A Trip Back in Time - Best Train Journeys in Southeast Asia 2023

There are plenty of exquisite train holidays in Southeast Asia, right in our own backyard.

Sure, everyone loves to fly for international travel. But nothing will beat train travel, as the tropics and lush mountains pass by the windows. You may have heard of world-famous train journeys like the Blue Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. But train journeys in Southeast Asia have this rustic charm that stands the test of our changing times. So you don’t have to travel halfway across the globe to experience the best train journeys in the world. As they rattle along historic railways that cut through dense forests, they remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far more we need to go.

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1. Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express, Bangkok to Singapore

Skip the snappy direct flights and get on board this train instead. This is one of the best train trips in Asia. Belmond Hotel Group purchased the original Orient Express after it ceased services in 2009. The train travels through the breathtaking vistas of Thailand, the lush Malaysian jungles, and past the jagged mountains of the Titiwangsa range on the Malay Peninsula. You can even spot rice paddy fields along the way.

The trip takes six days from Singapore to Bangkok. The first stop: Melaka, where you explore the fusion of flavours, such as the famed chicken rice balls. If you’re up for it, you can embark on a bicycle tour across the storied town, stopping at a tea house and a shoemaker for an immersive look at local traditions. You’ll continue that exploration at Penang as well, where you can see how locals still make joss sticks, paint batik prints, and weave rattan baskets.

And when you return from your itinerary during the day, you’ll be relishing the glamour and luxury of the train. Its living spaces are draped in cherrywood and burr elm panelling, silk wall coverings, upholstered armchairs; the Eastern & Oriental Express is the epitome of old-world magnificence. The Silver Star, built by Nippon Sharyo and Hitachi, was first launched in 1993. But under the meticulous care of the Belmond group, the train remains spotless and gleaming, a welcoming sight for its travellers.

Savour the meldings of Eastern and Western flavours in their Dining Car, unwind over a book and a spot of tea in the Saloon car, and watch as the exquisite views roll by in the Observation Car, all aboard the Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express. Today, it is one of the most romantic rail adventures in the world, we dare say.

2. Alishan Forest Railway, Central Taiwan

You can find one of the world’s most scenic railway journeys in Taiwan. The Alishan Forest Railway is certainly one of them. The Alishan Forest Railway runs 72km across the mountain resort of Alishan in Chiayi County, roughly two hours south of Taichung City.

The Japanese Colonial Government first built the railway in 1906, contracting a Japanese conglomerate for the task. But the company, Fujita-gumi faced financial and technical difficulties during the construction. It stopped work in 1908, before the Japanese Government decided to finish the railways themselves. It was completed by 1913, but the railway only became a popular tourist railway after its extension to Niitakaguchi in 1933.

Today, the Alishan Forest Railway and Cultural Heritage Office of the Forestry Bureau maintains and operates the railway. While diesel locomotives ply the routes most of the time, you can look out for special public runs of the old steam-powered Shay locomotives. 

The Main Line runs between Chiayi and Shizilu, and there are several different services on the railway. While there are no overnight trains, you can still see the sunrise over the pristine Jade Mountain, take the Chushan line instead. And get there before it becomes a World Heritage Site! Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture has submitted the railway to be in the running, so best to beat the crowd.

3. The Reunification Express, Vietnam

Though no train carries its ambitious name, it refers to when North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng forces captured Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, capital of South Vietnam) on 30 April 1975. Then, the Hanoi government completed a massive engineering feat. In just two years, 1334 bridges and 27 tunnels were repaired, and 158 stations were built. That impressive feat helped make the railway a symbol of a reunified Vietnam.

Today, the train service runs along the North–South railway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city, covering a distance of over 1,700 kilometres. Along the line, you’ll rumble through the lush topography of Vietnam, through dense jungles and rice paddies, and through the famed Train Street in Hanoi.

Four trains leave daily from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City—two in the day and two at night. (Though the schedule is more of a guesstimate than a timetable.) The entire trip will take over 30 hours end-to-end, with four classes on the train. We recommend the VIP Cabin since it’s a private cabin, unless you want to experience the bustle of the other classes. When you buy tickets for the train, be wary of scams. Instead, try to buy them on the official site by the Agency of Vietnam Railway. If you’ve got deeper pockets, get on the exclusive 12-person-only railway by Anantara, The Vietage.

4. The Burma Railway (The Death Railways), Thailand

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Now, a sombre look into World War II in Southeast Asia. The Burma Railway, or The Death Railways as it’s known, remains a haunting emblem of the inhumanity and brutality of war. During its construction, the Imperial Japanese Army forced around 180,000 to 250,000 civilians and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war to work on the 400-kilometre railway.

Conditions were gruelling. Long hours of backbreaking labour, starvation, disease, exhaustion, torture, executions—an estimated 90,000 civilians, and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died. Despite the horrific conditions and loss of life, the railway is now a testament to human resilience and courage, a reminder of the bravery of the labourers who endured in the name of freedom and justice.

The trains depart twice a day from Bangkok Thonburi station. It can be difficult to get there, so it’s best to take a taxi. Or, you can take the boat along the Chao Phraya River to pier number N11 (Tha Railway Station) from where it is a short walk to Thonburi station. The route covers the Bridge on the River Kwai, Hellfire Pass, and the Wang Pho Viaduct.

5. Mandalay-Lashio Railway, Myanmar

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This is a deep cut. But the journey off the beaten track is always well worth it. The route connects Mandalay, the cultural hub of Myanmar, to Lashio, once the summer capital for the British Colonial Government. The journey takes you through a region known for its rugged mountains and picturesque valleys.

 As the train departs Mandalay, it will first make its way through the streets of the bustling city, offering you a glimpse of the vibrance and colour of the city. Then nature lovers will have a field day as the train chugs along. The scenery will morph into stunning views of the Shan Plateau, and you’ll see lush green forests, cascading waterfalls, and terraced rice fields that are synonymous with the region.

Then you’ll get to the highlight of the railway: the Goteik Viaduct. Constructed in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, it’s one of the highest and most dramatic railway bridges in the world. It stands at a height of 102 metres, spanning 689 metres long.

As the train gets on the viaduct, it slows down, allowing you to truly take in the bird’s-eye view of how the valley spreads out from below you. Though it’s not for the faint of heart. The train leaves at 4 am in the morning and arrives at Lashio around 7.30 pm—a journey that takes over 15 hours as it conquers the mountainous terrain.

Most of the time, it’s a straightforward affair for train tickets in Myanmar. You can get them at the station as booking only opens a few days before departure. But you can try a local travel agency, like Exotic Myanmar Travels & Tours.


About the Writer: Benedict Lim

As the resident punmaker, Benedict is really bad at making people laugh. They’re much better at diving into the nuances of the things they write about.

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