The best train journeys in Asia

26/10/2020General Articles

As well as convenience, train-travel provides a window (literally!) on to the dramatic and ever-changing landscapes of a country. The varied vistas of Asia provide an excellent backdrop for some truly memorable train journeys. Ranging from the truly opulent to the humble, here are what we consider to be the nine best train journeys in Asia.

Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express, Malaysia and Thailand

The Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express is a natural candidate for our list. The Eastern and Oriental Express has linked Bangkok with Singapore since its inaugural voyage in September 1993. Life onboard the train is all about fine dining, good company, and stunning views. The train’s interior is the height of luxury with polished wood-panelled corridors, silken furnishings and sparkling crystal and silverware. The train passes through some stunning scenery and stops in three of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, including a stop at the bridge over the River Kwai and Death Railway Museum. The specially designed observation car at the rear of the train provides the perfect place to sit back and admire the unfolding scenery or relax over drinks.

Toy Trains, India

Any train journey in India is a memorable experience and is highly recommended. The country is blessed with several iconic and memorable train journeys, from the luxurious Maharaja’s express and Deccan Odyssey to the humble intercity trains, but a ride on one of the historic toy trains is a must.

India’s toy trains are a vestige from the British Raj when the British administrators would escape the monsoon heat by literally heading for the hills to the hill stations. Our three favoured historic ‘toy trains’ which we highly recommend are the Shimla toy train, Nilgiri mountain railway (pictured below) and the Darjeeling toy train. But if we were forced to pick one train journey to recommend on a trip to India it would have to be the iconic Kalka to Shimla journey. The Shimla toy train meanders through 102 tunnels, across 969 bridges and around 919 curves. The line’s history and stunning views have been recognized by UNESCO, making this line one of the very few heritage railways in the world.

Train to Lhasa, China and Tibet

The high-speed rail system in China has seen huge development over the past decade, and it is now fast and easy to travel between most cities. Those travelling by train in this vast country will be treated to passing landscapes of modern cities, verdant rice fields and mighty mountains. The standout route in China’s new train network is the line linking Beijing with the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. While the line is controversial, waking up to the sights of the Tibetan Plateau’s shimmering lakes, blocks of permafrost and soaring snow-capped peaks from your window is a once in a lifetime experience. Our very own Robin took a trip on this line back in 2015 and wrote more about his experience in a previous blog. Our Train to Tibet itinerary has been designed for those looking to explore the spectacular and unspoilt scenery of Tibet on this memorable journey.

Kurobe Gorge Train, Japan

Japan has an extensive and modern rail network and its iconic bullet trains are known for their efficiency throughout the world. While a large portion of Japan’s network consists of largely non-descript intercity routes, there are some incredibly scenic routes which traverse the Japanese Alps region. The ‘Hida Wide View’ links Nagoya with Takayama on the edge of the Japanese Alps has been especially designed for passengers to enjoy the stunning scenery, the front and back carriages have open windows which allow for an unobstructed view. If we were forced to plump for a favourite, it would have to be the Kurobe Gorge train. This delightful little scenic train winds its way through a 20 km stretch of forested ravines and rugged mountains of the Japanese Alps. The train operates from mid-April through to November and is best enjoyed as a day trip from Kanazawa. Visiting in the Autumn when the forested ravines are a riot of autumnal colours is our favourite time of year to experience this unforgettable journey.

Hill Country Line, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Hill Country line runs from Colombo up to Badulla and was built for the purpose of transporting tea during Sir Lanka’s colonial days. The line still meanders through tea plantations with some immense views. We consider the most scenic stretch of track to be the section running from Nanu Oya to Ella. This three-hour ride is slow but unforgettable taking in some breath-taking vistas as the train trundles through the small villages and tea plantations of this scenic region. We suggest reserving seats in the 1st class observation car, which is equipped with more comfortable seating and large rear facing windows, as far in advance as possible.

Reunification Express, Vietnam

Vietnam inherited its rail network from the French but much of this was destroyed during the devastating Vietnam War, or American War to the Vietnamese. At the end of the war the Vietnamese government went about rebuilding the line connecting Hanoi with Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the father of Vietnam’s independence movement. The line reopened in 1976 and runs for a total length of 1,726 km with the trains travelling the route referred to as the Reunification Express.

While there are ongoing efforts to modernise the country’s rail network, including the launch of the new Vietage luxury train, the infrastructure remains dated, so we do not recommend doing the 35-hour long Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City journey in one sitting. The relatively short journey linking Hue with Danang, gateway to the charming ancient town of Hoi An, is our favourite and easily the most memorable section of the line. The track hugs the coast as it climbs over the incredibly scenic Hai Van Pass. We covered train travel in Vietnam in more detail in one of our previous blogs.

Gokteik Viaduct, Myanmar

Perhaps one of the most hair-raising train experiences to be had in Asia can be found in Myanmar. The mighty Gokteik Viaduct stands at just under 100 metres high spanning the deep, forested Gokteik Gorge. Upon completion in 1900 it was the largest railway trestle in the world and remains Myanmar’s highest bridge. The bridge links the former summer capital of the colonial administrators, Pyin Oo Lwin with the principal town of Shan State, Lashio and quickly became infamous for its use of transporting goods to and from China for the black market.

The train slows to a crawl to pass the 700m long viaduct to avoid putting any undue stress on the ageing structure.  It is best not to look down if you suffer from vertigo, but the viaduct’s height provides a stunning vantage point to appreciate the surrounding scenery.

Alishan Forest Railway, Taiwan

The Portuguese named Taiwan Isla Formosa, beautiful island, when they first laid eyes upon it. The island certainly is beautiful and is well linked by a modern rail system. Taiwan’s dramatic scenery is a fantastic backdrop for some great railway journeys, especially on the largely undeveloped east coast. But no train is as scenic or characterful as the Forest Railway in Alishan, a narrow-gauge mountain railway dating from 1912 which makes its way through z-shaped switchbacks, tunnels, and over wooden bridges.  While the journey and train are memorable, the real highlight is the sunrise over Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s highest peak, which can be viewed from the line’s upper terminus, Zhushan station, 2,451 metres above sea level.

Bandung to Yogyakarta, Indonesia

The islands of Indonesia are blessed with natural wonders and cultural highlights and none more so than Java. Travel by train on Java is much quicker than hitting the congested roads and the trains connecting the island’s major towns and cities are modern, clean and comfortable. Travel by train in Java is also an incredibly democratic experience and a great way to meet the locals. While any journey by train on Java will provide a window to a range of landscapes, we highly recommend travelling by train between Bandung and Kutoarjo, gateway to the Dieng Plateau, or Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural capital. Our tour Wonders of Sumatra and Java includes the Bandung to Kutoarjo train journey.

We hope our selection of the best train journeys in Asia has provided some inspiration to include one or more of these fantastic train journeys on a future trip. We can tailor most itineraries to include a rail journey, in destinations with a train network, but we have a selection of tours with a focus on memorable train journeys, should you be looking for further inspiration.