Riding the Rails Through Asia

Our shared second class (hard sleeper) cabin with six bunks.

Our shared second class (hard sleeper) cabin with six bunks.

The bunk was about a meter wide, and true to its name it was a hard sleeper with very little padding. My head hurt from the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau and my back was aching from sleeping so much, but I was  also fighting a cold and there wasn’t much else to do for 48 hours. The scenery did little to help pass the time. Hills became mountains and the vegetation grew sparse and brown. The occasional town or scenic lake could distract us from our misery for a minute, but eventually seeing our own reflection staring back at us in the window quickly reminded us of where we were for the next day and a half: a cramped little bunk in a rolling tin can. There were six of these bunks in our little shared compartment. The uppermost bunk required gymnastics to reach and later dismount. The top and middle bunks didn’t have enough headroom for me to sit up without hunching over. Even Sheri couldn’t sit up straight. Never have I felt more like cattle packed into a livestock car.

The China countryside from our train.

The China countryside from our train—exciting, huh?

There was no door to our compartment as there was in first-class, so the cigarette smoke from the next compartment drifted into ours throughout the day as the inconsiderate chain smoker next to us constantly lit up. Smells from the squat toilet in our train car mingled with smoke and strange food odors. Sounds of men snorting phlegm and spitting in the clogged communal sinks or attempting to drunken pee from the doorway of the toilet (and missing the hole) added to the background cacophony of loud Chinese voices and dramatic Chinese music on the PA system. This was train travel in China. It was by far the most miserable train trip we have taken.

The notion of traveling by trains seems so romanticized with visions of the Orient Express, luxury accommodations, and dining on white linens while sipping fine wine. When the British empire dominated Asia, train travel was civilized and quite refined. That is now a bygone era and the reality is quite different depending on the country. The myth that it’s cheaper and a great way to see the country just isn’t always true.


DSC_6437Thailand’s railway system is quite extensive, but its Korean-made trains are antiquated and the narrow-gauge tracks are rough in many areas. The scenery along the tracks only seemed to highlight the poor living conditions throughout the country. With the royal portrait displayed everywhere, it was obvious the people loved their king. However, it’s hard to imagine why the people love him so much. His regime appears to have done little to lift most people out of abject poverty, while he lives in resplendent grand palaces with opulent furnishings. Just an observation.DSC_6400

While waiting for the train in Bangkok’s aging train station, I was gently persuaded to stand and face the king’s portrait for the daily playing of the national anthem.

We rode the Thai train from Penang (Butterworth), Malaysia to Bangkok and parts of it were like riding a horse at a fast gallop, with the train rarely going more than 70 kph (45 mph). The overnight train converted from standard seating during the day to over and under bunks at night. Even though the train is said to have air conditioning, it never worked that well and once the privacy curtains are drawn, the car became stuffy. Oscillating fans helped a little, but it didn’t make for easy sleeping. The best part of that train was the dinner—a quarter of a watermelon along with large portions rice and stir-fry for 110 baht.

IMG_9051The train from Bangkok to Chiangmai did manage to get up to 90 kph (55 mph), its rails being smoother and better maintained. The air conditioning even made the trip bearable in the heat of the day. An unusual meal of Thai curry and fish paste was included in the ticket price. When you consider that air fare was more than twice the cost and still required several hours when you include the time spent at the airport, it was almost worth the price. Almost.

Lesson learned: antiquated overnight trains in hot climates are extremely uncomfortable. The journey from Penang to Bangkok would be more comfortable by air, and quicker.


IMG_9029Malaysia was a mixed bag of rail travel. The express train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth was modern, fast and comfortable. In fact, the air conditioning worked so well, I eventually needed a jacket. The cars had electrical outlets and reclining seats. Movies played on a small screen at the end of the car, the audio barely audible. At times, we hit speeds as high as 145 kph (90 mph). The train left and arrived on time, which I found amazing after our previous leg. If all train travel was as nice as that segment, it would be a pleasure to travel by rail.

IMG_9022Unfortunately, we had to accept the bad with the good. The segment from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur was an overnight sleeper that left late and never actually arrived in KL. The AC never really worked and the train made several noisy stops to add more cars, so sleeping was difficult. At about 6 a.m, the train stopped and everyone got off. Luckily, I was awake and asked another passenger, who spoke some English, what was happening. Apparently, the locomotive broke down and we had to transfer to a local KL commuter train. I woke up Sheri, who was sound asleep, and we collected our bags and exited onto the platform. At least at that time of the morning the temperature was comfortable outside. We boarded a commuter train that eventually became standing room only and arrived in KL about two hours late, exhausted from too little sleep and a rude awakening. Not only was the train ride draining and lacking in service, the convoluted journey by subway and bus from Singapore across the Malay border to reach the train station in Johor Bahru, all without the benefit of signage in English, made it even less appealing.

