Orient Express: Asian Rail Trips

Embrace the slow life and jump on one of these great Asian rail journeys.

Embrace the slow life and jump on one of these great Asian rail journeys.

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Asia’s wisest visitors and natives know: rail trips can be the most inviting and enjoyable way to see the region. Sure, going by plane is faster but it’s also much more expensive, leaves a massive carbon footprint, and, most importantly for worldly traveling, it bypasses all of the up close and wonderful things you can see moving at ground level.

Rail journeys often cost about the same or less than mini-bus or luxury bus tripping, and can offer safety, comfort, better views of the countryside and a truer sense of the people and towns on the way. Mingling with others is easier, as well. On the downside, rail service in some parts of Asia can be rather inconsistent with late trains or disrupted service so take a relaxed approach and don’t plan connections too tightly.

Wise Thais go by Rail

The fastest way to go from the popular holiday island Koh Samui in the south of Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north is by plane but taking the trip by rail will give you plenty of opportunity to interact with locals or fellow travellers and learn something new.

For those on the tight schedule, taking an overnight train can save you time. Trains usually leave late in the afternoon so you will still get to see the landscape rolling by, but come nightfall there isn’t much to see and you can catch up on some sleep. The sleeper cars on trains in Thailand are comfortable and allow for relaxed sleeping – the trip is actually made even more comfortable by the gentle rocking of the train. Berths are relatively narrow so if you’re above 6’2” in height you might think the bed a tad short. It’s all part of the charm, however.

During the hot and dry summer season from March to July, it is worth spending a bit extra to get a seat in an air-conditioned, 1st Class express sleeper car. Tickets can be purchased ahead to align ferry times between the mainland and Koh Samui with rail trips. After getting to Surat Thani’s Donsak ferry stop from Koh Samui (a 90-minute trip), shuttle buses take passengers to the Surat Thani railway station in Phun Phin, about an hour’s drive. Bus fares are included in package deals.

The Bangkok to Chiang Mai trip is delightful and one of the most beautiful parts of the journey is the approach to Chiang Mai’s mountain range as the sun rises. This most-preferred route in Thailand is a good example of why many travellers prefer the meter-gauge mode to busses or flying. If you elect to take a cloistered 1st Class car, you’ll have to book very early, at least a month ahead, as these tickets go fast with only one car per train. If you’d rather mingle with others, you will prefer to forsake the ex-Japanese single-berth sleeper car or regular 1st Class double-berth sleeper for the regular air-conditioned 2nd Class sleeper.

Lock luggage with a metallic bike cord if you worry, but “no worries” is usually the way of train travel. For only US$6 you can get dinner, and breakfast costs US$3-4; you can chow down in your cabin or do what the chatty cats do and mingle with fellow train folk in the restaurant car.

A Singapore Trip that Sings

The trip from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur or Penang in Malaysia can be extended all the way to Bangkok and indeed to Moscow and London for those who just can’t get enough of train journeys. The initial part of the journey out of Singapore is not as engaging as several other legs of the trip, such as the section that runs through the Cameron Highlands.  It is intensely gorgeous as is the jungle lined trip to Khota Bharu. Note that flooding at the end of last year wiped out rail access on large sections of the jungle line, so check before planning this trip, or simply take the main line.

Along the way, you will get a chance to explore some truly stunning and historic railway stations. The old Tanjong Pagar rail station – now a venue for public and private functions – is one of Singapore’s most stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. The vaulted ceiling and spanning arches give a feeling of majesty that complement the beautiful murals of farming and country life that adorn the station.

During dinner and breakfast, a restaurant car joins the train and travellers can buy meals for around US$5-6. The sweet and sour chicken is delicious but if you’re looking for a lighter, more healthy meal, go ahead and order the seafood dinner. All meals come as a set with accompanying side dishes, and regular and alcoholic drinks are available for purchase.

One of the main stops on this trip is Kuala Lumpur, but you might like to rail on to Penang. Both cities are havens for foods, shopping bazaars and modern malls, as well as night entertainment and day activities. In Penang, be sure to visit the old part of Georgetown, it is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers plenty in terms of historic and cultural attractions and cute hangouts.

Techno-training in Taiwan

For a fun trip on a bullet train, jump on the 186mph “shuttle” train that connects Taipei with Kaohsiung and Zuoying. Sleek, modern and very timely, this Japanese high-speed train costs only TWD1,490, or approximately US$47, for a reserved economy seat or TWD1,950, or US$62, for a seat in business class. If you book early, you can get an “early bird” discount of between 15-35 percent.

What makes this train trip interesting is that it journeys through lovely countryside and yet offers a quick glimpse every now and then of a truly metropolitan isle. The rail line passes five airports and most of the main ports of Taiwan and offers nice views of the mountains to the east, as well as lines of ships in the Taiwan Strait, queuing to dock.

Tips for the Journey:

  • Keep a watchful eye on your luggage and possessions. Most train travel is safe and the people cordial, but use common sense.
  • Bring along drinks and foods. While many trains serve meals and drinks in a dining car, and some have dedicated servers who offer food and drinks while strolling through the cars, the quality and quantity vary.
  • Plan for an atypical (to Western standards) toilet experience. Since your waste is usually dropped directly onto the track, please know that what you are throwing down the toilet affects the environment.
  • Allow plenty of time to arrive and transfer between connections. Trains are frequently late so avoid making specific plans for your arrival. The longer the journey, the more this rule applies.
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