SINGAPORE — We're rolling north toward Bangkok, and the moon has been stealing through the rice paddies for hours.
"Hey you, American," whispers my Thai seatmate, Song Mai.
Her eyes don't rivet like a Westerner's. They open and take me in as if I were a faintly remembered landscape. She passes a pint of Mae Khong whiskey.
"Don't these trains always make you feel like a spy?"
That's it! After logging 1,000 miles over almost every bit of track--from Singapore's wharves to the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand's Golden Triangle--I have met a fellow traveler who can find words for the feeling you get on Southeast Asia's trains.
"See what I mean?" She points out the window with the whiskey bottle.
Network of Canals
The train has begun to brake. We shuffle along a network of canals called klongs . A warren of stilt houses covers the bank. Charcoal braziers burn in the doorways. Figures paddle narrow boats through the shadows.
An old man, looking like a starved Buddha, stands up to his knees and naked in the moonshine on the klong , soaping his thighs in slow strokes. A girl leaps from porch to porch above the water, pursued by a band of boys waving a snake. For a second we can hear them laughing.
That about sums things up. A typical interlude along what some call "the railway of many souls."
The name comes from the popular notion that the Malay and Thai rail systems might have cost more lives to build than Cheops' Pyramid.
Since the British stretched the first tracks north of Singapore in 1903, about 150,000 Malay, Chinese and Tamil coolies have lost their lives pushing the railway through equatorial jungle and swamp.
Sixteen thousand British, Dutch and Australian POWs died extending the "death railway" to Burma during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Cemeteries at the bridge over the River Kwai serve as unforgettable reminders.
Glimpses of Asia
The backbone of this rail system is the Singapore-to-Bangkok line. At $100 for a second-class sleeper, the International Express is an inexpensive way to look beyond the "instant Asia" of package-tour fame.
One can make the 642-mile trip in three days and two nights, but anyone wanting more than glimpses into Asia will break the trip into shorter legs.
Singapore is a good place to begin. Aboard the northbound train you enter deeper into the grass-roots culture of the Malay Peninsula. On the morning express to Kuala Lampur you might have a seatmate like Haji, who came aboard in Singapore.
With an offer of "magical" beans, Haji made it clear to me that this would not be a trip where I could settle back in the air-conditioned coach and watch a movie or video.
While the train slurred over streams and through the rolling hills of rubber and palm oil plantations, my new acquaintance announced: "I, Haji the Malay, son of the soil, have retired. Please congratulate me!"
This was his way of introduction and he spoke to our entire end of the railway car. Looking a bit like Red Foxx, Haji spoke in clipped bursts and made people laugh with ironic twitches of his eyebrows.
"Twenty-five years I spent my life selling. You name it, I have sold it. But enough; I quit. Like an honest Muslim I have made a good life for three wives and 14 children. Now . . . they will take care of me !"
Almost Like Singapore
Haji said he was bound for the kampong (village) of his birth to spend the rest of his life talking with old friends and to "watch the monkeys play in the trees." A fetching idea.
Except for the signs in Bahasa Malaysia, the domes of mosques and women swaddled like nuns in the Muslim buju kurongs , Kuala Lampur--the capital of predominantly Islamic Malaysia--looked like a smaller version of Singapore, so I continued north in search of Haji's more earthy Malaysia.
During the space of three days Penang Island bared Malaysia's ethnic diversity. With a population of 50% Malay, 35% Chinese and 10% Indian, this 25-year-old nation has suffered its share of racial struggles, but at Penang you feel none of the tension you might expect.
Georgetown, Penang's urban center, is just a ferry ride across the harbor from the train station in Butterworth. Much of this city of 400,000 looks as it did as a British colony 50 or 60 years ago.
Dense neighborhoods of Indians and Chinese fill the heart of the city. Malay fishing kampongs dot the coast. Night markets, cafes, food stalls and bicycle rickshaws rule.
On a single night I found myself absorbed by Chinese paper tigers and the sway of a Hindu procession--drums, flutes, goddesses and all.
Hotel rooms cost between $4 and $140, but almost all look out on this Asian mardi gras. Music in five languages pulses from the speakers of street vendors selling pirated cassettes.
Crowds linger over coffee, fresh fruit juices, Dutch beer and satay chicken on skewers. Making friends is as easy as the common practice of sharing a table along the street.