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Promised Some KUALAty Company, LUMPURed with this guy...

... he SINGs POREly and won't stop BANGing his KOK... ... ... onuts together...

sunny 33 °C

Good morning from Singapore, one of the original end points when I started planning the trip as I thought it was probably the furthest I could get by land (+ the Channel Tunnel) from the UK.

The last entry finished in Siem Reap, Cambodia and I told you we were ignoring the possibility of a direct coach to Bangkok in favour of doing as much as reasonably possible by train. What I didn't realise when I booked it online was that the very bus we would travel on to the border was itself going through to Bangkok! It was a bit of a wrench to leave one of the nicest buses I have ever been on with air conditioning and a fairly clean toilet, but we had a plan so had to stick to it...! We left the coach at the Cambodian border town of Poipet and crossed into Thailand on foot. The border was totally chaotic! Instead of naturally passing from one point to the next as you might in an airport, you had to take yourself to the Cambodian office to get your exit stamp then find the Thai office to go through health screening, immigration and customs there. Highly appropriately for this trip, pedestrians were directed to walk along the currently out of use rails which will hopefully, at some time in the not too distant future carry through trains from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. There were queues everywhere and nobody really seemed to know what was going on! We got through the whole process in around 2 hours, giving us about 40 minutes to find the train on the other side.

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The Thai border railway station of Ban Klong Luk only opened (or perhaps reopened?) to passengers in July. Until then, a 6km taxi journey to nearby Aranyaprathet would have been required to continue by rail. It couldn't possibly by closer to the border, in fact it was so close to (and completely unsignposted from) the Thai customs office we actually walked past it and had to go back along the track 100 yards to find it. All the brand new buildings on the platform with signs for customs, immigration etc give more hope that the long term plan is for this to become a place where people will briefly leave a through train service for border formalities before continuing on to Bangkok or Phnom Penh. The 8 3rd class carriages of train 276 were already at the platform and were surprisingly busy even before we arrived. The tickets for the 6 hour journey were just 49 Baht (£1:21) each. We chose one of the two carriages with squashy rather than wooden seats (having had our fill of that between Halong and Hanoi!) and as we settled ourselves in, wondered if the section of the carriage marked "Reserved for Monks" ever got used on this route! As it turned out the answer was yes! 3 got on a couple of hours in! The journey was fairly dull but even so, clickety-clacking through the countryside on an old train with fully open windows has to be one the nicest ways to be introduced to a new country. It was great to see that even the tiny little outstations were mostly really tidy with hanging baskets and neatly painted waiting shelters. There is clearly some pride taken in the railway here. Like Hanoi and HCMC, arriving in a city like Bangkok is a shock to all the senses and the last half hour of the journey to Hua Lamphong station was fascinating.

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The following day we were up and out fairly early to do the main touristy sights including Wat Phra, Wat Pho and The Royal Palace

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Next day, I did what the locals do and had a traditional Thai breakfast in a fine and well respected establishment near one of Bangkok's "entertainment" districts!

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... followed by a walking tour around Chinatown...

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Then it was time to say goodbye to Passepartout Emma, who I will (hopefully!) see next in Perth! She was replaced within 24 hours with the slightly less glamorous but equally enthusiastic and amenable to the cause Passepartout Jack!

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Ever heard of that famous book which inspired the 1957 film: "Bridge Over The River Meklong"? No, me neither. The reason for this is that author Pierre Boulle made a bit of a boulles-up when naming his novel about the building of the Burma to Siam railway by PoWs under the Japanese. The railway, often referred to as the "Death Railway" on account of the number that perished building it, did run alongside the Khwae, but the bridge after which the book is named does not carry the tracks over it. Therefore, after the release of the 1957 film, Thai tourist bosses were forced to do some slight rejigging of the region's mapping so the hordes of visitors that began to arrive had something to look at. Anyway, on a weekend a special tourist train operates, stopping at various places on the way. We used this on the way there, but took a regular loco hauled service back to Bangkok to get us back a bit earlier.

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That evening we had a few drinks in one of the less religiousy but equally (if not more so) touristy areas of Bangkok which was certainly an eye opening experience... and we'll leave that there. Time to move on from Bangkok on Thai Railways train 45 which left Bangkok Hua Lamphong at 15:10. It can just about call itself an international service as it took us all the way to Padang Besar station, a hundred yards South of the Thailand Malaysia border. I really liked the layout of our 2nd class air conditioned sleeper carriage. Instead of having beds at a right angle to the direction of travel with an aisle down one side, the beds were parallel with the direction of travel with an aisle in the middle. Top and bottom on either side. The beds were, by several inches the widest beds I have ever seen on a train anywhere and the curtains provided ample privacy without the slight awkwardness that can be felt when sharing a very small compartment with up to 5 strangers. This was a great compromise. The very Southern-most tip of Thailand is currently marked as "Advise against all but essential travel" by the Foreign Office due to the high risk of terrorist attacks by religious insurgents. Trains have been targeted in the past on the other route towards Malaysia to the East. Thankfully a few years ago they adjusted their advice to exclude the rail route to Padang Besar, so as long as we didn't leave the railway our travel insurance was fine!

