Travelling by train is an adventurous way to explore a destination. Some might even consider long train journeys to be romantic or idyllic.
This is because on many scenic train journeys, passengers are often taken through the countryside, hills and valleys.
For avid traveller Andrew T. Post, though, it’s the old-fashioned quality of rail travel that makes the journey even more rewarding.
“Nobody travels by train any more, at least not anyone who’s interested in getting anywhere in a fast or efficient manner,” he said in a post on Quora.
While there may be many advantages to taking other modes of transportation (“It’s far cheaper to drive, and it’s far faster to fly”), Post said nothing beats the joy of travelling by train.
It’s a more comfortable option too, he said.
“They’re like hotels on wheels. You have a big seat with plenty of legroom and a huge window, or possibly even a cosy cabin all to yourself. Not to mention there’s a tastefully appointed dining car in which to take your meals and watch the scenery roll by.
“If you have your own sleeper, you can choose to interact with your fellow passengers or not, at your leisure. There are exceptions, of course, but on most trains that I’ve been on, this is the case,” Post said.
The man has ridden trains through seven countries. These included Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.
“There’s nothing I love more than being on a train, especially in a foreign country, and pulling up to a station and seeing the exotic name of the place written on a sign hanging over the platform. I love to look out of the train windows (or better yet, get down and explore), gazing over the town or village and getting a sense of the place,” he said of his travels.
In Malaysia, rail tourism was highlighted recently in the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry’s Tourism Recovery Plan 2022, which saw the ministry forging a joint strategic cooperation with KLIA Express and Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTM) to offer discounts for most train journeys.
KTM is the major operator of intercity trains in Peninsular Malaysia. It operates diesel-hauled KTM Intercity passenger trains and the electric KTM ETS passenger trains.
Meanwhile, the Sabah State Railway operates the only railway line in the state, running from Kota Kinabalu in the West Coast to Tenom in the Interior Division. Sarawak does not have a railway system although there have been plans to start one.
Rail tourism these days is associated with slow travel. Slow travel – which has been gaining traction as a “post-pandemic” tourism trend – does not just refer to the speed at which a trip is taken, but also by how meaningful or purposeful the journey is.
Experts have pointed out that travelling by train endorses the concept of slow travel. This enables tourists to enjoy the time taken to travel rather than simply rushing to go from one destination to the next.
“It’s free of the rushed, breathless, stuffy crassness to which air travel is heir, and it has none of the urgency or responsibility of car travel,” Post said in his commentary.
In Malaysia, rail tourism goes hand-in-hand with rural tourism. A train gives travellers the chance to explore small towns that are tucked away from the busy city.
And local travellers are beginning to take notice of trains as a means of travel.
The KTM train ride from Tumpat to Dabong (in Kelantan) was a surprise hit among locals amid the pandemic. The railway tourism product – dubbed “Train to Dabong” – from Wakaf Bharu, Tumpat to Dabong in Kuala Krai, is over 140km and takes almost three hours.
Kelantan Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry director Mohd Aidil Afizie Daud said the journey is one of the 10 iconic tourism products in the state, which is placed under its Homestay And Train programme.
“Dabong Railway Station is a transit station for Homestay Jelawang near Gunung Stong. The experience of taking the train in Kelantan is very different because regular trains around the world usually pass through concrete buildings like the west coast route,” he said.
The train to Dabong passes through rural areas full of tall trees much like a tropical rainforest. It has even earned the nickname the “Jungle Train”.
Rail and rural
The success of the train to Dabong is testament to how rail and rural tourism are complementary to one another.
It was something that Taylor’s University’s Farah Atiqah Mohamad Noor, Vikneswaran Nair and Paolo Mura discussed in an academic paper.
The Rail travel: Conceptualising a study on slow tourism approaches in sustaining rural development paper looked at how trains could expand the tourism sector in small towns.
Their research states that as there are numerous small towns along the intercity train route in Peninsular Malaysia, rural tourism opportunities abound. They suggest that these towns have a strong potential to be proper tourism destinations.
“The main idea for using rail travel as a gateway to rural tourism experience is (to adapt) the concept of slow travel that has been forgotten by many tourists nowadays,” the researchers wrote.
