Asia is a region where slow travel really takes on a new dimension and only the train will do. The journey itself becomes the destination and there are some memorable experiences to be had riding the rails.
Even on the grand luxury rail tours of India for example, that carbon footprint treads lightly while really getting under the skin of Asian life. It promises a fascinating experience for younger travelers and is just as much about social interaction as sightseeing. Perhaps best of all, there isn’t an overcooked, bland airline meal in sight!
With the exception of the vast archipelagos of the Philippines and Indonesia, the whole region can be explored by train almost exclusively, from the dense rainforests of Malaysia to the heavenly beaches of Thailand and Vietnam. Asia boasts some of the most sumptuous trains in the world, exuding a touch of romance, nostalgia and flawless 5-star service.
Billed as the last word in luxury on rails, the Maharajas’ Express stretches for over half a mile in length, yet accommodates only 84 paying passengers. The result is ample private space that you just don’t find on other luxury trains. It features deluxe cabins and lavish family sized 2-bed Presidential suites, complete with queen size beds and marble bathtub – a rarity in rail travel. There are several 4 and 8-day rail adventures leaving from Delhi, calling at Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi.
Maharaja’s Express 7 days Royal India Tour. Prices from $5,600 per person
As the name suggests, passengers will be rewarded with regal creature comforts fit for a king in typically indulgent surroundings. The itinerary continues the royal theme with a meandering 7-night journey from Delhi to royal Rajasthan and on to Agra. Traveling by night, each dawn ushers in a new destination such as the pink city of Jaipur, Udaipur and the Taj Mahal. Resembling the interior set of a period drama, accommodation is roomy and big on frills with wall-to-wall motif carpeting and flowing drapes.
Palace on Wheels 8 days Rajasthan and Agra Tour. Prices from $2,920 per person
Shangri-la Express/Lhasa Express Skytrain
Shangri-la Express has several rail itineraries through China and along the Silk Route but it is a side trip on the all-new “Sky Train” that really catches the eye. Intrepid travelers with a penchant for riding high, board a purpose built train complete with its own oxygen supply for the 14-hour journey from Xining to the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa. You literally have your head in the clouds, reaching an altitude of a mind-boggling 3 miles above sea level. Passengers get front row seats to passing views of snow-capped peaks and vast mountain plateaus.
Info at China Tibet Train 2-day journey Xining-Lhasa. Fares from $126 per person
Based out of India’s tech capital of Bangalore, the Golden Chariot offers a suitably hi-tech haven featuring wireless Internet, DVD players and LCD TVs. Like most of India’s luxury rail operators, the Golden Chariot moves at night, allowing for full and rewarding days of sightseeing on a meandering loop between Bangalore and Goa. Cultural interaction is high on the agenda on this 7 night/8 day journey, but young families will be equally at home exploring the wildlife or stretching out on the beaches of Goa.
The Golden Chariot 8-day ‘Splendor of the South’ Tour. Prices from $2,800 per person
Opulent interior design sets the tone for a regal weeklong journey through the historic cities of India’s Rajasthan state. The daytime side trips to places like Jaipur and the Taj Mahal are pretty unforgettable but the wonderfully over-the-top decor is an attraction in itself. The super deluxe saloon cabins are a riot of color in fine silk and velvet and extremely roomy. The Royal Rajasthan On Wheels also features two fine dining restaurant cars and a luxury spa.
Royal Rajasthan On Wheels 8 days Rajasthan Tour. Prices from $590 per person
Eastern & Oriental Express
The golden age of luxury rail travel is alive and well in Southeast Asia courtesy of the E & O. This is an epic 2,000km journey through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, exuding colonial elegance from the stately cabin accommodation to gourmet fine dining. It is a heady cocktail of flawless 5-star service, impeccable taste and nostalgia. More on the Eastern & Oriental Express here.
Eastern & Oriental Express 3 day Singapore-Bangkok. Prices from $2,400 per person
Vietnam is tailor made for riding the rails. A long and narrow strip of land, you are never far from its stunning eastern seaboard. Livitrans has a pleasant overnight service leaving Hanoi on the “Reunification Express” to Da Nang in snug air conditioned soft sleeper cabins. It is not quite the last word in pure luxury but guarantees a journey full of local character. Rise early morning for sublime ocean views between Hue and Da Nang.
Livitrans Express Overnight Hanoi – Da Nang. Fares from $65 per person
King Express Hanoi – Lai Chai
King Express is the standout service on this route, offering cozy wood paneled family cabins with a touch of old world colonial charm. It is a slow moving overnight service stretching just 300km to the northernmost province of Vietnam and just a short hop from the Chinese border. Early risers will be rewarded with eye-catching vistas from the panoramic cabin windows –rustic Hmong villages and undulating rice paddies.
King Express Overnight Hanoi – Lao Cai and Sapa. Fares from $77 per person
Yangon – Mandalay
This intrepid overnight or 12 hour daytime journey is well off the beaten track in every sense. Surprisingly comfortable public trains connect Myanmar’s two most historic cities following the original rail route built by British colonials. Claim a window seat for an incredibly scenic journey through rice paddies and haphazard villages of thatched bamboo cottages. Waving children with broad smiles by the trackside are just as ubiquitous as the swaying palms. Even the passing scenery takes a back seat to the rich tapestry of local life onboard.
Yangon-Mandalay, Fares from $33 per person in an overnight sleeper. Book through Myanmar MTE Tours.
The Jungle Line
The dense rainforest scenery of the Malaysian interior provides arguably Southeast Asia’s most scenic rail trip. This is an epic 500 km journey from Gemas in the south, inching its way slowly over 9 hours towards the Thai border at Wakaf Bharu. From Gemas, mile upon mile of palm plantation gradually give way to huge limestone hills and thick jungle that seems to almost completely envelop the train. There are seamless connections at Gemas for express trains to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The Jungle Line, Malaysia Railways 1st class seats from $22 per person
From the maddening urban chaos of Mumbai to the beaches of Goa, the weeklong Deccan Odyssey explores the western Indian state of Maharashtra at a breathless pace. With just 80 other passengers for company, this 21-carriage train is big on space and can boast an Ayurvedic spa, gym and library. Twin-bedded deluxe cabins are tastefully designed in warm colors.
Deccan Odyssey 8 day Maharashtra and Goa tour. Prices from $425 per person