Lesson learned: express trains are the only way to go in Malaysia. I really couldn’t recommend the overnight train journey from JB to KL over flying or taking a bus from Singapore.



Sleeper car in Indonesia

Indonesia was another country where train service varied and the signage was entirely in Indonesian. No English. I originally wanted to book the rail segment from Jakarta to Yogyakarta online, but their web site was also entirely in Indonesian and wouldn’t accept my credit card. The train itself was decent, new enough to have conveniences such as electrical outlets and working AC, but still old enough to look like we were in a Boeing 707 from the early ’80s, a bit worn and decrepit from lots of use. Meals of nasi goreng (fried rice) were sold onboard, but because they weren’t kept at a safe temperature, I ended up with stomach issues. Of all our train rides, I enjoyed the scenery of this one the most, dotted with picturesque villages and rice paddies along the way.

The worst railway experience, aside from China, was the segment from Yogyakarta to Bali, which involved a crossing by ferry and a bus to Denpasar. It was one of the most expensive train segments and would have been fine had we actually received what we paid for. I had just finally fallen asleep in our sleeper berth when we arrived at the eastern-most part of the island of Java at 4:30 a.m. We left the train bleary-eyed and had to take a pedicab to a strange location on the side of the road where we waited for the bus that would take us onto the ferry and onward to Denpasar. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we showed our tickets to someone who claimed to work for the railway and never got them back. When the bus stopped 25 km. from Denpasar, we didn’t even have our tickets to show that we paid to go all the way to Denpasar. I’m sure the guy who got our tickets resold them as passage on the ferry. We ended up spending another 200,000 rupiah on a taxi into town.

Lesson learned: Indonesia is one of the few countries that was worth a train journey. However, never give up your ticket to anyone.


Switching out our electric train engine in Lanzhou.

Switching out our electric train engine in Lanzhou.

The worst journey by far was the trip previously described from Shanghai to Lhasa, Tibet, made more miserable due to our second-class tickets and the low standards of cleanliness and thoughtfulness of other second-class passengers. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again. Chinese are the rudest, pushiest, and most inconsiderate people we’ve encountered on our travels, surpassing even Europeans and Americans when it comes to bad behavior. A train journey that would have been simply uncomfortable, became a living hell when you add Chinese tourists to the equation. It’s no wonder that Japan wants to have Chinese tourist only zones.

I have previously traveled by train in China and, at the time, it was one of the nicest train journeys I’d ever been on. However, that was 10 years ago when the train was nearly new, and we had first-class tickets for a 5 hour daytime trip. On our Shanghai to Lhasa trip, we ended up with second-class, hard-sleeper tickets because I booked them too late to get one of the more desirable first-class soft-sleepers. Ticketing opens 60 days in advance, but the good berths are sold out within 45 days. Aside from booking the trip at the train station, the only other real option was to book it online with CTrip, a Chinese travel consolidator who took our request and attempted to buy tickets for us. It was the only place that would allow me to use a U.S. credit card to buy our tickets. Depending on when our request was received, it only took a few hours to get confirmation. Our credit card only got charged if the purchase was successful.

Lesson learned: only purchase first-class tickets in any developing country. What we ended up with would probably qualify as steerage-class in most of the first-world.

What We Learned

Train travel isn’t what it used to be, especially in SE Asia. In a world of instant gratification, getting to a destination becomes more of a chore than an experience to be remembered. But going by rail doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what we’ve discovered:

1) Train travel isn’t cheap and it takes time. Extra time means additional expenses for food. If there are cheaper alternatives, I would consider those first. We opted for bus service rather than the train in Myanmar because it was cheaper and was air conditioned.

2) Overnight trains can save the cost of a hotel night, but I need to weight that against the distinct possibility that I won’t get much sleep. There isn’t much economy if I spend the entire next day either feeling exhausted and dragged out or just sleeping the day away and missing the sights.

3) Read reviews, but be skeptical. Too many train travel sites on the Internet are maintained by rail enthusiasts who love to paint a pretty picture of traveling by train without offering contrasting viewpoints. Seek out the negative reviews to get a complete picture.

4) Be flexible with schedules. Our first choice to go from Butterworth to Bangkok was sold out and we had to take the train scheduled for the next day. This meant staying an extra night and arriving a day later than planned. I try not to schedule a train trip immediately before a scheduled flight. If I need to, I’ll pad our schedule with extra days just in case.

5) Have a sense of adventure. Traveling by rail isn’t as much about the destination, but rather the journey itself. Not every trip will be fun and there will always be challenges that need to be met. Even the worst of journeys will make for great stories and a good laugh afterwards.

One thought on “Riding the Rails Through Asia

  1. Eric,

    We took an overnight trip from the south of France to Paris. It too was one of those cars with six bunks, a couchette. It was myself, Bob and a three year old Jonathan with diarea. Someone else was also getting up a lot during the night. Needless to say no sleep. Never again a shared sleeper with other people, even in first world countries.

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