Trying out unique and fun forms of transportation is a definite must when traveling abroad. And trains, at least for us, often take the cake for the most exciting way to get from Point A to Point B.
For some reason, in the United States train travel is not really a thing :( Yes, there is Amtrak. Buuuut it is expensive and doesn’t really go to too many locations (major cities, yes. Cool outdoor locations, not so much). The USA is very much a car kind of country. Everyone drives cars, our interstate system is top-notch (though not that pretty) and therefore train travel is very much an unnecessary, “waste of money.”
Luckily, some countries know what is up and have made train travel a core part of their transportation network. According to statistics gathered by the International Union of Railways, Japan leads the world in numbers of passengers carried by rail. In 2016 alone, roughly 24.6 BILLION people rode passenger trains in Japan. In fact, 37.2% of total transportation was by train. Next came the countries of India, Germany and China in terms of total passenger usage.
While passenger trains can be found on every continent (except for Antarctica of course), and in almost every country (only 33 countries do not have passenger trains, though many of them either historically had railways, like Lebanon and Suriname, or are in the process of building them), not all of them are the same. Some are more luxurious, some are more basic, some take you through towering jungles, and some just through cities. There is a plethora of trains trudging along around the world.
And while all trains have their own unique enjoyment. We have found 7 that are definitely worth buying a ticket for:
Jungle Railway, Malaysia
Spanning the length of Malaysia’s peninsula, mostly through its rugged interior, this beautiful train starts in Johor Bahru near the Singapore-Malaysia border and ends at Tumpat, near the Thailand border. The building of the route started in 1910 and ended in 1931, with 526 kilometers of track being laid mostly along the rivers that criss-cross through the mountains. There are two types of trains: a daily intercity sleeper train that travels in each direction, and a local train which travels about three quarters of the length of the line three times a day. If you want to get the best views of the jungle and local scenery, take the latter.
To learn more, as well as information on other trains, check out this website.
West Highland Line, Scotland
Running from Glasgow to Fort William, the largest town in the West Highlands of Scotland, and then onwards to Mallaig, a tiny port town where you can catch a ferry to the awe-inspiring Isle of Skye, this train is considered one of THE prettiest in the world. Much of it is on a single track, twisting and turning through vibrant green Highland landscapes. It also crosses the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by a book/movie you might have heard of: Harry Potter. Other beautiful locations you can see from the train window are Erskine Bridge, Dumbarton Castle and the Arrochar Alps.
Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
Probably the most famous train route - and the longest railway line in the world - the Trans-Siberian Railway is more than likely VERY high on many travelers lists (we know it is for us). Built between 1891 and 1916 (during the rule of Tsar Alexander III, father to Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of All Russia), the route covers 9,289 kilometres (often taking 6-7 days). Since 1916 the route has connected the metropolitan city of Moscow to Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific coast, a whole whopping 8 time zone difference. Today the already very long route is continually being added on to: including trains going to Mongolia, China and even North Korea.
Chiang Mai - Bangkok Route, Thailand
Looking to see as much of the Thai countryside as possible? Then hop on one of the many different trains that criss-cross the country. Taking anywhere between 11-15 hours depending on the train type, the route from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (or vice-versa), allows you to see the diverse landscape of the “Land of Smiles.” While you can also make the journey at night in a sleeper car (which we have done and had no issues with) we highly recommend the day trip. Why? Because it is amazing to go from the highlands and greenery of Chiang Mai in the morning and end in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok at night.
We took the day train twice, once from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then from just outside Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Both were wonderfully relaxing: you sit in your chair (that isn't too uncomfortable), eat the snacks you brought with you or got on the train (people often jump on at stations to sell fruit, chicken and even PANCAKES) and just watch the countryside and small towns roll by.
Learn more about train travel in Thailand and the different departure times here.
Reunification Express (Vietnam)
Empty beaches, abandoned buildings and endless thick jungles, all viewed from the comfort of your own window. This is the Reunification Express*, a glorious three-day trip from Ho Chi Minh City in the south up the spine of Vietnam to Hanoi in the north. Originally finished in 1936 during French Colonial rule, the railway line was almost obliterated during the 40 years of war that followed. It wasn’t until 1975, when Saigon (now Hanoi) fell, that the line finally got a reprieve. In fact, once the war was over, the Vietnamese government launched a massive rebuilding campaign and were able to reopen the line in 1976 (yes in ONE YEAR they repaired 1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, and 158 stations!!).
We took the Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City up to Hanoi and absolutely loved it. While it was a long time on the train (almost three days, two nights) the change in scenery, food offerings and ability to just relax and catch up on reading or simply stare out the window was an amazing way to get a feel of the country. Riding this train was definitely a highlight of our five months spent in Southeast Asia. Highly, highly recommend.
Learn more about riding the train from this handy article.
Madagascar Slow Train
Sometimes (okay most of the time) we choose to take trains instead of cars, buses or plains because we are looking for an adventure. And on the “Madagascar Slow Train” or more officially, the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est (FCE) railway, you can push that idea up a couple notches. The ride takes anywhere between 12-24 hours to cover 163 km. That is anywhere between 13.5 km/hr and 6.79 km/hr (so get comfortable…). But the jungle scenery, and the fact that you get to see the true spirit and culture of the Madagascar people make it all worth it. Plus, Anthony Bourdain did it on his trip to the country.
Learn more about the train here.
Alishan Forest Train, Taiwan
Completed in 1912 while under rule from the Japanese, this historic and scenic train follows the same route that loggers used to when they went into the forest for the prized (and now endangered Taiwan Cypress tree). Running between the cities Chiayi and Chushan, the train gains an insane amount of altitude: from 30 meters in Chiayi to 2,451 meters in Chushan, the highest station in Taiwan. In fact, it is the highest narrow-gauge mountain railway in Asia - higher than the more famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India.
Learn more about the train and the area's amazing history here.
As you can probably tell, a lot of the trains that we believe to be the best are not fast. They are definitely NOT the most efficient way to get around an area. But they do give you this unique and beautiful perspective of a country and it's culture: both from staring out the window at the passing scenery and the goings-on within the train (while riding the train in Thailand we sat next to this very nice couple and their baby, and though we didn't speak Thai and they didn't speak English we were still able to communicate. A truly amazing experience).
So if you have the time then take a train. We promise you won't regret it (even if it takes double the amount of time) :)