Not all trains are like the East Rail Line, stuffed with sweaty commuters and goods heading
to or from Shenzhen. In fact, Asia has some of the most spectacular train journeys in the world. We’re talking trains with all the trappings of a luxury hotel room, trips that cover more than 4,000km and take 47.5 hours, and journeys that include champagne breakfasts, with fantastic views of scenic landscapes. Here are five of the best.
And if you’re not into trains, there’s always Macao, or further afield Seoul or Tokyo.
Most train journeys in Asia
Sri Lanka: Blue Train
It’s not officially called the ‘blue train’ – nor should it be confused with the famous South African train of the same name – but it’s the easiest way to describe these Chinese-made trains departing Colombo and going to Kandy (famed for its Buddhist temples and tea plantations), Nuwara Eliya, Ella and Badula. It’s the best train ride in Sri Lanka and only takes three hours from Colombo to Kandy, where most travellers alight. Don’t expect too many frills onboard: the air-conditioned first class car is as good as it gets with reclining seats, seat-back tables, and ceiling-hung video screens. Second and third-class cars aren’t even air-conditioned and come with large opening windows instead. Along the way, vendors jump on to sell local delicacies and it’s a pleasant cacophony of noise and local colour, usually accompanied by loud Bollywood tunes. Tickets from $100; visitsrilankatours.co.uk.
India: Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey
If dropping nearly $20,000 on a train ticket doesn’t make you blink, then take the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey. Based on the royal trains that the maharajas used to travel on during the golden years of the British Raj, this 21-coach train includes 11 luxury cabins, while the rest are occupied by the dining area, lounge and spa. The cabins are like a five-star hotel on wheels, complete with a personal attendant to answer to your every beck and call. A few cars away is a well-stocked bar, and dining cabins serve up meals prepared by the prestigious Taj Hotels and Palaces group. If you get exhausted from sitting down in the lap of luxury, there’s also the spa that offers Ayurvedic treatments. There are several packages to choose from covering places like Goa, Jaipur, Agra, Hyderabad, the Ellora Caves and Udaipur. Most of the trips begin in Mumbai and end in New Delhi. Tickets from $18,600 for the four-night journeys,and seven-night journeys start from $47,700; deccan-odyssey-india.com.
If 22 hours just doesn’t cut it, then this is the trip for you (it’s also probably easier as there are direct flights to Beijing). Travellers who undertake this journey rave about the distinctive ever-changing scenery, incredible number of bridges crossed (some going over extreme ravines) and passing through what is known locally as the ‘Death Region’, which is self-explanatory. You whizz past nomadic tribes, endless plains and nature reserves and suffer headaches from the altitude – but hey, that’s all part of the epic adventure.
Nicknamed the ‘Sky Road’, the journey covers more than 4,000km and takes 47.5 hours. Tickets are very reasonably priced considering the distance, expect to pay about $1,400 for a soft sleeper, which is your best option. If you’re on a budget, opt for the hard sleeper or a seat at approximately $870, although sitting for that amount of time on a hard seat in high altitude can be quite uncomfortable. Tickets from $870; chinatibettrain.com.
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok
If you’d rather skip the altitude sickness associated with Lhasa, this is an easy trip from Kuala Lumpur Sentral to Bangkok. Buy a ticket for the ETS service to Padang Besar on the Thai border, then change to the International Express run by the State Railway of Thailand and make sure you get the air-conditioned sleeper carriage. Alternatively, you can opt for an opulent ride aboard the Eastern & Oriental express train (pictured), which houses you in a cabin decked out with a comfy bed and en suite bathroom, and serves champagne breakfasts, evening cocktails and three-course meals.
The infamous Death Railway is part of the track and if you’re not a history buff, read up on how this was built by the Japanese using POW and local slave labour during World War II. The train goes over the Bridge on the River Kwai and you can stop at the seaside town of Hua Hin for a few days before catching the train to Bangkok or back to Malaysia. Tickets from $15,600; belmond.com.
Vietnam: Reunification Express
Travelling between Vietnam’s two major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, the Reunification Express isn’t a luxury service – the best it offers are four-berth cabins in the ‘soft-sleeper class’ but it’s a fantastic way to see the country and you can alight at places like Hue, Danang and Nha Trang. The train travels on a historic 1,700km track originally built 80 years ago by the French, which was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided between north and south, only to resume service in 1976 following the end of the Vietnam War. The cabins offer just enough storage space for your bags and a bed for a good night’s rest – which is all you need, as you’ll be up most of the time watching the scenery and exploring the train stops. Those who want to tough it out can opt for the hard seat, soft seat or hard sleeper classes. Tickets from $390 for hard-seats and $700 for soft-sleeper berths; vietnam-railway.com.