The Jungle Railway
The Jungle Railway is one of the great train journeys of Southeast Asia, spanning the length of Peninsula Malaysia through its rugged interior. Officially known as the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL), the Jungle Railway travels from Johor Bahru near the Singapore-Malaysia border in the south, to Tumpat near the Thailand border on the east coast.
The east coast title is something of a misnomer, as technically it doesn’t reach the coast until its last stop at Tumpat. It travels through the east coast states, thus the name. As for its jungle nickname, it requires some planning to see the actual jungle. Some trains travel overnight, which means you miss seeing the jungle.
There is also the matter of the great forests of Malaysia being cleared for palm oil plantations. A good section of jungle remains in the middle of the peninsula, but it’s getting eaten away at either end by the steady encroachment of plantations.
I’ve been wanting to take this trip for years, and I had to put it off one year while the track was being rebuilt after flooding. After studying the train times and taking the journey myself, I’ve worked out what are the best train times for the most scenic sections.
About the jungle railway
While the overnight service begins in Johor Bahru, the East Coast line begins at Gemas Station at the junction for the West Coast line. The first section of the Jungle Railway opened in 1910, and the 526 km route was completed in 1931.
For much of the way the railway follows the rivers through the mountains. Like the water of the rivers, the builders of the railways followed the path of least resistance rather than making straight lines with viaducts and tunnels.
At some points the train deviates far from its north south axis while it follows a flatter path through the valleys.
There are only a few tunnels on the trip, and there are no grand crossings like the Goteik Viaduct in Myanmar. There are lots of bridges crossing big muddy rivers that give a good view of the jungle.
As with many railways in Southeast Asia, the ECRL runs on a single track for most of the way. This means that trains from both directions share the same line, and they are timed to pass each other at certain train stations. Train services are already at irregular hours, and if one train is late then the other can’t continue until the other has passed. This is not the transport to use if you need to be somewhere in a hurry.
There are two types of trains, and it’s possible to mix and match depending on your available time. There is a daily intercity sleeper train that travels in each direction, and three daily local trains which travel about three quarters of the length of the line.
If you want to travel on the jungle railway to see the jungle, the following trains offer the best itineraries.
North to South Itineraries
Starting from the north the trip is best taken with the local services. The sleeper train is not useful if you want to see the jungle as it will be night time during the best section. It’s a useful train if you happen to be in Kota Bharu and you want to get to Singapore the next day. You just won’t see the jungle.
Check for North-South Jungle Railway Tickets.
I did the trip from north to south over two days. You could do it in one day, but I wanted to see all of the line in daylight hours. The first train of the day departs at 4.10, and sunrise is around 7am. If you are pushed for time you could take this one, and the best parts of the trip will begin around sunrise.
If you’re coming from the Perhentian Islands it might be better to start at Tanah Merah.
I took the second train which starts at a more respectable hour of the day and allows sightseeing. Unfortunately the service stops at Dabong and the next train isn’t until the evening. It would have been handy if this train went straight through as Dabong is a village with no hotels. There is a homestay there, so book that in advance if you plan to make this trip.
From Dabong I got the morning train to Kuala Lipis. This is the best section of the trip in terms of seeing the jungle. This train arrives in Kuala Lipis at 12.40pm, and the only train south is not until 1am. I stayed in Kuala Lipis and then went by bus to Taman Negara. Unless you are planning to go to Johor Bahru or Singapore next I wouldn’t bother getting the train from here.
South to North Itineraries
For south to north travel the overnight sleeper works as a sightseeing train. You will sleep through the most boring bits, and by sunrise the landscape gets more interesting after Kuala Lipis.
This can be done in one trip, departing JB at at 20:15 and arriving at Wakaf Bharu (for Kota Bharu) at 14:10.
Check for Johor Bahru-Tumpat Jungle Railway Tickets.
If you want to break the trip up and make it a true jungle adventure, an alternative would be to get off at Jerantut at 6:18. From here you can get a bus to Kuala Tahan for Taman Negara. The bus leaves at 7am, getting to Taman Negara at 8am, and the park opens at 9am. Alternatively you can get a taxi from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan if you can’t be bothered waiting around for the bus.
