Our rail experts suggest the best train journeys across Asia for 2018. 

1. Jungle Train, Malaysia

The 300-mile (480km) Jungle Train was built by the British to harvest Malaysia’s tin, rubber and tea. It still weaves through defunct mines, rubber estates and vast tea plantations. There’s no dining car, but vendors dish out pandan leaf wraps of lamb curry for pennies. The rural lifeline also transports dried fish, aubergine, tea and peppers plus the nation’s mail. The only remaining “jungle” section is in the north, where precipitous cliffs tumble into surging brown rivers. By night the 12-hour journey is magical. A vast communal sleeping car has comfy curtained-off bunks bolted to the wall.

Soft seat tickets for the £7 journey can be purchased in stations or online; ktmb.com.my

2. Eastern & Oriental Express

The emerald green of the Eastern & Oriental Express turns heads at Bangkok’s majestic Hua Lamphong Station. Sleeping compartments are akin to Queen Victoria’s private boudoir. Even the least expensive Pullmans have en suite shower rooms and the same feather pillows found on their sister service, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Two gourmet dining cars (food is included in the price) are styled like a Parisian restaurant salon. That said, the favoured carriage is the open-air observation car that places passengers within touching distance of verdant jungle and sapphire sea.

A luxurious three-night tour from Bangkok to Singapore on the Eastern & Oriental Express costs £2,211 per person, based on two sharing a cabin; 0845 077 2222; belmond.com

3. Dhaka to Sreemangal, Bangladesh

The prettiest line in Bangladesh. From the Technicolor artery of Dhaka’s Buriganga river, the Intercity chugs four hours up-country past towering mosques and Hindu temples. Midway the superannuated diesel pulls through banana fields and raucous savannah. When the carriages rattle into Sreemangal it’s all lemon groves, pineapple plantations and fields of tea. Along the same route runs an 11-hour sleeper, the Surma Mail night train, which costs around £4.50 per berth. Rail enthusiasts may also ride the new Bangladesh-India line from Khuna to Calcutta, which opened in late 2017. 

The journey costs £2.70 from ticket windows or Bangladesh Railway’s eticket website; esheba.cnsbd.com

Dhaka’s Buriganga river

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getty

4. Mumbai to Goa, India

A dozen daily trains with names as exotic as Ganpati Special and the Mangalore Express depart Mumbai for Madgaon in Goa, some 12 hours down the line. For views take the morning Mandovi Express. After an hour of Mumbai suburbs it plunges through endless tunnels and steamy forest before reaching the nodding palms of Goa, a favourite destination for Indian and foreign tourists alike. The most popular night train is the similarly classy Konkan Kanya Express. Air-conditioned first class sleepers are two or four-berth, with £1 curries delivered to your compartment.

Luxury sleepers cost around £30; far less for individual seats. Indian Railways (irctc.co.in) now accepts foreign credit cards.

5. Kunming to Hanoi

The 350-mile (563km) mountain route from China to Vietnam was carved by the Chemins de Fer de L’Indo-Chine in 1910. Since then the cross-continental route has been snipped, bombed, re-routed and closed by landslides, until it reopened in 2014. The journey can be made in 16 hours, with a soft sleeper cabin through Vietnam. But it’s far better to break it up with side trips to China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Stone Forest of petrified rock. The route then races downhill through the rice terraces of Sapa, Vietnam’s premier hiking territory, before barrelling through the working suburbs of Hanoi.

Great Rail Journeys can organise a bespoke trip with accommodation en route. Otherwise purchasing the two China and Vietnam journey portions costs from £25 in first class; 01904 521936; greatrail.com

Hanoi

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getty

6. Jakarta to Yogyakarta, Indonesia

If Jakarta is Indonesia’s business city, Yogyakarta is the country’s cultural capital. Its historic streets and batik workshops – and its bookshops and pavement cafés – form a Unesco World Heritage Site. Twenty miles north sits Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple complex, another shining Unesco star. The eight-hour route from Jakarta’s Gambir station bowls past rice paddies and orchards of tropical fruit, plus the active volcano of Mount Cereme, a popular hiking and spa spot. Orders for chicken and rice ready meals are microwaved in batches then delivered to your seat.

Tickets in “Eksekutif” class cost £15 at ticket windows. They can also be purchased online then printed from the self-service kiosks; tiket.com

Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple complex

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getty

7. Beijing to Shanghai, China

In 2017 the world’s fastest passenger train resumed service. It completes the 819-mile (1,318km) trip from Beijing to Shanghai – twice that of Glasgow to London – in four and a half hours. It’s luxury all the way. Three abreast Business Class seats are comparable with airlines, folding into completely flat beds at the push of a button. The £200 price tag even includes a meal and dedicated VIP lounge. For £60 a comfy second class seat grants the same whizz-past views of misty mountains and China’s rapidly developing countryside. All new sleepers also ply the route for £50 in “soft” class, which features duvets and pressed linen.

Rail Discoveries includes the route on its 13-night Grand Tour of China 2018 tour. Prices start at £2,195, which includes a Yangtze cruise and return flights from Heathrow; 01904 734939; raildiscoveries.com

8. Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s colonial railway was built to transport tea, and it still meanders through manifold plantations shrouded in morning mist. The tourist-centric first class service uses recently renovated Chinese rolling stock, with a regular glass-fronted observation car pulled behind. In second class, train doors are frequently yanked open to allow in forest breezes, while fresh mango and pineapple are served by hawkers en route. The views are immense, not least as the vintage blue train juxtaposes with the bottle green of Sri Lanka’s forest interior. A night mail sleeper operates on the same route.

Tickets for the six-hour service cost £3 from station ticket windows. 

9. Yokohama to Shimoda, Japan

The Royal Express Japan does luxury rail like no other: to wit, the Fujisan View Express – with wonderful views of Mount Fuji – and the first luxury sleeper train in Japan, the Seven Stars “cruise train” around Kyushu. In 2017 the new Royal Express put both in the shade. Instead of travelling long distance, it ushers 100 lucky passengers installed in armchairs across eight carriages from Yokohama to the seaside retreat of Shimoda, a three-hour meander away. What’s so special? Erm, lunch is cooked by Yamada Chikara, a former disciple of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. The bar car has a piano. There’s even a dedicated children’s area with a ball pool. The picture windows promise crashing sea views, and take in the hot springs for which Shimoda is renowned.

From £160 per person; the-royalexpress.jp

The new Royal Express

10. Reunification Express, Vietnam

The Reunification Express takes 36 hours to wind up Vietnam’s coast, connecting Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and all points in between. However, one could spend a week using the line to hop off at silk towns like the coastal resort of Nha Trang and endless swathes of sand such as those at Da Nang, Vietnam’s third-largest city. The view is a 1,000-mile (1,600km) pastoral parade of pagodas, paddies and conical farmers hats. The sleeper is best booked in one of private operator Livitrans’ soft sleeper compartments with comfy bedding and a welcome pack with free beer.

Livitrans operates luxury sleepers between Hanoi and Da Nang for £70; Vietnam Railways runs the entire 36-hour trip to Ho Chi Minh City for £44 in a regular sleeper; livitrans.com/en; dsvn.vn

Contributors: Adrian Bridge, Anthony Lambert, Tristan Rutherford, Michael Kerr, Steve McClarence



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