Celebrate Asia: North Borneo Railway steam train in Sabah

Fancy stepping back into the colonial charm of British North Borneo? A distinctly memorable way to enjoy Borneo’s verdant greenery is to indulge in the luxury of steam train travel aboard the North Borneo Railway. 

You would be enjoying the views from the vintage Vulcan steam engine, manufactured by the Vulcan Foundry Ltd, in Lancashire, UK – the last of a fleet of locomotives that have travelled across Borneo since the 1880s.

A distinctly memorable way to enjoy Borneo’s verdant greenery is to indulge in the luxury of steam train travel aboard the North Borneo Railway.

The North Borneo Railway is a joint project between the Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department launched in 2000 to commemorate Kota Kinabalu achieving city status. It is the only train that services the island of Borneo, and runs twice a week from Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu.

The carriages were designed in the 19th century with unique oakwood, fabric seats and panel lamps that go back a hundred years.

Covering 38.5km between Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, and Papar, an agricultural town known as the “rice bowl of Sabah”, thanks to the paddy fields that dominate the area, this railway offers a unique sight-seeing experience for visitors, from views of the South China Sea to protected forests.

ALL IN THE DETAILS

For train enthusiasts – or fans of Agatha Christie or Harry Potter, for that matter – riding the North Borneo Railway train promises to be a treat in itself. The Vulcan has been beautifully maintained and remains in mint condition. The non-air-conditioned train allows passengers the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air as it travels through the rainforest of Borneo.

The North Borneo Railway steam train

It is the only train that services the island of Borneo, and runs twice a week from Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. (Photo: Ananya Pictures)

Painted a rich deep teal and cream, the train and its carriages bear the gold emblem of a tiger holding a wheel. Inside each carriage are eight two-person seats set face to face and separated by a table. These seats are elegantly upholstered in regimental striped-fabric. The wooden frames are polished and all bear the railway emblem.

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“The carriages were designed in the 19th century with unique oakwood, fabric seats and panel lamps that go back a hundred years,” shared Gerard Tan, chief operating officer of Sutera Harbour Resort.

Interiors of the North Borneo Railway train

The interiors of the train retain its old-school charm. (Photo: Ananya Pictures)

He added that to get and keep the steam engine going, an age-old fuelling method is employed. “This train uses only a very unique wood called mangrove. To get the mangrove wood is not easy. You have to cut and then you have to dry it and it’s very expensive.”

Incidentally, Sabah has the largest mangrove area of any state in Malaysia – over 232,000 hectares. However, much of this area is protected under conservation laws as mangroves are home to diverse flora and fauna.

The North Borneo Railway steam train

The train passes through paddy fields, villages, temples, mountains at a very slow speed. (Photo: Sutera Harbour Resort)

THE JOURNEY

“The train passes through paddy fields, villages, temples, and mountains at a very slow speed that turns back the clock 123 years,” said Tan.

The North Borneo Railway experience begins in Kota Kinabalu, at Tanjung Aru Station. Passengers are greeted at the platform by train stewards outfitted in colonial-era uniforms, complete with brass buttons and pith helmets. Upon receiving their train passports and boarding passes, passengers proceed to board the carriages and prepare to enjoy the service and the natural charms of Sabah.

Leaving Kota Kinabalu behind as it pulls out of the station, the train heads towards Putatan, beyond which lies the countryside of Sabah. The sector of the journey runs through the coast of Lokawi Bay and passengers are treated to views of the South China Sea. 

The first stop, lasting 15 minutes, is Kinarut, an idyllic town 20km away from Kota Kinabalu. A traditional trading village, its old-world charm can be found in its architecture. Passengers can take a short stroll to experience the ambience or view the ancient Tien Nam Shi temple.

Departing from Kinarut, the train continues through Kawang, wherein lies the Kawang Forest Reserve. Kawang is a popular destination for trekkers and those who enjoy outdoor adventures.

The train continues past mangroves, through the Pengalat tunnel and across the Papar River over a steel trestle bridge and into Papar Town. This is a main stop on the railway track. The township of Paper is located between the coast of Sabah and the Crocker Range, the state’s highest mountain range that separates the west and east coast of Sabah. 

The Vulcan has been beautifully maintained and remains in mint condition. The non-air-conditioned train allows passengers the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air as it travels through the rainforest of Borneo.

In the township, a great way to enjoy the local lifestyle is to visit and take in the sights, sounds and scents of the markets markets and mingle with the friendly people.

As passengers shop and enjoy Papar Town, the train is reloaded with firewood. Train enthusiasts will enjoy watching the locomotive change direction on the wheelhouse.

DINING ON THE TRAIN

A large part of the charm of riding the North Borneo Railway is dining on board. The train is staffed by a team of 13 stewards, stewardesses and chefs, along with a train supervisor.

Breakfast is served as the train departs from Tanjung Aru. Train supervisor Armin Bin Taman explained: “The food preparations start the day before at the hotel (Sutera Harbour Resort). We cook the dishes on Wednesday or Saturday morning, and bring them to the train before departure.” Prep work is done on board the train, the food is heated and served during meal times.

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Breakfast is served as the train leaves Tanjung Aru. “We have payis ubi, kuih penjeram, curry puffs and roti kahwin,” listed Armin. Meals are served using cutlery and coffee cups from the colonial British era – a unique experience for most passengers.

Interiors of the North Borneo Railway train with meals served in tiffin carriers

Passengers enjoy lunch served in tiffin carriers, a touch of old-school Sabah. (Photo: Ananya Pictures)

On the two-hour journey back, passengers enjoy lunch served in a traditional tiffin carrier. “The tiffin meals are a touch of old-school Sabah, reflecting Borneo’s multi-cultural identity,” said Armin. Tiffin carriers were a convenient way to carry meals during a commute in the days of old, and tiffin was a light meal served instead of lunch.

The North Borneo Railway only operates twice a week because each round trip requires extensive preparation.

On the North Borneo Railway, however, the tiffin is fairly substantial: “We have fish curry, nasi bukit, chicken percik, sayur paku pakis and prawns,” he added.

As they draw close to the end of their train journey, passengers are treated to snacks, said the train supervisor. “We have a fruit platter at the end we serve coffee and tea and ice cream potong.”

STEPPING BACK IN TIME

The North Borneo Railway only operates twice a week because each round trip requires extensive preparation. For one, these trains use a vast amount of energy to build up steam pressure, Tan explained. Also, it is a precious piece of the past that belongs to Borneo.

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Nevertheless, the experience of taking a journey aboard these British Pullman carriages is unparalleled. “It takes you back to the glamorous age of luxury train travel,” said Tan, “reminiscent of the 20s and 30s.”

“It is our pride; it is something very unique,” he said. “We will maintain it as long as it can last. Hopefully, perpetually.”

Armin added: “I feel proud because this is a train that still exists and it’s in Borneo. I hope this train will be maintained for future generations as they would not know that a train like this still exists.”

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