It’s 4:30 a.m. and we are standing in a 40-watt circle of light vanishing into the night along the rails at our feet. Out of the surrounding swamps and tropical gloom, the marsh frogs bleat like massed marimbas in stereo. Even the heavens are unfamiliar, with the Southern Cross instead of the North Star.
Hopefully a passenger train will emerge from the jungle mists to convey us during the coming day across 3 degrees of latitude. This is the eastern branch of the Malay Railway, a diesel-drawn route once totally in the hands of Communist guerrillas and now, in a twist of fate, eyed by China as a conveyance to carry sand to enlarge its disputed artificial islands.
Imagine the Malay hamlet of Jerantut with hundreds of miles of encircling forest cut by rivers tearing at rail trestles to reach the South China Sea. A memorial armor-plated steam locomotive from the recent past sits beside one of the stops.
When I read of the opulence of the current Eastern & Oriental Express, which now for approximately a dollar a mile conveys the rich and famous between Singapore and Bangkok, my thoughts returned to predawn at that faceless hamlet. A faceless dawn. A faceless one-class train to haul us the length of the lower Malay Peninsula for less than 2 cents a mile.
Instead of black-tie service offered on the Eastern & Oriental, a coffee vendor in shaggy Levi's hands you a straw.
You give him a few coins, then stretch out your little finger for him to hang a steaming plastic bag of ebony liquid on it. It’s called “coffee-oh.” One of the greatest inventions to come out of the Orient since spaghetti; these plastic sacks of hot coffee protect their contents by swaying with the motion of the train. Quite by Occident, I'm sure, this miracle has so far evaded our fast-food merchandising.
We were four travelers fresh from the wilds of Taman Negara National Park, its giant monitor lizards and spitting cobras. Dinner at our government rest house was an excellent shrimp omelet costing, including an overnight room, $9.60. At 7:10 p.m., with the Muslim call to prayer, we dropped wearily into bed. Awaiting the train from Singapore next morning at daybreak, we knew something was in the wind when the stationmaster ceremoniously put on a starched white Nehru jacket adorned with a red lanyard. He held furled red and green flags.
By now we had been joined by a host of fellow travelers appearing from the void of the forest. Men in sarongs carrying boom-boxes playing a kampung version of country music, men with jackets emblazoned with dragons, women carrying baskets of infamously odiferous durian fruit, or the more desirable rambutan.
By ringing a large hand bell the stationmaster signaled “all aboard.” Our fellow passengers were Malay, East Indian, Chinese. My first memory once the trip started was the yawning, open echo as we clattered across countless trestles. They span the torrents that cut the rusty earth high in Malaysia's rain forests to seek the South China Sea.
Towns began to emerge. We stopped at Gua Musang, a logging center set under a sheer, gray limestone cliff. Mountain-hugging trees covered its face. At Gua Musang I bought a breakfast of fried sweet-and-sour banana slivers. Also available was the all-purpose nasi lemak: coconut rice, fried shrimp, peanuts and curry served on a banana leaf.
The mother in the seat fronting us rigged an ingenious contraption on springs from the hat rack overhead to cradle her baby within a sarong. It gently swayed with the motion of the train.
By midmorning, the mountains and tunnels were behind us and we were entering lowlands that had been scraped clear of ragged forest for the regular formations of trees producing rubber or palm oil. Every porch in the settlements was bordered by a flame tree.
By noon we had reached Kota Bharu on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand where the surf glistens at night with luminescent creatures. Because of the international date line, this port fell to the Japanese attackers on Dec. 7 – before Pearl Harbor had even been bombed. Kota Bharu became the gateway to Singapore for the Japanese off-road bicycle infantry, flanking the British by using the cleared lanes of rubber plantations.
When, from Kota Bharu we circled back on more modern railroad accommodations to Kuala Lumpur, I wondered: Would these plush first-class carriages offer coffee-oh?