Friday, 18 October 2013

Melaka to Kota Bharu via KL

2 week old kittens in KL being bottle fed after their mother died

We’re now in the top right-hand corner of Malaysia, up in the NE near the Thai border, almost on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand so, as Melaka was in the SW, we’ve moved almost diagonally upwards and across the country. We wanted to do this so we could see the eastern side of the country and pass through the central area, which is termed ‘jungle country’, except we’re told a lot of it has been cut down now in favour of palm plantations.

To get here we had to travel by coach back to the ‘hub of Malaysia’, Kuala Lumpur and then catch the sleeper train up to Wakaf Baharu, which is 6km outside KB. There are two railway lines in Malaysia, the main one runs along the western side of the country, linking Singapore with Bangkok and many places beyond, the other takes a junction off from this main line at a place called Gemas, up through the central jungle area and ends on the east coast just north of KB. It is therefore a ‘dead-end’ or a giant ‘cul-de-sac’. We assumed that Gemas, being at the junction of the country’s two major railways, would be a big place and worthy of a visit, but it is apparently nothing of the sort and when we told people we will be stopping at Gemas on our way back down to Singapore they asked ‘why?’ We’ll find out later….

On the sleeper train
Anyway, we got the bus back to KL and took the monorail back to our now familiar Orange Peko Guesthouse, not to stay there as we were taking the night train that evening, but just as a base to leave our luggage (we had already asked if we could do this and they were quite happy) and be somewhere we knew. In fact we stayed there for the afternoon, using their wi-fi to catch up on emails and drinking their coffee!

Whilst there we got talking to a young German couple who were staying there, who are a few months into a year away. He asked me if I would read through a general job application he had written for IT work in Australia that he wanted to send to any company he thought might be interested in his software development services. What he had written was perfectly understandable, but was clearly written by someone who clearly did not speak English as his first language. 
The two engines hauling the sleeper. Nos 6181 & 6648 they were Tim
While I put it into British English, as opposed to American English (after asking him first which he would prefer), Jackie spoke to them about ‘Trusted Housesitters’ and how we had housesat for John in NZ and another couple in the north island. Jackie gave them all the info on that, which was of great interest to them, I handed back his modified application and gave him the email address of Simon Price, the son of our friend Ash Price, who we stayed with in Melbourne and who took us skiing. Simon is in this line of business, doing major software projects for huge companies, so it struck me he may be interested. The couple were very grateful for our two hours advice and we both hope that they get some housesitting jobs, to save them accommodation money and, it would be great if Simon could offer him some work. A good afternoons work we thought!

Our unscheduled stop at Kuala Lipis
After dinner at one of our local restaurant ‘haunts’ we got the monorail to KL Sentral station and boarded our night train to Kota Bharu. The beds were made, we had our top bunks opposite one another, we had a game of ‘squares’ (haven’t played that since I was at school!), read a bit then went to sleep at something after 10:00pm…. I was awoken by the sound of some hammering and was aware the train was stationary, it was about 06:15 and still dark, so I attempted to go back to sleep, but time went on and we hadn’t moved. It got light, people started to move around, some people alarms went off in their bunks and still we hadn’t moved. Jackie was awake and she told me that we had stopped many times during the night, so I got up to go and have a look. Outside we were at a railway station and I could see a group of people working underneath our coach. I got off to find out the station was Kuala Lipis, a place we are stopping at on our way back, and one we should have been at at 04:18, it was now past 07:00.

The person we are relying on to get us going again
The people were gathered around one of the bogies, one person working and five or six watching! Although they were talking in Malay, I realised the problem was seized brakes and, while I watched them work I tried to understand how the brakes work. They are, of course, ‘fail-safe’ brakes, springs apply the brakes and compressed air (or maybe even hydraulics) is used to release them. There is a huge cylinder that seems to push a big lump of ironwork downwards and this seems to operate a lever that I think overcomes the spring pressure and releases the brakes. The huge cylinder was operated by a small aluminium box that had air supplied to it and this was what seemed to be faulty. On the platform by the side of the engineer were four of these aluminium cubes and the fifth one he had just fitted also seemed faulty, so I suppose they had found them in an old store somewhere, but they were all no good. The poor guy was fiddling about while someone else gave him tools and someone shone a torch onto the cylinder to see if it had moved. In time another one of these aluminium cubes was produced and the whole strip down and rebuild started, now 08:00!

