Senandung Langkawi


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View from the back coach of a KL-Arau trip on an early morning, just after leaving Alor Star

I was in front of my desk, with Florence+The Machine blaring through my earphones when Abah called and asked in Tidung “napangok sungkai?”, which I, with my very limited understanding of my paternal tribal language, registered as “what did you have to break your fast?” when in fact he asked “have you broken your fast?”. Oh, I really need to brush up my Tidung. I don’t want the language to die with my father’s generation. Most of my pure breed cousins don’t even speak the language anymore and have very little mastery on it. So what more can you expect from an Ulun Pagun like me or my siblings? By the way, Ulun Pagun literally means outside people and is a sort of derogatory term for those with mixed-race parentage like me. But it’s nothing to make a fuss about. I remember watching a documentary series on Nat Geo back in 2004 which has an opening boilerplate similar to this:

 

..and in the course of a century, six hundred languages vanished from the face of the Earth.

I certainly don’t want my father’s race’s language to go extinct. At least not while I’m alive. Among the things listed on my wishlist before death is the mastery of the language and the documentation of it and the Tidung race’s history. There are no known written records of the race in Malaysia, at least not to my knowing, and the records of this race now only exist in journals and books written in the early 1900 by Englishmen who visited Borneo during that time. Those copies are now in some archive in London and some museum in New York. That was what Abah told me a few years back when he tried to trace any written records of his race.

But now, let’s get back to the call. Abah’s call was not to merely ask if I had broken fast, but was more on my travel plans for Hari Raya. Yeah, it’s barely nine days into Ramadhan, but we in Malaysia already have these sort of conversation. Having the Raya festivities in the middle of examination season, I have to be back in Arau before the 16th of July for my final paper and my viva. Initial plans for sitting this Raya out here in the boonies were scrapped as soon as he found out that I had a two-weeks gap between papers. He never made a fuss for me not coming back for Raya before (unlike Ummi), as apparent when I was in Penang for my diploma back in 2008-2010 and when I worked the Raya shift when I was still working back in 2011-2013, but lately I found him attached to the idea of getting the family together as frequent as possible. Maybe old age and us growing up gave him the idea that we are growing apart, though that is certainly not the case, for we are still close to each other in terms of relationship.

Living in northern-most state of Perlis and having to travel back to Sabah takes at least a full day travelling, as I have to take the bus or train down to Penang or KL before flying across the South China Sea back to muh motherland. And all this time, I’d rather take a flight from KL because the round trip, including train fare and all, is much cheaper when compared to taking a bus and flight for an Arau-Penang-KK trip, thanks to AirAsia’s monopoly on the Penang-KK flight route. My choice of transport down to KL (or out of it) is none other than the train.

I’ve always had a thing for trains, tracks, and stations from the earliest of recalled memory. Back in England, I was always super excited when we board the train. Living in Leicester, trains weren’t a norm, unless if we were going somewhere, for instance, London. My first time seeing a steam locomotive was exhilarating, I begged my parents to board it. But alas, we weren’t getting on that train. So to remedy the frustration, we took a picture in front of it, me, my brother, Abah, and Ummi. That picture still hangs in the utility lounge of my parents’ house to this day. Looking back at it, I may as well picked up the love for trains from the Thomas and Friends books that Ummi used to read to us when we were little.

So when I was doing my diploma in Penang, I was again excited to have the opportunity to board trains once again. I’m not talking about short-haul commuters and rail transits like those that pepper the capital KL, though I do like those too. I’m talking about long-haul intercity train travels. Butterworth to KL is about 300 kilometers, and was already quite an experience. But when I’m in Arau, the travel length is approximately 500 kilometers, which is far longer and time consuming, at about ten hours per overnight trip. But longer travels on slow intercity trains are a delicacy to me. I like the sound of people boarding at the various stations, the bright faces of young ones getting the upper bunks, the chugging of the coaches along the tracks, the whoosh of the night air when I stand near the open door (which by right is a wrongdoing warranting a penalty), the reflection of the moon when we pass the Bukit Merah lake, the deafening sound when the train passes the tunnel, the chatter of old people and foreigners in the cafeteria car, and the snores of tired people swayed by the motion of the train.