There’s only one train a day from Jerantut so you’ll need to go back to Jerantut and stay the night if you want to continue the rail journey.
Another option is to stay in Kuala Tahan, and then get back to Jerantut and get a bus to Kuala Lipis. That means breaking up your train journey, but Kuala Lipis is worth a visit, and you can then restart your train journey at a reasonable hour. The best sections of the Jungle Railway are north of Kuala Lipis, so you could even just start your train trip from here after visiting Taman Negara and skip the section from Gemas/Johor Bahru. This is more useful if you are coming from Kuala Lumpur and going to Taman Negara first.
These timetables were correct at the time of my travel. Check the official site for the Intercity East Coast Timetable [PDF]
Trip Review – what to expect onboard and the best sections
I started my trip at Kota Bharu, which doesn’t have its own railway station. The nearest station is at nearby Wakaf Bharu, so I got a grab taxi from KB to WB for 9 MYR. It takes about 20 minutes to get there.
For the local train you just buy your ticket on the day of travel. My ticket from Wakaf Bharu to Dabong was 5 MYR ($1.20) for a 4 hour trip.
With the train originating at Tumpat not far from Wakaf Bharu, the train is most likely going to be on time.
I had read on some older blog posts about how the train carriages on the local trains had open windows and wooden seats. I was mentally prepared for this, so I was surprised to see the old Intercity city trains that have air conditioning. These might be the old trains that were replaced by the electric fast train on the west coast.
Some of the carriages were in bad condition with cracked windows and broken seats.
The train was never full, so make sure to pick a seat that isn’t broken with a clean window.
The carriages have squat and seated toilet options.
Of course they all have bum guns, though it’s advisable to bring your own toilet paper.
There is no snack service onboard, so be sure to bring your own supplies.
Heading south from Wakaf Bharu the landscape is varied, passing through kampungs (villages) and a variety of forest and agricultural lands.
The train arrived at Kuala Krai and we were held there for about half an hour until the opposing train went through.
It gets more hilly and jungle-like after Manek Urai, and from Kuala Gris it feels like it starts earning its name as the Jungle Railway.
After a big bend in the river it arrives at Dabong. It was an interesting trip to travel most of the length of this local railway. It stops at every station on the way, and this subsidised service is used by school kids as well as transporting goods.
This was the last stop on this service, and the next train isn’t until the evening.
I stayed in Dabong so I could see all of the local railway services in the day time. There is not much to do here apart from a national park with a waterfall nearby. I noticed on the map that there is a bridge outside of the town where the train goes underneath. When the next train was going through I went to the bridge to get this picture.
I began my second day in Dabong, departing on the 7:37 to Gua Musang. The tickets for the section Dabong – Gua Musang – Kuala Lipis cost a total of 7 MYR ($1.68 USD).
The best jungle section is between Kuala Gris and Gua Musang so it was a good start to the trip being in the midst of the jungle in Dabong.
Fortunately the mist burnt off early on, so I got a good view.
Most of my travels in Malaysia has been along the busy west coast, so it was good to see this remote and rural side of Malaysia.
It’s mostly hamlets between this section, with stations being little more than a wooden platform.
There are some great limestone formations when approaching Gua Musang.
The local service stops here to allow an express train to pass. The same train is used to continue to Kuala Lipis but it is moved out of the way until the other train has been. There is a cafe at the station in case you didn’t have breakfast.
Once the express train has gone the local train is brought back to the platform.
After Gua Musang there is more open terrain.
And with the open terrain more palm oil plantations appear, including lots of newly-cleared land.
I was using Google Maps to track the journey, and I noticed that the railway runs alongside the western edge of Taman Negara. I imagined that this section would be densely forested, but it appears that this section is not in the national park protected zone.
Palm oil plantations have spread fast across Peninsula and Borneo Malaysia, making Malaysia the second biggest palm oil producer (after Indonesia). It’s practically the national flora now, and it even features on the 50 ringgit banknote.
Throughout the trip I noticed railway maintenance crews at regular intervals, and the track seemed to be in good condition.
New drainage paths were being installed as well, so hopefully the railway isn’t shut down again from another flood.
Major stations were being upgraded during my trip as well. They were just putting the finishing touches on Manek Urai when we went through.
