Nothing compares to an atmospheric train journey. Who doesn’t love gazing wistfully out of the window of a speeding locomotive, feeling the trundling wheels beneath you as you chug through beautiful, evocative landscapes?
Hyperbole aside, travelling by train is a great way to get to know a country and turn journey time into an experience in itself. When it comes to train journeys in Asia, there are myriad fantastic routes to choose from. Certain trains can provide a more comfortable, ‘upscale’ experience in first-class carriages while others are much more basic but often capture the true spirit of a destination. We’ve compiled our top ten scenic, culturally significant trips that are boundlessly captivating and guaranteed to enrich your holiday.
10 of the best train journeys in Asia
- Ella Odessey
- Cambodia Train Journey
- British North Borneo Steam Railway
- Toy trains, India
- Bamboo train, Cambodia
- Monkey train, Rajasthan
- Eastern and Oriental Express
- Yangon to Mandalay sleeper train, Myanmar
- The Reunification Express, Vietnam
- Train through Java, Indonesia
- Bonus! – The train through Laos
The Ella Odyssey train in Sri Lanka is an enigmatic journey that will take you through some of the country’s most stunning destinations. As the train chugs along, you’ll pass through the quaint town of Ella, known for its breathtaking views and serene atmosphere. The train will then take you to the picturesque Demodara Nine Arch Bridge, an engineering marvel that spans the lush green hills. You’ll also take in the iconic tea plantations of Haputale, where you can witness the local tea pickers in action. The journey continues through the bustling town of Nanu Oya, before finally reaching the stunning city of Kandy, where you can explore the fascinating culture and history of Sri Lanka.
The Ella Odyssey train is a truly unique way to experience the beauty and magic of this incredible country. Adrian Bridge recently went on an adventure with us for the Telegraph, and called it ‘a new contender for the world’s most scenic rail journey’.
Cambodia Train Journeys
For those who embrace slow journeys, in Cambodia you and your friends can now privatise a whole train just for you and your group, fully staffed and catered for throughout your chosen journey. Travel through the Cambodian countryside in style to your next destination. There are various destinations available from the capital Phnom Penh, head South to the coastal destinations of Kampot, Kep or Sihanoukville or take a road less travelled to Battambang or even as far as the Thai border.
A rather romantic relic of Borneo’s colonial history, the British North Borneo railway is Borneo’s oldest running steam train. Running Wednesdays and Saturdays, the route trundles along from Tanjung Aru to the ‘Rice Bowl of Sabah’, Papar and takes approximately four hours. Brimming with nostalgia, its appearance both internally and externally mirrors a typical train of the 1900s.
This train is currently not operating, we will continue to monitor the situation.
Toy trains, India
India’s toy trains run on historic mountain railway lines that once provided access to colonial hill settlements. Three of the lines- the Kalka-Shimla Railway, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and Darjeeling Himalayan Railway– are now UNESCO world heritage sites and their routes showcase stunning mountainside scenery across India. You can also read about our favourite train journeys in India such is the vastness of the country.
Not your traditional train, this bamboo vehicle has neither motor nor engine; in fact, with the introduction of improved infrastructure across Cambodia, this railway would have become obsolete had it not been transformed into a fun travel experience! At only 20 minutes long, this is a fun brief trip (ideal for kids) that allows you to see the countryside in an unusual way.
The Bamboo train is still operating ad hoc daily as before Covid, I’m sure as rail traffic continues to increase this activity will stop. There is also a new and slightly Kitch tourist bamboo train which, in our opinion, is nowhere near as exciting and authentic as the original.
So-called because of the monkeys that congregate around the stations to be fed by passengers, the Monkey Train is a lovely, lazy journey that takes you through the hilly Kamlighat region of central Rajasthan. It is a short ride that has been operating since 1930 and is still an essential line for many of the local villagers.
One of the most luxurious train journeys in Asia, the Eastern and Oriental Express offers a variety of journeys across Asia, the most popular of which being that between Singapore and Bangkok. This is a three-day-long excursion in which you can travel in pre-eminent luxury, with 24-hour steward service in a private cabin. It is an expensive (between £2000-3000) but unforgettable journey that takes you through rural landscapes, colonial cities, tea plantations, temples and more.
The Eastern & Oriental Express stopped operating in 2022 due to Covid. But the good news is they expect to be announcing plans to recommence 2023 journeys shortly.
The Reunification Express, Vietnam
The “Reunification Express” runs the length of Vietnam from north to south, connecting Hanoi and Saigon, and celebrating the reunification of the country in 1976.
Travel through little towns and villages at dawn, catching small glimpses into other lives. Palm trees, water buffalo, and far-off islands pass by as you sip on a rice beer from the dining car. There’s no need to rush; the journey is the thing here.
Bonus Vietnam – The Vietage Carriage
This is a luxury rail car for a maximum of 12 passengers that is added onto the train travelling between Danang (nr Hoi An) and the beaches of Quy Nhon. The best direction to travel is south, departing from Hoi An at 8 am and allowing you to take in the views of coastal Vietnam.
Yangon to Mandalay sleeper train, Myanmar
Not for the fainthearted and one of just two overnight journeys to make our Top 10 list of train journeys in Asia, this 13-hour trip offers little by way of creature comforts- but is a truly unforgettable experience. One ETG traveller who took the trip summarises the experience:
“Would we do it again? Probably not a 13-hour journey. Are we glad we decided to experience it? Absolutely, 100 per cent yes. We all agree it was one of the best adventures we have had and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” Read their full blog post.
Roll through lush paddy fields and impressive volcanic peaks on this lovely route through the Java countryside. For those who are deterred by the most basic train options, this rail service does offer a more comfortable first-class executive carriage with air conditioning and a surprisingly tasty lunch if travelling at that time.
Bonus! The train through Laos
The Boten-Vientiane section of the Laos-China Railway, which opened in 2021, runs through Laos from north to south, from the border with southern China down to the capital Vientiane. ETG’s Jamie experienced this journey through Laos’ epic scenery.
According to The Bankok Post: Passengers travelling on the China-Laos Railway can now easily book and manage their journeys on smartphones by using a new mobile ticketing application.
CURIOUS ABOUT TRAIN TRAVEL IN ASIA?
If you wanted to talk to an expert about planning your next adventure, do call 020 7924 7133 or email us with your questions here. To see an example of the kind of trip you could have, do take a look at our example holiday itineraries. They’re just a starting point, all our holidays are tailor-made so we can tweak all elements to suit your exact interests.