There is a real spirit of adventure in rail travel that can be lacking in other forms of transport and the great thing about traveling by train is that you can gain a real insight into a country. The journey becomes part of your holiday and whether you like to relax in your carriage reading a good book, enjoy sharing a drink and some food with some inquisitive locals, or just simply like to look out the window and watch the world go by, traveling by train is an incredibly enjoyable way to reach your next destination. In our latest blog post we thought we would give an overview of three of our favorite train journeys in Asia, all different and each one very unique.
Hue to Da Nang, Vietnam
The three-hour journey between Hue and Da Nang is arguably the most scenic train journey in Vietnam. The line is part of the famous route often referred to as the ‘Reunification Express’. Completed in 1936, the line linked Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City until 1954 when the country split between north and south and the line was cut. The trains then resumed in 1976, once again unifying the country.
With the South China Sea on one side and the Hai Van Pass (‘Ocean Cloud Pass’) on the other, the Hue – Da Nang section is truly spectacular. The coast-clinging route takes you past sparkling bays, sublime beaches and jungle covered cliffs. For extra comfort you can book a private air-conditioned cabin, but we suggest siting in standard class, as the real beauty of traveling by train in Vietnam is being able to rub shoulders with the locals. It’s a real joy to be able to open the windows to take those all-important snaps, and wander through the restaurant carriage, joining others to enjoy the Vietnamese’ favorite past time of eating and drinking!
Backyard Travel Tip: For the best views try and sit on the left-hand side of the train if you are traveling south from Hue and on the right-hand side if heading north from Da Nang. Do remember though that if you can’t get the seats you want you can always head to the dining car and try and get a good spot in there.
Mandalay to Hsipaw, Myanmar
Starting in Mandalay, situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, there is one daily departure on this lovely route into the hills, northeast of this famous city. Departing at the crack of dawn the simple train chugs its way through the outskirts of Mandalay, traveling past local traders setting up their stalls for the day. Once out of Mandalay the train starts climbing at a steep gradient until eventually arriving in the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin. Ascending further the train gets to the market town of Hsipaw before arriving at the highlight of the journey, the spectacular Gokteik Viaduct.
The viaduct connects the towns of Pyin U Lwin and Lashio in Shan state, and was constructed by an American contracting firm in 1901. When completed the viaduct had the highest span of any bridge in the British Empire at an impressive 689 meters. It is though most distinctive for its extraordinary height at a jaw dropping 100 meters (not for the faint hearted!). The views when crossing the viaduct are spectacular, with the 300-meter deep gorge below and the looming Shan mountains in the background.
Backyard Travel Tip: The first part of the journey from the center of Myanmar is fascinating as you get to see locals going about their everyday lives in Mandalay, as the train is used by early morning commuters in the city. Some though might be put off by the trip as the train departs as early as 4am, so as a compromise we suggest starting the journey in the charming hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin, which is a scenic two-hour drive away from Mandalay. The town is a pleasant place to spend the night and after visiting the Botanical Gardens you can then depart towards the Gokteik Viaduct the next day at the more leisurely hour of 8.20am.
The Bamboo Train, Cambodia
This train journey, just outside of Battambang in Cambodia, won’t win any prizes for comfort but it’s certainly unique! Departing from O Dambong, the trains (known as ‘Norry’ in Cambodian) crawl along a single line track built by the French to O Sra Lav. It’s a pleasant journey, taking no more than about 30 minutes through the jungle and across small bridges. On this particular route though, the scenery isn’t the most interesting part of the trip, it’s the actual train that we like most. As basic as you like, made of just a simple bamboo platform, fitting up to about 15 people on board, all tightly packed on. The Orient Express it isn’t!
As there is only one track, to get around the problem of how to let each train pass when two trains approach each other, the train is simply disassembled, with the bamboo platform removed from the wheels, everyone getting off and then the wheels removed from the track so the other train can pass. Simple as that! The general rule is that the train carrying more people has right of way and as the trains chug along at no more than about 10mph there is never a worry of a head on collision. When the driver hears a hoot from another oncoming train’s horn, it gives him plenty of time to dissemble the train, get everyone off and let the other past!
Backyard Travel Tip: Sadly the trains may soon cease to exist if plans to upgrade the track and line all the way to Phnom Penh are approved by the Cambodian authorities. So go and try out this enjoyable journey as soon as you can whilst the trains are still running!
If you’d like to experience these fascinating train journeys while on your holidays to Asia make sure you let our Asia based Travel Specialists know and they will be happy to include one of these scenic adventures on your tailor-made itinerary!