7 Most Epic Train Journeys in Asia
Someone once said that life is about the journey, and not the destination. It’s the same on a railway track. Rather than zipping from point A to B on a stifling plane, take the scenic route on the ground and make a holiday out of the journey itself. More than a sightseeing vehicle, trains (especially long-distance, overnight ones) double as a communal space for you to get acquainted with the locals and other travellers from different parts of the world. There’s no harm indulging in the nostalgic experience of being on a vintage-style train that still goes “chugga-chugga choo-choo”. Here are seven of the most epic train journeys in Asia to embark on.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway
One of the most breathtaking train journeys in not just Asia but the world, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway leads you from Xining to Lhasa, and takes you through remote, yet beautiful landscapes fringed by snow-capped mountains along the way. At its peak, it runs at more than 5,000m above sea level, making it feel like you’ve climbed to the top of the alps without breaking a sweat. While certain paths are considered treacherous and impossible to travel through, others treat you to surreal vistas that look more like painted slices of heaven.
Eastern & Oriental Express
An ultra-luxurious express train that brings you through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, the Eastern & Oriental Express boasts classic, colonial-era interiors that will transport you into a romantic, old-timey murder mystery novel. Decked in silk upholstery, wood panels and gold accents, the elegant trappings of this green-and-gold sleeper train are almost as picturesque as the natural wonders beyond its windows. In the morning, a Continental breakfast is delivered by a personal attendant to your private chambers, while the bar car offers live jazz entertainment after dark. Passengers can opt for a short two-night journey from Singapore to Bangkok, or a more scenic, six-night sojourn that includes overnight stays at the Singapore Fullerton Hotel and the Cameron Highlands Resort.
The Death Railway
If you’re more of a thriller seeker or history buff, Thailand’s Death Railway is a must-experience. Built in World War Two by prisoners of war (most of whom were suffering from cholera, dengue, dysentery and beriberi), it stretched 257 miles and was where many worked past exhaustion before collapsing and dying on the tracks—hence, the Death Railway. It still operates today, taking passengers from Bangkok to Nam Tok twice daily. Relive the sepulchral past of the haunted tracks, as the historic train chugs through thick-jungled paths and down the fabled bridge on the river Kwai.
The Mandovi Express
Over in South Asia awaits another railway escapade, the Mandovi Express, which starts in the bustling city of Mumbai and takes you into the country where you’ll get to bask in the warm breeze of the emerald Arabian Sea and the rejuvenating sight of the Sahyadri hills. On your way to Madgaon, you’ll also be greeted with carefree cricket-playing children, herds of farm animals and the loveliest coconut groves as you travel over more than 2,000 bridges. Crossing the highest viaduct in India, the scenery alone is worth the journey. Yet, within the cabin walls lies a stellar pantry as well, where the chefs whip up the most mouth-watering meals and prepare each dish as if it’s a performance.
Palace on Wheels
It doesn’t get any more grandiose than this, when it comes to train journeys. In this palatial, 14-carriage chariot, the floors are carpeted, the seats are Victorian-style sofas and armchairs, the cabins are seemingly bathed in gold, and the passengers are served by personal stewards (or, khidmatgars, meaning servants of God). It treats you to an eight-day trip from New Delhi, with an impressive itinerary that includes pit stops at Jaipur (the pink city), Udaipur (the city of lakes), Agra (the city of the Taj Mahal), and various other UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Royal Express
Step into the midnight blue carriage of The Royal Express, a spanking new luxury train in Japan that, unlike other train rides, doesn’t do long-distance travel. Rather, the highly exclusive, eight-carriage locomotive takes 100 guests on a three-hour ride from Yokohama to Shimoda, a seaside resort. Instead of cheap plastic seats, passengers can get comfortable in cushy armchairs. After a gourmet lunch by fine dining master Yamada Chikara (who previously trained under Ferran Adrià of elBulli, one of the world’s top chefs), venture into the bar car, which is equipped with a piano, while the kids tumble about in the ball pool at the children’s play space.
The Reunification Express
Hop between the two biggest cities in Vietnam, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with a two-night ride on the Reunification Express, which offers a cross-section of the country from the north to the south. A symbol of Vietnam’s reunification in 1976, the railway (built by French colonialists) was once destroyed by American bombs during the Vietnam War, restored and revived after the country finally came together, with the merging of the Democratic Republic Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam. It goes through jungles and runs along the cliff tops overlooking the South China Sea, though the best views are those that offer a window in the rural life of local Vietnamese villagers.