A journey on a train is certainly the way to go if you’re looking for a scenic passage through Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. Riding past kampung houses and green plantations will unearth many remarkable sights. We take a look at some amazing train journeys in the country.
A scenic train ride through lush green cityscapes and rivers will take passengers from the Kuala Lumpur metropolis to the quaint city of Ipoh. Depending on the train model that you take, the journey could last between two and four hours.
Upon arrival in the capital of Perak, you will be greeted by the old-world, colonial charm of the Ipoh Railway Station. Built in 1917, it is one of the oldest train stations in Malaysia.
Over the years, Ipoh has also built a reputation for being a foodie paradise. Tuck into culinary delights such as bean sprouts chicken rice, hor fun, chee cheong fun and tau foo fah.
There’s also a burgeoning street art scene in Ipoh. And once you have searched for the many cool murals in the area, stop by a kopitiam for a cup of famous Ipoh white coffee.
Amid the pandemic, an unlikely town in Kelantan became a viral sensation. That town is Dabong and it was really the train journey – dubbed “Train to Dabong” – that was celebrated by locals when interstate travel was still restricted.
Many locals will travel from Kota Baru or Tumpat for a short day trip in Dabong. Now that travel bans have been lifted, Dabong continues to attract visitors due to a plethora of activities and attractions available there.
An absolute highlight is a special light phenomenon called the “God Light” that takes place inside Gua Keris. Apart from that, the town is famous for many other outdoor adventures. It is home to several majestic peaks (Gunung Ayam, Gunung Stong and Gunung Che Tahir just to name a few) as well as the multi-tiered Jelawang Waterfall.
The Sabah State Railway, the only rail transport system in Borneo, is an important aspect of colonial history. Formerly known as the North Borneo Railway, the 134km line travels from Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu to Tenom.
The Sabah State Railway offers railway service to three major towns – Papar, Beaufort, and Tenom. The route passes through scenic coastal sights and fertile hinterlands.
Papar is an agricultural town, yet it is also close enough to the sea that you can spend your day in a picnic by the beach. You can shop for local fruits and unique handicraft at Tamu Papar if you’re there on Sunday.
In Beaufort, look out for ambuyat, a local dish made from sago flour and eaten with a simple yet delicious sour fish soup. Over in Tenom, visit the coffee factories or look out for coffee farm tours. All three towns offer plenty of outdoor and cultural pursuits too.
You can also take a private train service – called the North Borneo Railway service – to experience a ride on a refurbished colonial-style steam train. The train runs on the same tracks as the regular daily service, but its last stop is in Papar. You will also be served a tiffin-style breakfast and lunch in your own coach during the journey.
If you’re up for a long voyage on the train, then the south-north route from Johor Baru to Butterworth in Penang should appeal. The journey requires a bit more planning as there is no direct train between the two destinations. But it’s perfect for adventurous travellers who prefer a bit of challenge.
Travellers will first need to take a shuttle train from JB to Gemas before transferring on the ETS towards Butterworth. Once in Butterworth, a short ferry ride will bring you to the island city.
Here’s a tip: Time your ferry ride during sunset and you will get the most amazing view of Penang over the sea.
Alternatively, stay in Butterworth and explore a relatively slower pace town. Discover the works of Penang artists along the Butterworth Art Walk. Other attractions include the Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest, Penang Bird Park and Frog Hill (an abandoned tin mining site).
The border town of Padang Besar in Perlis has always been a popular stop for tourists wanting to cross over to Hat Yai in Thailand. But travellers who decide to explore the small town will find many cheap food and shopping.
Also known as Pekan Siam, the town has a duty-free shopping complex in between the border checkpoints of the two countries. There are also many open-air markets with the popular ones being Kompleks Aked Niaga Padang Besar, Pasar Padang Besar and Gapura Square. Visitors will find goodies and food from both Malaysia and neighbouring Thailand.
Travel a little further from Padang Besar (about 20 minutes drive) to discover places such as Gua Kelam and Tasik Timah Tasoh. The journey from KL – passing through charming kampung houses, rolling hills and green paddy fields – takes about five hours.