Kuala Lipis marks the end of the local rail service when coming from the north. There is only one service further south on the overnight train to JB Sentral. Kuala Lipis is also getting a new station, replacing the historic old station.
I stayed in Kuala Lipis as it’s a town worth visiting in its own right. It was the capital city of the state of Pahang until 1953, and it has a great collection of heritage buildings from its era as a capital.
Future developments of the east coast railways
While the Jungle railway has been repaired and kept in good maintenance, there wouldn’t be enough demand to double track the railway.
There is a plan for an actual east coast line, known as the East Coast Rail Link (also ECRL). This would run from Port Klang on the west coast to Kuantan the east coast, and then north along the east coast to Kota Bharu.
The new ECRL would junction with the old ECRL at Mentakab, so it could be possible in the future to get to the Jungle Railway from there. This is covered on my map of current and proposed railways of Southeast Asia.
With this new line in planning it would be an opportune time to rebrand the current ECRL. The Jungle Line or Jungle Railway is a good link to its heritage, but it remains to be seen how much of the jungle will survive in the future. In that case it could be renamed the Central Line, Peninsula Line, or more appropriately the Palm Oil Line 🙁
For now though the is still enough jungle to make this a worthy trip and see the interior of peninsula Malaysia.
Book Jungle Railway Tickets
If you are travelling on the local services then you don’t need to book – buy your ticket at the station.
For tickets on the sleeper train it’s advisable to book in advance, especially for a bed.
More Malaysia rail travel links
How to get from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur by train and more Malaysia train travel guides.
This is part of the Nomadic Notes train travel series.
Sounds like fun.
Would love to experience this adventurous trip.
Wow! now this looks like super fun. Loved reading it throughout.
TQVM for this write up. Hope i can make the trip before CNY.
Looking foreward in yr new wtitting
Graham Orbell says
Thanks for your account. We are at Marang (July 24 ) heading to Kota Bharu in a few days intending to catch the Jungle Train again. We traveled on it about 20 years ago when the carriages had opening windows. Can you please tell me: If we catch the 4:10am train at Wakaf Bharu, will that same train eventually take us to Jerantut on the same day.
James Clark says
Unfortunately there is only one southbound train at Jerantut at 2.29am!
C Phillips says
Thank you for the excellent description of the jungle train. We are a family travelling by train and bus through Malaysia, and will be taking this route next week. Looking forward to it. Shame the train times are a bit wonky for an easy daytime/ jungle experience!
James Clark says
Yes it would be great if they added a tourist-friendly line and started promoting it. Good luck with the trip!
Thank you for this jungle account.
We are still in planning mode..
But your write up is very very useful.. will use it as a guide.
I hope some KTM officials read all the blogs and look at all the pictures.. especially the broken seats, cracked windows n not-so-clean toilets.
Thanks for the blog post. I am sitting in that train right now and things seem to have changed since you rode the train. The timetable is different from the one you posted. We had to buy the tickets online because at 5 a.m. there was no ticket counter open at Kuala Lipis. There is a restaurant wagon with a wide choice of food. The seats are new and comfortable. When have you been on the train?
James Clark says
It sounds like you are on the once-a-day Intercity train which is different to the local train I took. The timetable is still the same as the KTM website:
What train are you on?
You are right. We were on the fast train. Good to know that they are different. Will tell my readers about it in my blog post 🙂
James Clark says
Great! I saw it go by at a station and I wondered what it would be like inside.
Hi James !
Great article, very helpful if you try to avoid the bus and see nice sceneries
We’d like to try going from Taman Negara to Perhenthian Island by train.
I think I understood it’s doable if you take the bus to Kuala Lipis from Taman Negara, then the train to Wakaf Baharu or Tumpat then join Kuala Besut Jetty by bus or taxi to take the boat to the islands. Do you think it’s doable ? Thank you kindly for your opinion 🙂
James Clark says
yes that is how you would do it, it would just be a matter of how fast you want to do it. I personally wouldn’t do it in 1 day. You would need to get the 7.55 from Kuala Lipis, so either stay in Kuala Lipis overnight or get there early. The last boat departs at 4pm but it is not scheduled. Another option is to get off at Tanah Merah and get a taxi from there to the Kuala Besut Jetty.
Good luck with it!
