Toot toot!! All aboard the North Borneo Railway! On our recent trip to Malaysia, we were very excited about riding a rare, fully re-furbished British Vulcun steam train back to colonial times. Unfortunately, Alex jinxed himself and got food poisoning the night before. We both hoped as the night crept on that it would pass, that he would be tired but well enough to make the trip. However, as daylight started creeping into our hotel room in Kota Kinabalu, we both knew it wasn’t going to happen, as he still had a fever. So off I went to Tanjung Aru Station, minus my partner in adventures.
It was a beautiful day, with a gorgeous blue sky and I was warmly welcomed at the train station by the colonially clad staff and handed my passport for the train ride! Your North Borneo Railway passport
describes the history of the railway, the train and each of the towns along the way. With the description of the towns is a space to collect stamps. The children on the train were delighted by this, as was I!
The train line is steeped in history as it was the first in the state of Sabah and was established in 1896
. It was intended to open up the land for commercial cultivation. Initially, the line stretched for 64 kilometers, but was extended so that it ran the 90 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu (once known as Jesselton) to Beaufort, and another extension lead from Beaufort to Tenom. This opened up trading in rubber, rice, silk, soya beans, pineapples and tobacco. These were shipped from the Jesselton port on behalf of the North Borneo Chartered Company, which was given the authority to rule Sabah by the British empire, who were occupying the region at the time.
While this was a success, primarily due to the rubber trade, after the Japanese occupation during World War II and the development of better infrastructure in the form of roads, the railway became obsolete. By 1974, only a small section of the railway was still in service. In 2007, the railway was closed for renovation as Sutera Harbour Resort
partnered with the Sabah State Railway Department to overhaul the tracks and re-develop the railway.
Today the railway is open to commuters and travelers wishing to pass between Tanjung Aru and Tenom. The steam train, however, only goes as far as Papar Town, but offers a glimpse into colonial times in Borneo. The Vulcan steam train, powered by burning wood, is one of only a few that are still functional in the world. It is beautifully restored, with staff fitted in colonial uniforms and a tiffin set lunch is served. A tiffin lunch is a light meal that is often served in metal boxes that clip together, and the term originates from colonial ruled India. The presentation of both meals (breakfast is also included in the form of coffee and pastries) was gorgeous and I really felt like the year could have been 1910!
There are two scheduled stops, the first being Kinarut, a very small town featuring a beautiful Buddhist temple only a few minutes walk from the town mosque, highlighting the cultural diversity that is Malaysia
. The second stop is in Papar town, which is a larger town with a decent sized local market. The stop is only for 30 minutes, which I found to be a bit short to have a proper look around. Though I did pick up a large bag of dried chilli for 2 ringits (around 50 euro cents), which we’re looking forward to cooking with!
On the return trip back to Tanjung Aru, I was delighted to see wild water buffalo, but I just happened to be really lucky with that sighting as my head was out the window a good bit of the time! The scenery is mostly jungle and mangroves once you pass Putatan, and many of the local children will come out and wave at the train. I will admit, seeing the conditions they live in, while I sat in this luxurious train, was uncomfortable for me at times. However, the restoration of the railway does re-open these communities to the potential for economic regeneration
and this is a goal of the Sabah State Railway
The four hours I spent on this journey back in time were very worthwhile. The Sabah State Railway and Sutera Harbor Resort have done an excellent job bringing a bygone era back to life, and igniting the romance associated with steam trains. So it’s not surprising that they won Best Tourism Attractions for the Non-Nature/Man-Made
category at the recent Sabah Tourism Award 2013. If you have a half day to spare, this is a wonderful way to experience a piece of important history in Sabah, Borneo. My experience wasn’t quite the same without Alex, and he was disappointed he couldn’t make the trip. But fortunately he recovered to enjoy other great adventures in beautiful Borneo!
The North Borneo Railway runs two weekly return departures (Wednesday & Saturday) from Kota Kinabalu to Papar, year round. The train departs from Tanjung Aru train station at 9:30 and the trip lasts around 4 hours. Breakfast and lunch are included.
RM 290.00 ($89 USD) for adults
RM 185.00 ($57 USD) for children between the ages of 3 to 12.
Complimentary for children below 2 years old.
We would like to thank the Sabah Tourism board for arranging our tickets on the North Borneo Railway and we would also like to thank Sutera Harbour Resort for accommodating Bell and making her feel very welcome on board.
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