Home Travel News 6 amazing Asia train journeys for food, scenery and culture

6 amazing Asia train journeys for food, scenery and culture

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(CNN) — The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed many family reunions, destination weddings and long-awaited trips. And while some would-be globetrotters miss the hyper pace of travel circa 2019, others plan to adjust their travel style completely.

According to the 2021 Global Travel Trends survey of 3,000 travelers worldwide by American Express, 68% expressed interest in more sustainable travel; 78% said they were looking for travel experiences that relieve stress; and 61% said they wanted slower, longer trips than in the past.

A train journey could be just the ticket for those who have their eyes on Asia for a 2022 trip.

From zig-zagging up the rugged mountains of central Taiwan to a Rajasthan rail journey fit for a maharaja, these scenic train routes showcase some of Asia’s most beautiful landscapes and provide a much-needed opportunity to rest and reconnect with loved ones.

Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express, Bangkok to Singapore

Passengers of the Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express are treated to fine-dining experiences.

Passengers of the Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express are treated to fine-dining experiences.

Belmond

You’ve probably heard of the Orient Express — an oft-romanticized long-distance rail journey between Paris and Istanbul (though the route varied) that ran from 1883 to 2009.

After the rail service ceased operation, the Belmond hotel group purchased the train carriages and created its own collection of romantic rail adventures that channel the grace and splendor of the namesake.

In Asia, travelers can enjoy old-world charm aboard Belmond’s Eastern and Oriental Express, which runs a four-day journey between Bangkok and Singapore with stops at the River Kwai (a poignant World War II landmark), Kanchanaburi and Kuala Lumpur.

The train feels like a roving hotel thanks to its fine-dining experiences, panoramic windows, handsome cherry wood-paneling and Malaysian silk embroidery.

The observation cart at the back of the train is another highlight. On this teakwood deck, guests can enjoy a cocktail in a rattan chair as the scenery glides past on this teakwood deck.

Day to day, the journey also weaves in many cultural experiences. One day, passengers might be admiring Peranakan architecture in George Town; the next, banana plantations or biking through Thai paddy fields.

Back on board, breakfast in bed starts the day on the right foot. Afternoon tea, cocktail hour with live piano music and four-course dinners evoke the romance and luxury of the original Oriental Express.

Seven Stars, Kyushu, Japan

Japan’s bullet trains may be famed for their speed but a ride on the Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu, a luxury sleeper, is a more exclusive experience.

There are several contenders for the best rail journey in Japan. But if it’s scenery and comfort travelers are seeking, the Seven Stars is hard to beat.

Unlike Japan’s famous bullet trains, Seven Stars takes a much slower pace, cruising gracefully across Kyushu’s seven prefectures so passengers can take in the dramatic mountain and ocean views in peace.

The island lies just south of the Japanese mainland and is a treasure trove of natural beauty.

On the four-day journey, guests will get to warm up in an onsen (hot spring bath) in Beppu, experience a five-star ryokan (Japanese inn), learn about local crafts in the city of Oita, and much more.

Designed to be an intimate experience, the wine-red train can accommodate up to 26 people per journey, spread across 12 suites in five train cars.

Some find the suites charmingly retro; others would call them dated. But there’s no arguing with the panoramic views from each cabin.

The other train cars host the “Blue Moon” bar and lounge and the “Jupiter” dining car, where master chefs celebrate Kyushu’s bounty of fresh, seasonal ingredients.

In true Japanese fashion, the train serves as a living museum of art and craftsmanship. Guests will be surrounded by beauty and details, from elaborate kumiko woodwork to aritayaki, the art of Japanese porcelain.

Sri Lanka Main Line, Kandy to Ella

The hilly interior of Sri Lanka is best explored by the charming trains which climb through countryside covered with tea plantations.

The link between the former kingdom of Kandy and Ella, a mountain village to the south, lives up to its reputation as a must-do in Sri Lanka. And it’s perfect for travelers who don’t mind a little chaos.

The first-class carriage on the bright-blue train features air conditioning and panoramic windows so that passengers can relish the sweeping green views of rolling hills, stone bridges, cliffs, jungles and grand estates.

Second- and third-class cabins will be more crowded with no assigned seating. But it’s in these cabins where travelers let their legs dangle out of an open train doorway or stick their heads out a window to feel the mountain breeze in their hair.