The part in question, the sixth one to be tried!
I went to see Jackie who was worried I’d got lost, went and bought some chicken noodles for breakfast and went back to watch progress. A cat appeared from under the carriage, ambled along the platform, weaving its way in between people, tools and aluminium cubes and disappeared, and on the work went. After a while it did look as though the big cylinder lifted and people started laughing and the atmosphere was a bit better. I wandered down the train to take some photos of the engine for my friend Tim Holden (are you reading this Tim and can you tell me how train brakes work?), came back and got a ‘thumbs up’ from one official so got back on board. After a while bells rang several times, the trains hooter sounder indicating ‘all aboard who’s coming aboard’ and, after a few more minutes we chugged out of the station and completed the remaining six hours of our journey, arriving at Wakaf Baharu at 14:30 instead of the 10:08 scheduled time!

Here's a good bogie. You can see the small aluminium cube towards the right, above the horizontal cylinder. It seems to operate the vertical cylinder just to the right of the left wheel you can see and that lifts the lever to the right of the vertical cylinder, which I think releases the brakes
Last anorak picture showing the cylinder, lever and brake mechanism
A 6km, RM20 taxi ride took us to our guesthouse in this strictly Muslim town (virtually no alcohol!). The town seems OK, as Europeans we are definitely in the minority and people aren’t quite so friendly here, not unfriendly, just a little more distant maybe. The guesthouse, however is a little disappointing. Our room is quite large and the bathroom is quite large (the bath is swimming pool sized and I joke not! The bathroom, is bigger than some of the bedrooms in KL), but it is all very tired. The carpet is stained, the walls in urgent need of decoration, the windows and curtains dirty, the tiles in the bathroom discoloured and everything just very old and creaky and not particularly well cleaned. 
This nice building is the Islamic Museurm - closed today!
The TV, air conditioning and wi-fi all work and, feeling very jaded after our journey, we watched a film in our room. Suddenly Jackie jumped up and pointed to something running across the floor. Jumping up I could see what I thought was a big spider running at speed, but no, it was a cockroach about 1.5” (38mm) long. Bashing my shoe I missed it about four times before Jackie cornered it and flattened it. Were there anymore? We lifted up the bed, looked round, closed our rucksacks, couldn’t see any, until this morning when we saw a second one in the corner of the room, so repeated the same process!

The octagonal shaped indoor market
It hasn’t made us feel particularly relaxed, so we asked if we could change rooms. After viewing three more rooms, two of which were supposed to be ‘superior rooms’, we’ve decided to stay put, so that tells you what the other rooms and the hotel is like!

We had a few problems finding somewhere to eat last night as well, eventually eating in the restaurant at the hotel (was that a good idea, but it was before we found the cockroach). The food was good but pricey (RM68 = £14), but we probably won’t be eating there again. Today (Friday) our activities have been curtailed as it’s the end of the Muslim Hajj (see, so everything is closed for the day, all museums, including the War Museum that I particularly want to see. We suspect most restaurants will also be closed, so we’ve been out exploring the town and found the small Chinese settlement who will be open tonight (and serve alcohol – ha, ha!).

A hive of activity
And like most markets, cats with their kittens
We’ve got another day here (and two nights of cockroach watch), so will hopefully do more tomorrow and feel a bit better about being here!

It’s funny, we loved Melaka but when asked why have found it very hard to quantify. It was just comfortable and relaxed, and dare I say it, a bit more western! A drink by the river before dinner with a nibble or two? No problem. I guess it was helped by the good quality (and very cheap price – cheaper than where we are now) of the hotel we were in, the comfy bed, the three lovely reception ladies, but there was more to it than that. 
For those people who didn't believe the size of the bath!
Now however, for the first time, I’m beginning to think of home, the grotty hotel, and the effort it takes to find breakfast, not much toast round here, breakfast looks like every other meal, but we’ve got our heads round dim sum, rice porridge, light noodles, roti canai (Indian bread with curry sauce and dhal) except when I had the unpleasant surprise of not plain roti but sardine roti, but even finding one of these is not always easy, so we resorted to lunch for breakfast and cake in the afternoon! I know if that is all we have to worry about we’ve got a good life, but sometimes it just all feels too hard. Haven’t resorted to a McMuffin for breakfast yet, but we will have an early start on Sunday so who knows….!

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