Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rail-ly memorable North Borneo train ride to Beaufort

OUR original intention was to board the famous North Borneo Railway and follow the heritage trail from Tanjung Aru to Papar, 38km from Kota Kinabalu.

However, fate had a weird sense of humour because on arrival in the capital of Sabah, fondly called KK (previously known as Jesselton), a call came from the Heritage Train organisers to tell us that the Heritage Train engine had broken down and it’s in the workshop.

With a heavy heart, we had to resort to Plan B. Two days later, we unanimously voted to board the Sabah State Railway and make our way to Papar.

On hindsight, this actually lessens the strain on our purse-strings by more than RM268 per person because the fare to Papar by the regular train is only RM1.85 per person one way.

The fare on the North Borneo Railway, with all its bells and whistles, was RM270 to Papar and back!


There are 15 stops from Sekretariat station to Tenom. Since we boarded at Tanjung Aru, there are only three stops to Papar.

It’s nice to re-acquaint ourselves with the kind of coach which we have not seen for a long time. The Sabah railway looks slightly similar to the KTM but there are fewer coaches because there are simply fewer passengers.
The interior is spacious and the colour of the seats is similar to the ones we have back home.

A friend from Sabah tells me that the State railway is the chief means of transport for those living in “reduced circumstances”. City people tend to prefer buses, mini-buses and taxis when they travel from town to town.
Locals can easily tell we’re not one of them since we sound very much like people from across the South China Sea, meaning the peninsula.

I draw some curious looks because the locals aren’t quite so sure about my identity since I am wearing a Javanese cap. I eavesdrop on a nearby conversation and hear a passenger remarks “macam orang Jawa”.

The first thing we notice before the train leaves the station is that the ceiling fans in our coach aren’t working. But when the train finally moves, the fans start spinning. Well, at least half of them do.

 The rail route is along the west coast of Sabah and it faces the South China Sea. Without any expectations, we are happy that marshlands soon loom into sight and along several sections of the route, swamps appear right next to the track.

Kampung houses are common but not many. The land is very flat and the atmosphere bespeaks of pastoral surroundings that are dissimilar from those in the peninsula.

After 30 minutes or so, we reach Papar, a town with a population of about 128,000 (2010 statistics). The residents comprise Kadazandusun, Bruneian Malay, Bajau and Hakka Chinese.

I find out later that the name Papar means “flat” or “open land”. The main agricultural crop is rice. Naturally, padi fields are found in abundance but in recent years, orchards have also sprung up.


The passengers who board the train at Putatan, Kinarut and Kawang (between Tanjung Aru and Papar) are mostly villagers and teenagers.

One of them, a young lad, has brought along a “friend” who attracts some curious looks when it begins squawking. It’s actually his chicken which is wrapped in a plastic bag with its head protruding out.

While some of us cast furtive glances at him, the boy who we nickname “Chicken George”, retreats to a secluded corner between two rows of seats with his feathered friend resting on the floor.

Every time the chicken squawks a little, he taps it gently with his foot and it stops. I am hoping that it is his pet and not headed for the pot.

This scene would have been common in pre-war Malaya on local trains. I reckon that if someone had brought along his pet goat, I would have gladly offered my seat to the horned guest. After all, it is the only decent thing to do since I am only a guest in the Land Below The Wind.


Since Papar is insufficient to satisfy our sense of outdoor adventure, we proceed to Beaufort, 52km from Papar and 90km from Kota Kinabalu.

What we will do in Beaufort is as much a mystery to us as it is to the train conductor when we pay for the extended rail journey to a town in the interior named after L.P. Beaufort, a former British Governor.

Then, 45 minutes later, we glide to a gentle halt at a very quiet provincial town which has a population of 76,000. The townspeople, mainly Chinese Hakkas, are either having their siesta or closing their businesses early.