Along the journey, vendors squeeze between the crowds, offering an array of samosas, baked sweets and tea.

The trip takes seven to nine hours, and tickets range from $0.80 to $20, depending on the fare class: all in all, an unforgettable way to spend a day.

Palace on Wheels, Rajasthan, India

India's Palace on Wheels offers eight-day tours of northern India.

India’s Palace on Wheels offers eight-day tours of northern India.

Palace on Wheels/Royal Indian Trains

Few rail experiences can compare with the Palace on Wheels, which rolls across the former princely states of northern India.

Let’s start with the train itself: Launched in 1982, it features cars used privately by Rajasthan royalty pre-independence that were renovated in 2009.

Channeling the opulence of the Raj, guests can expect a tapestry of silk and gleaming wood, ornate furniture and silver tableware.

Two dedicated dining carriages, a Royal Spa, and a bar and lounge round out the luxurious experience in the common areas.

The 14 guest coaches, each named after a former princely state of Rajputana, give five-star hotels a run for their money when it comes to accommodations.

The Palace on Wheels is due to start rolling again in late 2022.

The Palace on Wheels is due to start rolling again in late 2022.

Palace on Wheels/Royal Indian Trains

Each brims with regal details like chandeliers, oil paintings, handicrafts, intricate silver embroidery and plush carpets with enough room to include a mini pantry, library and lounge.

The majority of the cabins have twin beds, aside from the Super Deluxe Cabins, outfitted with queen-sized beds.

Operating between September and April each year, the eight-day itinerary begins in the capital of Delhi before heading into northwestern India, where historical forts, palaces, bazaars, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and sprawling national parks await.

Stops in Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and more ensure passengers have time to explore the history and heritage of the region.

It’s all about slow travel and immersive experiences, offering travelers a chance to spot tigers in Ranthambore National park, enjoy a royal Udaipur’s City Palace, sip sundowners in the dunes outside Jaisalmer and explore Keoladeo National Park.

Before circling back to the capital, the train makes a final stop in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.

The train has been on hold since March 2020 due to Covid-19, but is slated for a major renovation in May 2022, followed by regular operations by September 2022.

Alishan Forest Railway, Central Taiwan

Alishan Railway

Taiwan’s historic Alishan Forest Railway travels to the island’s highest train station.

courtesy Liao Yuan-chiao

Rail journeys have long been a calling card in Taiwan, home to a stunning mix of forest, mountain and ocean scenery.

One of the most beautiful routes is the Alishan Forest Railway, a century-old line initially used by the logging industry but relaunched as a tourist experience in 1933.

The historic diesel locomotives run 44 miles from Chiayi city in central Taiwan into the Alishan mountains, zig-zagging up to Chushan Station, the highest station in Taiwan.

During the three-hour journey, passengers will pass through more than 50 tunnels, 75 bridges and varied natural gems, from rivers and waterfalls to dense cypress woodlands and misty mountain tops.

It’s also a favorite among train enthusiasts, who praise the line’s impressive route track, which essentially corkscrews up the mountain to ascend the steep gradients.

Unlike some train journeys, passengers can hop on and off independently for detours — think short hikes to an observatory, a visit to an oolong tea plantation, or a lakeside picnic.

The Vietage, Vietnam

The Vietage carries just 12 passengers on a six-hour journey through Central Vietnam.

The Vietage carries just 12 passengers on a six-hour journey through Central Vietnam.

The Vietage

What the 30-hour journey lacks in amenities and luxuries, it makes up for in scenery, passing through Hai Van Pass, the beaches of Lang Co and near-ubiquitous rice paddy fields.

But this bare-bones ride isn’t for everyone. For travelers seeking a more comfortable experience, The Vietage offers a stark contrast — and a price tag to match at $350 per person one-way.

Launched by Anantara Hotels in 2020, the six-hour train ride carries no more than 12 passengers through Central Vietnam between Da Nang and Quy Nhon, formerly the seat of the Cham Kingdom.

The scenery is as peaceful as it is lush: water buffaloes graze in wide-open fields, humble villages flit by and impossibly green fields beg to be photographed.

Onboard, marble tables, rattan screens and private booths evoke the romance of vintage rail travel.

Tickets also include a complimentary three-course French meal with Vietnamese influences, free-flow wine and beer, plus a head and shoulder massage.

Top image: Belmond’s Eastern and Oriental Express travels through Kanchanaburi, Thailand.



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