The train that traverse the western side of the peninsular from KL to Hat Yai is called the Senandung Langkawi, trains number 20 and 21 for trips departing from and arriving at KL respectively. Senandunug Langkawi is usually 14 to 18 carriages long, and is dragged by a single diesel engine. Back in 2008, the tracks were single and haven’t been electified, and the trips longer (10 hours for a Butterworth-KL trip, same as an Arau-KL trip nowadays). But the charm of a slow moving train through the countryside is worth the time. Of course there are a lot of things that annoyed me along the journey, like couples laughing and flirting in the middle of the night in the sleeping coaches, or the men who ignorantly smoke at he coach heads, only to have their fumes enter the air-conditioning system and spread the stench to the whole coach, or those who don’t know how to book adjacent seats when purchasing their tickets, only to rely on the kindness of other passengers to swap places with them later. But that is all part and parcel of the travel. Those are the spices of travels. If I were to be offended by each and every small thing, I’d have to kill myself, for I find a lot of things in life not to my liking. But no, that is not the way of the traveler, if you ask me. A traveler embraces all that he experienced, be it for better or worse.

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Pylons lining up across some paddy fields in Kodiang, with the morning mist haven’t fully lifted in the background

Then last year came the introduction of the ETS or Electric Train Service from Gemas in southern-most state of Johor up to Padang Besar near the Malaysia-Thailand border. Before this, the ETS is only available for KL-Ipoh trips. With the ETS came time reductions up to half that of the old intercity service, where by now an ETS Arau-KL trip takes less than five hours. Although far cheaper, the Senandung Langkawi and its southern counterpart, the Ekspres Sinaran Selatan, lost its popularity and ridership. By September, Sinaran Selatan was removed from service, and the Senandung Langkawi took its route with a new name, the Ekspres Peninsular. However, this too doesn’t save the old diesel engine intercity from the lapse of time and the forwards of technology, and has seen decline in ridership. I too am guilty for abandoning this train, as for the past travels to and from KL, I had been riding the ETS due to timing conveniences.

And this is where Abah’s call comes in again, after such a long story detour. Forgive me, for I like to indulge in minute details of a story, and would happily divulge details of my own story for the same reason. I was looking forward to boarding the sleeper train again, for it has been ages since I last went on it. I would like to indulge in the finer details once again. The ETS doesn’t give me the same thrill as the Senandung Langkawi/Ekspres Peninsular did, and I longed for those feelings of watching out the window from the comfort of my bunk. My travel expenses, namely flight and train tickets, are all handled by Abah. At 26 years old, you thought that I’d handle them myself, which I did when I was working. Now, as I humbly wade through life as a full-time student once again, and due to my twisted sense of self discipline, I made it impossible for me to make online payments. This is to discipline myself, haha. So all online payments must be made by Abah, and I pay him back in cash, either from my other account with no internet banking, or from my savings in my trust fund, the account book deliberately left in the care of Ummi for self-imposed monetary control. Abah’s call tonight was about the sleeper train. I don’t see any tickets or trips for the sleeper train, he said through the phone, which I found weird. Nevermind, I’ll cal you back later after confirming it on my end, I said to him. Lately, KTM makes a bunch of changes, shuffling their train schedules very often. Perhaps Abah didn’t recognize the sleeper train trip. A quick google found that I was wrong.

As of 19th May 2016, the Ekspres Peninsular is no more. I was left in a state of abject. Convenience has finally caught up to it and left it obsolete that it had to shut down. This means no more staring out of the coach from the comfort of the bunks, no more waking up in the middle of the night due to smoke stench and snores, no more looking out to the various and changing landscapes, the lakes and paddy fields and houses in a slow and easing tempo. All has been replaced by speed. Although the route is still the same, the feeling is far from similar. The ETS, with its savvy seats and bone-chilling air-conditioning and push-to-open doors doesn’t blend well with the scenery it traverses. It doesn’t have the balance between the urgency to arrive at your destination and the postponement to take in the scene, sound, and scent of the surroundings. It does not give you the chance to zoom up the details of the countryside, some of which are inaccessible by other means of transportation. It is fast, but soulless. But then again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m pushing my sentiments on lifeless objects like trains and tacks and stations. But the lesson learned here stays true. We only appreciate things once they are gone. Like all good things in life, they are certain to pass.

Thank you for your service Senandung Langkawi. You will be missed.

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Setting sun from an open door of Senandung Langkawi, taken right after leaving Arau KTM station

11.55pm

14th June 2016

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Senandung Langkawi

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