Train journeys in South East Asia that every backpacker should try!

I have previously blogged about some of the most prestigious train journeys in Asia, and while these train journeys are indeed incredible, the sad truth is that most backpackers cannot afford to enjoy them. For people like us, there are less prestigious yet still highly adventurous train journeys around Asia, and when you’re backpacking in the region it is great to add them all to your itinerary and tick them off one by one.

The view during the ride on the Jungle Railway in Eastern Malaysia
The view during the ride on the Jungle Railway in Eastern Malaysia

The Jungle Railway is 526km long and runs between Gemas on the Butterworth-Kuala Lumpur trunk line and Tumpat in the northeastern part of Peninsular Malaysia. It passes through the states of Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Kelantan. There are no large cities along its route. Most stations are in remote, jungle-surrounded villages and many stops are nothing more than a platform in the middle of the jungle. Fares are cheap. The cheapest fare (3rd class seat) along the whole length of the line from Tumpat to Kuala Lumpur is RM 31. The most expensive fare for the same journey (a first class bed in a two-bed compartment) costs RM 101 (upper bunk) to RM 130 (lower bunk). Second class seats are approximately double the price of third class seats.

Part of the Death Railway
Part of the Death Railway

The Thailand-Burma Death Railway is a two-hour journey from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok is one of Thailand’s most scenic and most popular train rides. Though the views are lovely, it’s the history that makes the ride so special, so it’s worth visiting the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi before making the trip, as this provides a context for the enormous loss of human life and the extraordinary feat of engineering behind the line’s construction.

Basic conditions, but a very popular route
Basic conditions, but a very popular route

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur is a rail link that may not be as exciting as other train journeys on this list, but it nevertheless is a popular one for travellers to South East Asia. Departing from Woodlands in the north of Singapore, you will arrive in Malaysia at Johor Bahru before heading further north (5 hours) to Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. On the Malaysian side, there is some nice views from the window seats in the second half of the ride.

Whatever you do, spend the extra Kyat (or $) for a first class sleeper on the overnight train
Whatever you do, spend the extra Kyat (or $) for a first class sleeper on the overnight train

Yangon to Bagan is the main train journey in Myanmar, and most travellers to this interesting country will usually make the journey one way or another (VIP bus is another good choice). The train, however, gives a much slower and more authentic way of travelling between Yangon and the dusty town of Bagan. First class or sleeper cabins are very much recommended, as the hard seats are not always suitable for westerners considering the length of the journey (17 HOURS!). Trains depart Yangon daily at around 16.00hrs and arrive the next morning in Bagan for 09.30hrs.

On the train between Hue and Danang the coastal scenery is incredible!
On the train between Hue and Danang the coastal scenery is incredible!

The Reunification Express is the principal railway line serving the country of Vietnam. It is a single-track metre gauge line connecting the capital Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, for a total length of 1,726km. From Hanoi, you can reach almost all coastal cities in Vietnam, including Hue and Danang for all your cultural requirements. Sleeper cabins are well worth the extra splurge, although you may be sharing with travellers you don’t know!

Steam Trains in Borneo?
Steam Trains in Borneo?

The North Borneo Railway (now called Sabah State Railway) is a railway system in the state of Sabah in Malaysia. It is the only rail transport system operating on the island of Borneo. The railway consists of a single 134km line from Tanjung Aru, near Kota Kinabalu, to the town of Tenom, in the Interior Division. As part of the uniqueness of the North Borneo Railway, it is always nice to experience a ride on a steam train.

Good sleeping cabins enroute to Sapa
Good sleeping cabins enroute to Sapa

Hanoi to Sapa is a very popular train journey for travellers in Vietnam. Sapa has no railway station, but the train will take you to Lao Cai railway station, which is about 45 minutes away from downtown Sapa in a taxi or bus. There are both daytime and overnight sleeper trains between Hanoi and Lao Cai, and on the sleeper trains you can choose between the normal Vietnamese railways sleepers or a whole series of privately-run sleeping-cars of a higher standard aimed at tourists. You may miss out seeing the scenery from the window if you choose the sleeper, but at least you will arrive fresh and comforted!

It may look congested, but riding on Indonesian trains is an enjoyable affair!
It may look congested, but riding on Indonesian trains is an enjoyable affair!

The Argo Wilis is the name of the principle train that runs between the Indonesian cities of Yogyakarta and Surabaya. The lush green Javan scenery along the route more than makes up for the chaos that you will often find at the stations at either end of the journey! The one way fare is around 280,000 Rupiah in Eksekutif Class and less than half that in the lower class cabins.

Have you travelled around South East Asia on the train? Which was your favourite journey? And are there any key train rides that I have omitted from my list?

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2 thoughts on “Train journeys in South East Asia that every backpacker should try!

  1. I haven’t ride on any of those lines. Previously I like taking trains from KL to Penang but now with the ETS [electric train service], it took only 4 hours by train from KL to Penang and lesser people is taking the old slow train.

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