What is it about great scenic railway journeys that still holds such a transfixing charm over many of us?
We think of rail travel, and it conjures up the old-fashioned notion of locomotion – of ambling through soul-stirring scenery and feeling the rhythmic trundling of the wheels below, reclined in a seat and gazing contemplatively out the window. Perhaps the call of the conductor or the faint steam whistle in the distance stirs you from your reverie…
Besides this rather romantic, perhaps nostalgic version of rail travel, trains remain a versatile, useful method of transport, especially across our destinations in Asia. Often inexpensive, yet with options for luxury. For real budgeters, sleeper trains can take the place of a hotel room. Yet, with truly stunning routes, many train journeys can be an experience in themselves – turning a long transfer into a trip highlight.
What’s more, as sustainability finds itself at the forefront of many of our holiday considerations, and with many holidaymakers more conscious of their carbon footprint, taking a train and making use of public transport can often be a greener option than flying or even driving a car.
In celebration of the splendour of train travel, we’re here to keep your passengers on the right track with 6 unmissable rail journeys available for your travellers in our destinations.
The Vietage, Vietnam
Toward the more luxury end of the spectrum on this list, the Vietage is an experiential train ride that celebrates all the old-world charm of rail travel. Departing from either Danang in the north or Quy Nhon in the south, the route takes travellers along the beautiful Vietnamese coastline, whizzing by rolling rice fields and lush landscapes. There are chances to see ancient ruins and historical relics along the way, with the service providing a timetable of things to look out for.
The seating is lavishly spacious and refined with only twelve passengers on board, with exquisite attention to detail. During the journey, travellers are treated to a gastronomic experience – an exploration of local delicacies fused with international influences, all served with the grace of Vietnamese hospitality. After dining, passengers can enjoy the view while enjoying a relaxing head and shoulder massage.
The phrase ‘travel in style’ comes to mind.
Reunification Express, Vietnam
A cheaper alternative to the Vietage, yet with equal opportunity for breathtaking scenery passing by the window, is the Reunification Express. There is no such one train as the Reunification Express. Instead, it’s the collective name given to trains that run on the north-south line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, all operated by Vietnam railways. It’s called the Reunification Express due to the extensive repairs and engineering work done in the aftermath of reunification, rendering it a symbol of progress in Vietnam.
It rumbles along its 1700km journey down the spine of Vietnam through rice paddies, fishing villages, dense jungles and even right through crowded neighbourhoods – the section through Hanoi is a famous picture-taking spot. Another highlight is the Hai Van Pass near Danang, where the rail line cuts through a mountainous landscape while also jutting out to the coast, offering views of the glistening East Vietnam Sea.
In terms of logistics, the timetable can be a little unpredictable. Seating comes in 4 options, ranging from hard wooden benches to two-person cabins. But, comfort is not what this train journey is about; it’s cheap and cheerful, allowing the traveller to mingle with locals while enjoying the view, appreciating the slow chug with the satisfied air of riding through history.
The Death Railway, Thailand
In Thailand, the Death Railway is the name given to the line from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and beyond to Hellfire Pass. The section from Kanchanaburi onwards is infamous historically for the role that Allied prisoners of war played in its construction at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. It’s in Kanchanburi that visitors can see the legendary ‘bridge over the River Kwai’.
This rail journey is included in this list because it is a worthwhile excursion from Bangkok, costing only $1 USD for the four-hour trip. For this price, travellers get to enjoy the pristine Thailand countryside, particularly in the section after Kanchanaburi, where passengers are treated to dramatic valleys cutting through mountains as the rail hugs their curves and contours.
The ticket is valid for the whole day and can be bought as a return, but it’s a good idea to spend the night in Kanchanaburi, a charming town by the river. It’s perfect for those interested in the history of the war, with a couple of fine museums detailing the story of those who died. Yet, even for those not historically-minded, the idyllic location by the river is enough to spend a relaxing evening, with plenty of choice for riverside hotels offering spa treatments, kayaking along the river, and luxurious dining experiences.
Shinkansen Line, Japan
We recently discussed the benefits of buying a Japanese Rail pass to save money while travelling in Japan. One significant benefit not given enough credence is that the Japanese bullet trains offer spectacular views of the Japanese hinterlands, even if sites can go whizzing by quite quickly!
