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Published on May 2, 2018

Mascot at Palembang train station, Indonesia
Mascot at Palembang train station, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Jeremy Goh Guo-Hua.

What did the Europeans ever do for Southeast Asia? Spotty history aside, the train systems left behind by colonizers remain a definite plus – some of their routes remain just as busy as they were in the 19th century, working hard to bring cargo and passengers from city to hinterland for generations.

We asked several writers to tell us about their own train riding experiences: varying levels of fun, comfort, and privacy aside, each one came away with an unforgettable story to tell.

Palembang, Indonesia: Sumatra from Coast to Coast

Singaporean photographer and Trippin’ Creatives writer Jeremy Goh Guo-Hua (Facebook,|Twitter|Instagram) knows the Sumatra train system from experience, riding from Palembang to the island’s outer reaches. He explains his impressions of the trip below.

Palembang, the great Srivijayan city of yore is both a crossroads and a destination. Traffic, people and commerce flows through in ceaseless eddies of activity like the waters of the Musi River which, the city is inextricably associated with.

On the other side of the island is Lubuk Linggau, sleepy city that couldn’t be further from the bustling capital, yet tethered to the metropolis by a 310 km (200 miles) stretch of railway. The surrounding region is a bucolic idyll that beckons the traveller, from the highland tea plantations to the springs and waterfalls on the slopes of Gunung Dempo.

Those carrying on South from Palembang will arrive at the Southern Terminus in Bandar Lampung, along the straits that separates it from Java island, where magnificent views and day trips to notorious Gunung Krakatoa can be found.

The national railway, Kereta Api Indonesia makes travel to and from the two cities easy and operates 3 classes of service that weaves around mountains pierces jungles and crosses the rivers that dominate much of the region.

All classes have cabins that are air-conditioned. The executive class seat is covered in faux leather, and very plush. They are also very kept and sanitary, with disposable coverings on the seat changed after every passenger departs. During overnight trips blankets are provided, making it a very cosy commute.

Train track skirting Padas River, Sabah, Malaysia
Train track skirting Padas River, Sabah, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Daniele Giannotta.

Sabah State Railway, Malaysia: Tracking Through Jungle

Daniele Giannotta of Cycloscope (Youtube|Facebook|Instagram) found a train route cutting through some of Sabah’s densest jungle – he explains the strange thrills he felt as he encountered unspoiled nature along the way:

During our itinerary in Borneo, we had the chance to travel on the Sabah State Railway. Formerly known as the North Borneo Railway, it is the only railway in the island of Borneo. IA piece of colonial history, a very unusual and adventurous train ride worth experiencing. It’s a total of 134km from KK (Kota Kinabalu) to Tenom.

In addition to being a marvelous route through a wild area, something that you cannot do otherwise unless armed with a machete, it is also the only means of transport for the local population of this road-less and remote area.

There are two trains per day going from Tenom to Beaufort, one at 7 am and one at 1 pm. The train proceeds very slowly, following the Padas river, the water is dark and muddy, it’s not hard to spot huge crocodiles. All around is lush tropical vegetation, some tiny houses can be seen hidden in the jungle, looks like the only way to reach these little houses in the forest is this train.

After a dam the river becomes impetuous and spectacular, there are many large rocks that impede navigation. The jungle becomes even thicker, people get down the train in odd spots and penetrate the forest. It is really worth it taking this train.

Train negotiating Gokteik viaduct
Train negotiating Gokteik viaduct. Image courtesy of lacest20/Creative Commons

Mandalay to Hsipaw, Myanmar: Adventure is Out There

When Traveling Honeybird‘s Jeanette Cheney (Facebook|Twitter|Google Plus) decided to spend the mega-holiday of Thingyan in Myanmar, she bumped up against peak season travel in the country – but decided to take a 12-hour train trip from Mandalay to Hsi Paw anyway. What follows is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure:

It’s 3am and the weather is warm. The April heat is still ever present over night. We’ve snuck out of our hotel and are on our way to catch the infamous train from Mandalay to the hills. Our final destination is Hsi Paw.

Despite our best efforts to buy a first class ticket we couldn’t wrangle one out of the ticket seller. So at 4am we’re on the train, on a wooden seat and ready for 12 hours of numb butt fun.

Now what no one tells you about taking the train during Thingyan is that you’re still going to get wet. Naively I believed that for 12 hours, plus stops, we would be in a relatively dry state. Oh how wrong I was.

Despite the nerves and despite the constant cold water being hosed at us from passing villages nothing could dampen the joy of the British colonial train system that this old clunker of a train runs on. Our journey takes us over hills, through villages and over the world’s longest viaduct – Gokteik. You can’t help but be impressed as you’re over 100mtrs off the ground and the bridge between the two mountains is over 700mtrs long.

Along the way we stop at small villages and larger towns. We meet so many lovely locals, either travelling home to see family over the holidays or just coming aboard between two towns to sell their wares. Despite the slightly damp experience catching the train from Manadalay to Hsi Paw is a Myanmar highlight and certainly should not be missed.

Sapaly Overnight Express Train cabin
Sapaly Overnight Express Train cabin. Image courtesy of Andrzej Ejmont.

Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam: Northbound in the Lap of Luxury

Andrzej Ejmont from Wanderlust Storytellers (Facebook|Instagram|Twitter) took a train from the capital of Vietnam to its mountainous northern reaches, and found it surprisingly luxurious. Follow in his tracks to make your trip to Sapa as comfortable and private as Andrzej found theirs to be:

There are number of ways that you can make your way from Hanoi to Sapa, but there is only one, that engraved itself in my memory forever. Yes, we are talking about the Sapaly overnight express train of course.

Whether you travel as a family of four or as a couple, my recommendation would be to purchase tickets for a four-berth deluxe private cabin. That way you can enjoy your journey in a company of those closest to you only. Bonus of having a whole cabin to yourself when travelling as a couple, you can fold the spare beds away and use the extra mattresses to bulk out your bed for more comfort.

Your private cabin is fitted out with plenty of classic Victorian (miniature hotel style) touches, four narrow, but comfy beds and large number of power points for those of us from the social media era. On arrival you are presented with a complimentary bottle of water and some snacks. Additional refreshments are available from an on-board vendor.

This is a very stylish way to travel across the country from Hanoi to Sapa, however, you must remember that this is an older style train and you will experience a few bumps and a bit of clunking along the way. To me, this only adds to an unforgettable and fun experience!