Train Spotting

Earlier this year (April) we made a flying visit to Australia to surprise my father for his 75th birthday. While we were in Melbourne we stayed in the Dandenong Ranges and I took The Princess on the iconic “Puffing Billy” train ride from Belgrave to Emerald. We enjoyed the trip on the Puffing Billy and we also had a lot of fun following it by car and taking photos and video of it making its way through the mountains east of Melbourne. At the time we commented that we were becoming “train spotters”.
Today, we slipped back into train spotter mode by taking another historic train ride but this time we are in Malaysia.
Malaysia was once a part of the British Empire (during the 18th and the 20th centuries) and during this time the British established a number of railways throughout peninsular Malay and Borneo. One of these railways was the North Borneo Railway. In recent times, this railway has been restored and it is now a tourist railway that runs between Kota Kinabalu and Papar.
We booked a seat on today’s train (it runs two days a week) and this meant a pick up from the hotel at 0900. We rose around 0730, had a shower then made our way down the dining room around 0815. We thought it would be prudent to have a bite to eat before we left the hotel.
The bus arrived at the Magellan entrance at the designated time and we along with the other pre-booked passengers boarded the bvs for the short trip to Tanjung Aru – the departure station for today’s trip.
We arrived at the station around 0910 and collected our tickets at the ticket offices before making our way to the platform. Seating was not pre allocated so this meant we were able to choose our carriage and seating.
All of the carriages (ironically built in Japan) were beautifully appointed and they are restored to the original decor. silver and Chinaware, and the linen and upholstery reflected the era in which the train was operating and we felt like we had been transported back to the early 1900′s.
Waiters and platform staff wore pith helmets and period relevant costumes and their Malaysian hospitality resulted in us settling into the whole experience very quickly.
The wood fired Vulcan steam train was shunted into position at the front of the train around 1000 and it wasn’t long before the station staff were hollering “all aboard” to the accompaniment of the steam engine’s high pitched whistle.
The train hissed and chugged out of the station at the laid down departure time and we were not too far down track when our light breakfast of croissants, pastries, juice and hot beverages was served.
We rolled along the northern coast of Borneo very comfortably and enjoyed the sights and sounds as we passed through small villages and alongside the shoreline of some beautiful beaches.
The track wound its way through mangrove swamps and rice paddies while we savored the light breakfast and got to know some of the other passengers that were taking today’s journey.
After 20kms of “dah dunk, dah dunk” (the sound the wheels make on the track) we arrived at the tiny town of Kinarut. The train stops at this traditional village for around 20 minutes and we opted to take a short walk to the nearby colorful Chinese temple. You would think we would have had enough of Chinese temples given that we live in Hong Kong!
We spent time taking some photo’s of the local children and the temple environs before returning to the station. The engine driver was signaling the impending departure with intermittent whistle blows so the remaining passengers (which included us) hastened our return along the well maintained tracks.
We departed Kinarut at the scheduled time and continued along the track south west to Papar. The 18km journey through low lying coastal scenery took around 45 mintues – time enough to enjoy a mid morning refreshment.
The pre-noon arrival at Papar meant that the sun was not quite at its apex however the temperatures were rising toward 30 degrees plus as we disembarked the relatively cool carriage.
The Princess and I opted for a walk around the nearby town markets during the relatively short stop in Papar – an experience worth the effort.
The wonderfully friendly locals were very happy (and proud) to show us their wares and we delighted in interacting with the children and their curious stares.
We returned to the station about 15 minutes before the timetabled departure and spent time in the hot midday sun taking some photos of the steam engine before returning to the fan cooled temperatures of the carriage.
Our booth style window seat tables were reset with lunchtime cutlery, napkins and face towels and our Tiffin style (or “dabba” as the Indian would know it) lunch was awaiting our pallets.
Most of the other passengers had finished their lunch sets before we re embarked the carriage however we enjoyed the sumptuous Malay offerings as we rolled back along the tracks on the return journey to Tanjung Aru.
Whilst we were seated on the same side of the carriage as before, the return journey took on a new perspective as we sat back and let the world roll by outside our windows.
The return journey meant that we had the benefit of knowing where the rail crossings and small towns (and therefore the excited children) were. We enjoyed waving at the proud and appreciative locals as the rolling stock rattled along the well maintained track.
The engine’s steam whistle sounded as we approached the many road crossings and the wood fired soot filled the carriages when the wind blew it through the open windows. The whole trip was very nostalgic.
We arrived back into Tanjung Aru on time at 1340 and it wasn’t long before we were disembarking the carriage, say our goodbyes to the attentive and friendly staff and making our way to the shuttle bus to the hotel.
We arrived back at the hotel around 1430 and decided to “retire” for the afternoon by taking an afternoon (holiday) nap.
As we drifted off to sleep we recalled the wonderful trip on the North Borneo Railway to Papar – a smooth and comfortable trip from Tanjun Aru to Papar complete with excellent service, period costumes, pleasing scenery and decadent food. What a wonderful trip indeed.
After rising from our mid-afternoon slumber we went downstairs to Muffinz Cafe and relaxed over a hot coffee and some of the tasty handmade cookies and updated our trip blogs.
“Sundowners” (happy hour) started at 1730 so we made our way to the terrace of the Magellan club and took up “residence” as the sun started its descent below the western horizon.
Several white wines, some delightful Malaysian treats and the superb service from the staff all resulted in us experiencing a beautiful end to the daylight of 16th September.
The Princess made the most of the stunning sunset lighting by taking quite a few photos of the sun setting over the islands to the west of Kota Kinabalu.
We are now ready to retire for the night so we will make our way back to our room on the 1st floor and prepare to sink into our bed.
Tomorrow we plan to take in the Sunday street markets that set up in the city. We will have some breakfast then make our way into town around mid-morning. We will finish off our day of rest with a foot massage before returning to the resort for a final night of relaxing.
Selamat Malum (“Good Evening” in Malay).
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