There are countless picturesque journeys, but we’ll focus here on one that is convenient for travel between two major cities while also affording the traveller a view of Japan’s most iconic natural feature. We’re talking here of the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka, allowing travellers to get an extended glimpse of the glorious Mount Fuji.
When coming from Tokyo, the mountain appears on the right side of the train and is best viewed around Shin-Fuji Station, about 40-45 minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour journey. Be sure to book the right side of the train, depending on which city is the destination, and enjoy the view of Mount Fuji for around 10 minutes.
This is a convenient way of seeing the majestic mountain if there isn’t room in the itinerary to actually visit Mount Fuji itself.
Eastern & Oriental Express, Asia
The Eastern & Oriental Express is a luxury train ride linking Bangkok with Singapore via Kuala Lumpur. It is the epitome of stylish and elegant train travel, run by the same company that operates the Venice Simplon Orient Express.
With all the facilities of a luxury 5-star hotel, the train offers a wide range of berths for travellers, all with en-suite compartments. The train features include an observation deck, a piano bar, a reading room, and two dining carts. The fine dining is included in the rail fare, with lunch and dinner as well as breakfast and afternoon tea served in the compartments – all of the most excellent quality.
A full three-day itinerary, the trip includes organised activities in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and a detour to Kanchanaburi, as well as endless views of the tropical Malay jungles. It’s genuinely an out-of-this-world experience of lavish luxury, and the price reflects this, with prices starting from around $3300 USD per person.
Copper Canyon Railway, Mexico
The Copper Canyon Railway connects Mexico’s Pacific coast with the central desert area of Chihuahua, traversing some of Mexico’s most rugged terrain in the process. It hugs the edges of mountains, crosses deep ravines and gorges, and passes through 86 tunnels on its 390-mile journey that gifts travellers with views from snow-dusted peaks to sub-tropical citrus groves.
No roads penetrate this area of the Sierra Madre mountains, so the railway line provides an unrivalled vantage point to witness the wild and dramatic landscapes. Los Mochis is the starting point on the Baja California coast, with the most sensational section of the canyon at Divisadero, where travellers can disembark to spend the night at a hotel perched right on the canyon edge. This is common practice – to head to Divisadero from either Los Mochis or the other end of the line at Chihuahua.
There are two travel options, the Chepe Express being the more luxurious and therefore slightly more expensive. However, a one-way journey from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, totalling 9 hours, costs around $130 USD, depending on the choice of cabin.
Coming Soon: Rail Journeys to look forward to
There are great things on the horizon for rail travel with exciting plans for future routes. Here are two new lines that you might not know about…
In Laos, the China-Laos railway is on scheduled to be finished in December 2021, thanks to the fact that work has continued despite the pandemic. This is part of an ongoing investment partnership as China looks to invest in Laos’ infrastructure and open up the country for more tourism.
This will be the country’s first modern rail network and will link the capital Vientiane with major tourist destinations further north, like Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, before going on to the Chinese border. This will provide a welcome addition to the transport network for travellers, with a viable alternative to the long and winding mountain roads that hitherto had to be navigated.
However, what was once an inconvenience may become a real feather in the cap of the Laos railway since this train line will cut through that idyllic mountain scenery, with the prospect of an extremely pretty and dramatic train ride.
Another train network in construction is the Mayan train project in Mexico. It will connect 5 states: Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
This is a huge project for Mexico. Work on the project is well underway in many states, including in Quintana Roo and neighbouring Yucatan – so customers will see evidence of the construction when visiting these destinations.
The planned opening is expected in 2023. Once ready, this will provide visitors to Mexico with a completely new way to explore the country’s length and is something that we will certainly include in our future roundtrip options.
Great Scenic Railway Journeys with Discova
Whether your travellers choose rail as a sustainable option, as a cheap and convenient alternative to flying, or as a railway enthusiast, we can accommodate them in our tailor-made itineraries.
This list is not exhaustive, and there are plenty of other fantastic train routes across our destinations waiting for travellers to discover them, from the luxury to the basic, from the old steam chuggers to the ultra-modern bullets.
To hear more about how we can incorporate rail journeys into itineraries, don’t hesitate to get in contact and start a conversation.