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Rail Journeys in Asia

by Kate G

Asia’s rail journeys take you from high-speed thrills to jam-packed rattles via some of the most iconic train routes in the world. Travelling in lavish luxury aboard unique modes of transport, such as the Eastern & Oriental Express and Japan’s Rolls-Royce-esque Seven Stars, offers a level of opulence beyond the everyday, but it’s the less-lauded journeys that really spark our wanderlust. We want to feel the rumble of the rails beneath us and be connected to the local landscape…

Why choose rail travel in Asia?

Why is train travel in Asia so enticing? Plane journeys are often quicker, and driving may offer more flexibility, but for us, how you get there is as important as where you’re going: with rail travel, the journey is the destination. Every rail journey in Asia tells a different story; from the station architecture to the routes, travelling by train tells you something intimate about how a country ticks. They let us lean deeper into the landscape, and even the occasional diversion or delay can open up spontaneous opportunities that elevate a good trip to a great one

Rail journeys vary from slow travel at its purest - not slow for the sake of it, but allowing you to fall in with each destination’s daily rhythms - to being the most efficient way to get from place to place, and it’s almost always a more sustainable option too. Many journeys are those taken by local people living their daily lives. Even the more ‘touristy’ routes can offer opportunities to interact with people on a more personal level, in out-of-the-way halts and villages where the railway is still at the centre of community commerce. 



Vietnam’s Reunification Express transports you through the ages from Hanoi to Saigon along the country’s curves, with overnight options allowing you to skip a hotel night and awake to stunning views over the hills and coastline. For overnight journeys, the private concession carriages offer the highest comfort and privacy, with the main train ‘soft sleepers’ coming in shared-cabin second. It's a great opportunity to replace one or two of the otherwise-necessary internal flights and travel at ground level instead, taking in the local places in-between, whether overnight or by day. Elsewhere, Anantara’s lavish Vietage gives passengers a taste of the high life sailing smoothly through Central Vietnam.


Rail travel in Cambodia is mostly utilitarian and unadorned, with restored lines that bring with them a definite air of 1970s British Rail running from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It can be a bit of a bumpy ride, to say the least, and it isn’t the most reliable form of transport (don’t count on them for a specifically-timed connection) but the rugged experience and rural scenery is worth a bit of a rollercoaster ride!


The somewhat controversial Laos-China Railway has absolutely transformed overland travel in Laos - where there was no rail travel beforehand - offering slick, high-speed journeys from Vientiane to the country’s far north and across the border. Along with shortening some previously very lengthy journey times, this route lets you soak up some of the country’s most stunning views as it whisks you past limestone karsts and high above the sweeping, green landscape on state-of-the-art viaducts. With a passenger experience more akin to air than rail travel, these routes are Laos’ most up-to-the-minute development, opening up parts of the country that were previously much more arduous to get to, offering local communities the chance to access revenue streams that were previously out of reach, and giving passengers a new and memorable perspective.


Modernisation is coming swiftly to Thailand’s rail network, sweeping away much of the old-world idiosyncrasy in favour of high-speed efficiency, but there are still plenty of older-style train journeys rumbling through the country that many of us remember fondly from our backpacking days.

Take a historic and sombre-edged journey across the River Kwai on the ‘Death Railway’ from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, squeeze past hastily-retracted market stalls that are just inches away from the carriages at the Mae Klong Railway Market, or take things up a sumptuous notch on the classic Eastern & Oriental Express. For access to the islands, you can take a direct train to Surat Thani, and for those going north, there’s a route that goes across the border into Laos. All told, this is a fantastic destination for rail enthusiasts.


The railways in India encompass some of the country’s oldest modern infrastructure, with history and stories around every bend. It has a rather raucous, take-it-as-you-find-it-and-hold-on-tight reputation, as has been shamelessly romanticised in film and literature over the years, and there’s no denying that it can be wonderfully rough around the edges. However, rail experiences in India cover a wide range, from gritty and down-to-earth to elaborately lavish.

Jostling for a seat alongside tourists and locals alike on one of the country’s hill-climbing, narrow gauge ‘toy trains’ combines panoramic views with UNESCO-recognised heritage. Whether climbing through rhododendron-covered slopes towards Shimla, weaving through the tea forests of Darjeeling or trundling through the southern Nilgiri Mountains on the Ooty, these journeys are iconic tastes of India’s history. Other rail journeys cross valley-spanning bridges from Mumbai to Goa, extend over vertiginous viaducts in the Aravali Hills, and make the hop from Delhi to Agra in crisp, modern comfort. For us, the best rail journeys in India are the ones that balance the unadorned everyday bustle with enough space and calm to enjoy the ride.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka may be small, but in rail travel terms (as in many things) it punches above its weight. The island’s rail journeys have become the stuff of bucket list legend, with the Kandy to Ella Tea Train being undoubtedly its most iconic. This instantly-recognisable route sees the (mostly) blue trains smoothly making their way through central Sri Lanka’s lush hills, and is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest train journeys. Despite now being geared more to tourists than locals, it truly lives up to the hype. Make sure you sit on the side of the train overlooking the valley (rather than the steep cliffside) for the best views, be prepared to share the prime open-door picture spot, and know there are likely to be delays - it may be legendary, but it’s not particularly punctual!

For a more local rail experience, trundle along the coast from Colombo to Galle, nabbing a seat on the right hand side of the train for sweeping views over the Indian Ocean, or explore the north, cutting through the wilderness on the Jaffna-Anuradhapura route.

Beijing to Lhasa

If epic rail journeys are your thing, then the phenomenal train journey from Beijing to Lhasa will be right up your street (or track!). Passing through every variety of landscape the region has to offer, from high viaducts over green fields to dusty plains and mountainous horizons, this legendary journey transports you across worlds in just over 40 hours.

Rumble across deserts, climb to 5,000m altitude, and pass huge, remote cities that you cannot even find on a map! This is the kind of journey that is about much more than getting from A to B. Although the train itself offers simple comforts (no high luxury here), spending so much time on board gives you a real opportunity to connect with your fellow passengers and discover the delights (and challenges!) of long-distance rail travel.


Probably the most high-profile transport phenomenon in the whole of Asia, Japan's famous shinkansen, or ‘bullet train’, has been the pinnacle of efficient, cutting-edge rail travel for decades. The service has set a global standard that no other country has, as yet, been able to match. The trains themselves are epic looking machines, engineered for speed, which get the pulse racing when they pull into their dedicated platforms. However, they’re so refined that you don't really have a sense you are travelling as fast as you are! Grab a traditional bento box from the station, sit back and enjoy the ride. 

train in Japan

However, there’s more to the country than speed - Japan’s rail journeys are as varied as it gets. The Seven Stars ‘train cruise’ is Japan's answer to Orient Express-levels of luxury (with a price point to match) offering the most indulgent level of rail travel you can imagine, whilst the more humble, functional Kyosan funicular is a train enthusiasts must-do.

If our guide to rail journeys in Asia has whet your appetite for a holiday in Asia, do get in touch with one of our Destination Specialists.

by Kate G on 19th March 2024

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