping berth’s curtains. She is waking up at 7, demanding a refund for her train ticket at 8, and hitching a cab to the closest bus station in Thailand to take the earliest bus to KL. Her plan sounds great, and I make a note to follow it myself, only moving her schedule up by an hour; I want the bus tickets for myself, dammit.
A few moments later, I’m shaken from my moment of travel-stealing smugness by a shock of complete panic. Our passports hold a single re-entry permit into the Kingdom of Thailand. We can’t go back. We can’t go through immigration without forfeiting our right to leave. To do so would be to have spent two and a half days traveling and a full day at immigration in vain — a terrible exercise in slow travel without the reward of the destination: several days running between all of Singapore’s immaculate and well-stocked bathrooms.
I sit behind my curtain stewing, plotting, sorting through all my options from running away in the cover of night to the amount of risk and money I’d invest to bribing our way of the country again. At that moment, while sitting hungry in a berth on an abandoned train in a frankly scary-looking immigration station surrounded by ominous barbed wire fences and concrete, giving up on our travel itinerary was unthinkable.
Here are the two main reasons why I love Malaysia: 1) the hospitality of those who live there, and 2) the food.
Northern Malaysia at dawn, as seen from a speeding taxi.
When Andy returned from his journey after what seemed like days, I was admittedly in rough shape. He parted my curtain and handed me a simple white styrofoam container, sealed with a red rubber band and nestled in a clear plastic bag. At that moment, finding out what was inside that package that smelled so good was more important than our travel plans. As I ate the savory fried rice with my hands, he told me his story. The Malaccan found the restaurant, treated everyone to dinner, and over rounds of tea, explained that he heard of a bus station located 25 kilometers south in a Malaysian town called Kadang.
This was the best meal of my life, I kid you not. The slippery, garlicky rice had pieces of fresh vegetables and chiles mixed in with what I think were pieces of steamed chicken. I chewed (what I think was) cartilage and sucked spicy rice lodged in the peppers gratefully, enthusiastically, contentedly. It was a glorious break from the dining car meals of ramen and soggy vegetables in oyster sauce, and moreover, it put a glorious end to level of crazy that was happening in my head.
Around that time, Andy’s phone began to pick up data service from Thailand, so we could confirm the location of the bus station and solidify our plans. We caught a few hours of sleep before heading out in the morning across a platform to a concrete gate topped with more surly barbed wire, now pleasantly opened for passersby. We walked along a roundabout filled with kamikaze drivers and located a taxi stand not more than a block from the train station. We departed for the Kadang bus terminal gladly and confidently. Surely our plans would get on track now!
- Buying Train Tickets - How to Book Train Tickets in Thailand Without Losing Your Mind
- Chiang Mai to Bangkok - Train Legs
- Bangkok to Hat Yai - The South
- Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur - Derailed
- Kuala Lumpur to Singapore - Destination KL, I<3 KL
- Getting Into Singapore - The Part No One Tells You: Getting to Singapore’s MRT from theTrain Station is Hard
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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