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Both Thai and Malaysian immigration procedures were carried out at Padang Besar and then we had a couple of hours to wait for our next train South to Kuala Lumpur. KTM (Malaysian Railways) train 9203 was formed of one of their swanky new Chinese built 100mph ETS trains. The air conditioning worked, the toilet was clean and the seats were fairly comfy. How terribly boring!

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We arrived just a few minutes late and checked in to our Chinatown hotel (which for some reason was mostly empty!). Next day we set off for KL's main sights including the Petronas Twin Towers which are as much a symbol of KL as the Empire State Building is to New York. We paid a fair amount for an organised tour (the only way to get to the top) but the views were well worth it.

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The next day we visited the Batu limestone caves, a 20 minute journey by KTM electric commuter train. They were very impressive, but with neither of us knowing much about Hinduism, the various garishly coloured models and sculptures depicting Rama and Co's exploits were a little lost on us, but the caves were well worth a visit anyway, the exercise did us good and I could have stayed for hours just watching the wild monkeys running around!

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Yesterday morning it was back on board an ETS train heading for Gemas, which is the current extent of KTMs modernisation progress. From there we had to change onto a 30 year old Japanese diesel locomotive with four modern air conditioned carriages. We left Gemas about 40 minutes late but caught some of the time back along the way. We then stood for what must have been an hour or maybe more, without explanation, arriving into Johor Bahru Sentral around 80 minutes late, by far the biggest delay of the trip so far. We had missed our connection, so - to the pub!
It used to be possible to travel all the way to downtown Singapore by train. Sadly when ownership of the line passed from the Malaysia to Singapore, the station along with 13 miles of railway were closed in "an act of gross institutional vandalism" according to Seat61's Mark Smith. I quite agree. This is all a big shame. Now you can't even take a through service to Woodlands train Checkpoint on the South side of the famous causeway, you have to alight at Johor Bahru and wait for a connecting shuttle service which only runs about once an hour. The journey time is just 5 minutes, surely making it the world's shortest international train service. It was this final connection we missed, so after an hour at the pub we returned to the station to pass through Malaysian immigration before boarding KTM train 95 which trundled us across to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, arriving at 22:50. Unfortunately by now we were at real risk of missing check in at our hotel so were forced to take a taxi for the final few miles.

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That's everything up to date I think, although I remember from reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole again a few months ago that he documented the news stories he was reading during the trip. It's not quite the same now as I don't have to wait until I'm in a city that sells an English newspaper. For him it was also especially interesting as the Soviet Union was collapsing around him as he traveled through it. I am also traveling through fairly interesting times however! When I set off in January I was reading about the devastating fires not far from the planned route in Australia and how the World was beginning to take more than just a passing interest in a new virus that had been reported in Southern China. Today I'm reading about how the World is fighting what has now been declared a "Pandemic" by the WHO and back in the UK how Dorris and Natasha are fighting over the last bag of Fussili pasta at a branch of Tesco in Burnley. Donald Trump has also announced today that citizens from Schengen zone counties will not be allowed to travel to the USA for at least a month. I assume not including the UK in this is simply a temporary gesture and when the inevitable happens, wonder if they would make an exception for me, given that I plan to arrive from Canada and won't have been near the UK for over 4 months! Cunard who operate the final international leg of the planned journey, sent me an email yesterday to assure me that everything was fine and that the sailing would definitely run, in the surest sign yet that they are in fact on the verge of cancelling it. In other news, having been a little concerned that I hadn't heard from him, Passepartout John messaged me this morning to tell me he is safely home and happily self-quaranteened on full pay in a nice looking holiday cottage near Harrogate, so that's all good!

From here, I plan to leave Singapore as late as possible on Saturday evening. This is unfortunate as I wanted to spend at least 4 days here but I feel there is a growing chance that Australia may add Singapore to the list of countries on their travel ban list. Leaving Saturday gives me 15 clear days to the latest I could possibly arrive in Western Australia to catch the train to Sydney, so it seems a sensible sacrifice to improve my chances later on. Keeping everything crossed and we'll just have to see what happens. Stay virus free whatever you're doing! If you find any alcohol hand gel please send me some. I'll nick a bog roll from the hotel and send by return.

Posted by around129 11:01 Archived in Singapore

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Comments

It is great hearing from our world correspondent again - another string to your bow; Michael Palin will be worried. In the meantime it looks as though some of us old gits might have to self-quarantine for a few months! Take care.

by RayEliz

I hear the Australians and UK are stockpiling toilet rolls. Meanwhile the Americans are stockpiling bullets! I wonder if they are shooting their bums off.

by RayEliz

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