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It’s been quite a day! I woke up on the sleeper train around 06:00 this morning, just in time to enjoy a wonderful dawn from the comfort of my bed. Food was soon sorted by the arrival of some hawkers who’d joined the train at the last stop so I literally bought breakfast in bed, spicy friend chicken and sticky rice, washed down with fresh coffee from a different hawker, leaving me free to enjoy the world passing by my window at a sedate enough speed to allow me to enjoy it. This Southern part of the railway is a marked contrast to the ongoing modernisation and double-tracking of the Northern sections as it remains undisturbed. You still pass through gorgeous little stations bedecked in bougainvillea and other colourful pot plants. The smart wooden buildings are home to sharply dressed staff. One stands by with green flags as our train passes whilst another collects and swaps single-line tokens with the driver of our train. The big brass station bell each station boasts remains silent because we’re not stopping.

Whilst scoffing my chicken and sipping my coffee a series of colourful snapshots passed by my window. A group of middle-aged women doing calisthenics in a lineside park. Klongs (canals) and rice paddies alive with masses of wading birds such as Lapwings, Egrets and Herons. Some burst into flight when they’re spooked by the train which causes a mass flight. It’s wonderful to watch. This section of line still is ‘old railway’ which is lined with telegraph poles and a multitude of wires which provide a perfect perch for other, smaller birds. Some sections of wire have been colonised by masses of spiders, like some weird alien invasion. Occasionally, the wires act as their own web, trapping an unwary child’s kite. We lost these telegraph poles in the UK many years ago although they were once a common feature. The last section of line I remember them in any number was the line between Norwich and Ely, but these are gone too.

Further away from the line the countryside is divided between palm oil or rubber plantations and rice paddy fields, leavened by Coconut palms and Bananas, just to remind you (where you in any doubt) that you’re in the tropics. The view from the train’s not always picturesque, but it is an insight into Thai life – like the shanties along the lineside on the approach to Hat Yai where plastic and other detritus takes over their back yards. Plastic pollution’s a big issue in Thailand and I’m really not sure how it’s being dealt with.

At Hat Yai our train’s split. The locomotive that brought us from Bangkok is taken off and retires to the depot and the station pilot (an old, leaky ‘Shovelnose) takes over to remove the two Padang Besar bound coaches from the head of the train and shunt them into an adjacent platform where a 3rd class coach is waiting to be attached to the rear. Then the locomotive to take us forward arrives. In this case it was an old Alsthom-built Class 44. Our train took on new passengers too – around a ten railway police who were there to escort the train due to the recent terrorist bombing of the line between Hat Yai and Padang Besar boarded. Three sat opposite me and I got into conversation with one officer who had good English. He translated my words for his colleagues. They were all incredibly friendly and chatty, which was great.

Finally, we arrived at Padang Besar where I went through the border rigmarole I’d completed only a couple of weeks before – only this time in reverse. I’d talked Charlotte and Adi through what to expect, which was painless. I did get quizzed by Malaysian advance immigration but once I explained I was returning to Malaysia with my niece and her husband the latter two got waved through without demur.

Upstairs, the Malaysian ticket office was closed but there are now two ticket machines which accept credit cards (but NOT cash) so I bought our tickets onwards to Butterworth. The train arrived 40 minutes later which gave us enough time to buy a drink at the Warung upstairs. I was surprised to see our train was formed of one of the Chinese built 6-car SCS sets. Last time I’d used the line it was an older 3-car ‘Komuter’ set that had been recommissioned to operate the new local services. By the time we got to Butterworth I understood why they now use the SCS trains – it was packed – and loads were waiting to board it for the return trip.

It was at Butterworth I had my biggest surprise and biggest disappointment. The interchange between train and ferry had always been a pain sine the station was rebuilt as you were up and down several flights of stairs. Now there’s a brand-new and expanded ferry terminal and the adjacent bus station’s in the basement of a massive shopping complex. All good so far, until it came to the ferry…

The old Penang ferries are gone. They stopped in 2021. The joy of sitting on the top deck of a ferry with massive open sides, admiring the view of Penang or watching the mass of commercial shipping are history – as are the chances of getting photographs. Instead we were loaded into a cramped, claustrophobic and awkward catamaran that used to ply the Langkawi route. How are the mighty fallen! You don’t even go to the old terminal anymore which was right next to the bus station. Now you go the Swettenham Pier, further north. But, (allegedly) this is all better because it’s ‘faster’…

As there were three of us we split the fare on a taxi to get to Lebuh Chulia. If nothing else, it saves the wheels on your suitcases melting on the hot tarmac. It may not be as toasty as it was in Kanchanaburi, but 31 degrees is still warm!

I have to admit, I’ve had a fun afternoon introducing Charlotte and Adi to Georgetown and I’m chuffed that they’ve really taken to it. It’s always been one of my ‘happy places’. Having spent a few hours wandering I can say it’s changed but not enough to destroy its character.

I’ll type more tomorrow, but for now I’ll leave you with a picture of what has been lost – which is a crying shame. Here’s one of the old Penang ferries, seen from a sister ship on my last visit here on the 24th February 2017.

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