Wow, thank you for such details sharing! Im a Malaysian and yet I just knew Malaysia has an East Coast Jungle Railway! We are planning to take the school kids from school and circling around Malaysia by train! Thanks again!
Looking forward to my trip to malaysia next year!;)
Thank you so much for this article full of important details!
I’m planning a trip to Malaysia for August!
I’d like to take the jungle train from Taman Negara to the Perhentian islands!
I read that I should take the train at Jerantut and get off to Wakaf Bahru (7km from Kota Bahru)!
Is it correct?
Do you think it’s worth it?!
Also I can’t understand if I have to book tickets from Italy or I can do it directly on the spot once I arrive! Thanks in advance for Your help!
James Clark says
yes that is correct about going from Jerantut to Wakaf Bahru (for Perhentian Islands). That train you can book online as it is the express train, and you will see the best bits during the day time. The only problem with this plan is that if you are staying in Taman Negara you will need to get an early morning taxi to Jerantut to catch the 6.18am train. It takes about 1 hour and costs about 80 MYR. As you would be leaving at 5am you would have to arrange a taxi the night before.
Hope that helps!
Thank you so much.
You’re very kind and helpful!
But from what I understood this train isn’t the jungle train and, in this way, can I still see the jungle as you talk in your article?
I’d like to live an experience like yours.
How can I do?
James Clark says
The section with intact jungle is in between Jerantut to WB so you will see it on this train. To do the local train (the slow train I took) then it wouldn’t be possible on the south-north route.
Hello, thank you v. Much for all those interesting information, i’ll be in malaysia soon and i really want to try this experience of the train jungle.
I just want to ask you if there any possibility to catch the train jungle from cameron highlands ? I’m going north to the perhentian island.
Thank you again
James Clark says
Hello, you could get a bus or minivan from Tanah Rata (cameron Highlands) to Jerantut, and you would have to spend a night in Jerantut. It looks like they run once a day, but I’m not sure how reliable that is.
James Colin Smith says
Can you tell me the History of Malaysian railways and about the jungle clearance and installation of a metallic rinway. Workers from Singapore. Planes with panels for water catchment. Gurkhas around atr trhat time to look for Communist infiltrators.
BERNARD TILSTON says
My wife and i ( age 66/72 fit)are trying to book the jungle train from Kempas Baru to Tanah Merah train ER26 ?
on the 1 October 2022 having big problems trying to book the jungle train sleeper,fron pictures it two seats facing each other which open to a bed down and one up.I carn’t seam to find where and simple way to book.We have planed a whole moth in Malaysia and this is our only problem.We are going from South to north accross to Lankawi down to Penang etc.We really would be grateful for any help,we both enjoyed reading about all your travels.
Look forward to hearing from you James
James Clark says
Hi Bernard, I see the tickets available at https://online.ktmb.com.my/, let me know how you go!
Bernard Tilston says
Booked on the Jungle Train 1 Oct 22 upper lower berths,we are both looking forward to not only the Jungle Train But the whole of Malaysia,would you like me to email you now and then about our trip.We start in the Uk,then Philippines,Singapore and so on.Thank you sow much,I don’t think we would have manage regarding book the train.We really appreciate your help.
Best regards. Bernard
Bernard Tilston says
Jungle train Kempis Buru to Tamah Merah manage to book sleeper for us 1. Oct it filled up very quick(Sleeper)
Thank you so much would not have done it without your help,will keep you posted about trip.Bernard
Graham Orbell says
Hi Bernard when you are not riding the Jungle Train another good way around Malaysia is by using BusOnlineTicket.com. There are excellent double deck busses with in our experience good drivers. Depart from various large terminals. From Singapore we used Luxury Coach Line to Melaka. Then BusOnline in various stages across to the east coast and eventually to Kota Bahru booking accommodation booking.com and bus travel only a couple of days in advance to remain flexible. We could always choose the top deck front seats (online) with great views.
From Kota Bahru we taxied to Manea Water Chalets near Tumpat. From there we could walk 10 minutes to the border with Thailand and easily cross the river border in dedicated boats. Had breakfast and lunch in Thailand and then walked back to the Water Chalets. One of the many highlights. Back to KB and then bus to Ipoh following the border mainly. Running out of time after 3 weeks took west coast line fast train 160 kph to KL in 2,1/2 hrs. Then a few days later Jetstar $64 to Singapore. Having New Zealand passports going into Thailand was no problem. I don’t know visa requirements for other passports. The border was very peaceful and friendly with a mix of Buddhist and Muslim.
I’ve had around 6 visits to Malaysia traveling all around. Or only in KL on a couple of occasions. Travel is very easy and good. Great food lovely people. Did the Jungle Train about 20 years ago when it was easiest from North to South. Opening windows, bags of rice, and cages of chickens in the old train back then.
Have a great trip.
Txs for the bus info we will use,our trip is Kampas Baru to Tanah Merah (Jungle train)one night hotel,next day bus to Kala Perlis hotel ferry next day to Lankawi break for 6 days,ferry to Penang few days,ferry to Butterworth,bus to Gerik,Taxi to Belum Forest few days,back to Gerik,bus to Cameroon Highlands few days,bus to KL.few days MotoGP,bus to Taman Negara(booked)as no river boat☹️Few days back to KL,tour Malacca,head back to Philippines.all hotels booked.Realy looking forward to hols,I’m uk Wife Irish.We are grateful for you tops looking forward to commenting on trip etc.Regards Bernard
Graham Orbell says
Hi again Bernard. I see you’ve got it all planned. I’ve been most of those places in Malaysia but not all of them recently.
Our last trip I mentioned previously was July 2019. Several years earlier than that we did the river trip to Taman Negara in a long boat with an outboard, stayed in a jungle hide there one night, and cabins another couple of nights, watched all night and saw a wild cat, also caught sight of an indigenous family living in the jungle on another occasion. It was very muddy in places but of course that will depend on your weather. Cameroon Highlands did a 4 wheel drive trip through a tea plantation. We went from Penang to Langkawi by ferry. It’s probably changed by now but you couldn’t see out of the ferry windows. We were with another couple and the 4 of us stood out on the stern deck to watch the scenery. Langkawi is really a resort Island. We rented a car to drive around but stayed in one resort. Watch out for the monkeys there. Whatever you do don’t feed them. At the resort villa where we stayed there were monkeys watching us from the trees through the windows. We were warned not to leave windows open when away. Otherwise they come in and create havoc.
Sounds like you’ll have a great time. I haven’t been to the Philippines or Cambodia but have explored Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Shanghai in China, Mongolia, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau as far as SE Asia is concerned. But James is far more knowledgeable than I am. Travelling, we tend to have a basic idea of where we want to go and make exact plans and bookings only a day or so in advance. So we only have one accommodation booked at a time paid in advance. On our last Malaysia trip we stayed at Che Beach House Terengganu. Half an hour after we arrived a Dutch family arrived. They had made and paid all their bookings back in the Netherlands with an agent. The Beach House never received their booking so the family had to find somewhere else because it is a small accommodation. Perhaps the agent had accidentally booked another place somewhere else with a similar name. Needless to say it pays to double / triple check everything.
If you’re interested you might find some of my 2019 Malaysia photos on Instagram under graham.orbell if you hunt through them. (We are in our early 80s, live in Auckland NZ) Regards Graham
Graham Orbell says
Hi again Bernard. Looks like you’ve got it all sorted. You’re much more organised than me. I just make things up as we go along. We’ve been to most of your Malaysia destinations on various trips. They all look good. We were lucky to do the river trip to Taman Negara in a long boat with an outboard. I think I fell asleep. ( the last trip I mentioned in my previous reply was July 2019 before we were locked down ) When you are in Melaka the river cruise is worth doing, but you’re probably already booked on that. My Instagram account has got a few of my Malaysia photos if you can be bothered sorting through graham.orbell
You’ll have fun and if you are like us you will enjoy the food. In our experience everyone is very friendly. Most speak English. They will probably ask you how old you are and how many children you have. ( we are early 80s ) Looking forward to your reports. Graham
Thanks for all the info. We used this to plan our own trip on the jungle yrain, and we enjoyed it a lot.
Here’s our update with 2023 practical info
Jungle railway is one of my wish list. The toilet look very dirty, and I believe they had change it as watch some Ytber share the last year video, look nicer and cleaner already.