Travels around Malaysia – Part 8: North Borneo Railway

This is the eighth in a series of blogs that describes our continued travels on the Malaysia Peninsular and the Malaysian portion of Borneo.

Full steam ahead

On the footplate There seems to have been more interest than ever in steam trains in the UK. TV programmes and the 75th anniversary of the Mallard’s record run has fueled the interest. So we were delighted to include The North Borneo Steam Railway in our travel plans. With its origins in the 1880s and established in 1914, a more recent collaboration between Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway allowed us to see more of Sabah and at the same time experience the bygone age of the steam locomotive. 

Transport to Tanjung Aru station is included if you are staying at Sutera Harbour and a walk along the platform gets us our first glimpse of the 85 tons British Vulcan that will be pulling this service. Built by the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows in1954, it was decommissioned from general use in the early 70s but was relaunched in 2000 in honour of Kota Kinabalu achieving city status. The engine is now called Kota Kinabalu City. Childlike enthusiasm blagged me and my SilverTravel bag a trip onto the hot plate to watch the stoker load logs into the furnace (unusually this train is a wood burner not a coal burner). I don’t know how they can stand to do the four hour round trip when the heat from the furnace feels like Hades itself. I made a hasty exit before my trusty bag burst into flames.

The stoker Entering our lovingly restored Japanese designed carriage (one of five) using the natural woods of Sabah, we sit at our dining table and await departure – ALL ABOARD! Don’t ask me to explain it but I’m filled with a boyish excitement as the train puffs out of the station, half expecting to see Haley Mills wave us off on our journey to Papar. The gentle smell of burning wood added to the atmosphere and was good for keeping the mosquitos off and stopping the little so and sos from biting me.

Pretty soon the city scape of Kota Kinabalu was left behind and we headed into the Sabah countryside of palm trees and rustic buildings. The next station is Putatan and the stewards, beautifully dressed in period costumes, begin to serve our continental breakfast and stamp our souvenir passports with the first station’s name. Our view improves dramatically as the track hugs the Lok Kawi Bay and we get to enjoy picturesque views of the South China Sea.

Playing statues The next station gives us an opportunity to stretch our legs and briefly explore some of Kinarut. We chose to visit the Buddhist Temple where the local children showed us their prowess at walking on stilts and we examined an impressive array of Buddha statues. Adopting a camouflaging pose with my silvertravel bag, we blended in seamlessly with the existing Buddhas (do you think anyone would have spotted we weren’t a real statue?).

The Vulcan steadily sets off again and pulls us through the Kawang Forest Reserve where we see Mangrove jungles, paddy fields and some water buffaloes cooling themselves in some muddy water. Then we are pitched into the darkness of the Pengalat Tunnel, built by the British in the early 1900s. Shortly after we rattle over the steel trestle bridge crossing the Papar River and reach our destination, the quaint township of Papar. We have 30 mins to explore the Papar Tamu (open air market) and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells as the rural folk sell their home grown produce. I once read that a blind traveller loved Bangkok because the smells were a sensory delight to him. He would not have been disappointed by the array of smells that titivated our olfactory glands in the Tamu here. Whilst we’re taking in the sights, the Vulcan is being replenished with water & our lunch was being prepared in the British Pullman carriage.

Period costume As we retraced our journey 38 km back to Kota Kinabalu, our Tiffin lunch is served to us in traditional Tiffin Cans. A tasty selection of chicken satay, fried spiced mackerel fillet, cucumber and pineapple salad, mixed vegetables with prawns, chicken Biriyani rice and fruit was followed by (Sabah) tea or coffee as we relax and enjoy the sights of our return journey. Enthusiasm wasn’t limited to me, all along the route people (particularly children) waved and smiled at us passing.

My only complaint was that the mood music being played was beginning to drive me mad, not my cup of tea at all. Strangely enough I’d been discussing the decorating of the train for the Christmas period with the staff and suggested they play a little White Christmas, I so wish it had been playing on our trip, save me Bing, save me!

An outstanding morning out and if you are in this area try and be free on the Wednesday or Saturday so you can enjoy this trip. The North Borneo Railway quite deservedly won Best Tourist Attraction at the 2013 Sabah Tourist Awards.

The next day was our opportunity to explore Kota Kinabalu.

For holidays to Asia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia.

309 people found this helpful

Share Article:

Steve Aldridge

Award-winning travel writer

Leave a comment


Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest travel tips on top destinations.

Join the club

Become a member to receive exclusive benefits

Our community is the heart of Silver Travel Advisor, we love nothing more than sharing ideas, inspiration, hints and tips between us.

Most Recent Articles

Ambassador offers unique ways to focus on health and wellness while enjoying the beauty of the sea….
Who can resist an invitation to a birthday party in Paris? Gillian Thornton celebrates 40 years of Riviera Travel, the…

Come feel the love on a Princess cruise. You’ll enjoy the MedallionClass experience others simply can’t, and it’s exclusively for everyone. Visit incredible destinations and be involved in the best experiences around each one of them.

Experience more with Princess and connect effortlessly with the world around you, spend time away with loved ones, take a moment for yourself, and fall in love with your holiday of a lifetime, every time.

With over 20 years of experience, Wendy Wu Tours has mastered the art of creating exceptional, fully inclusive tours which showcase the very best of each destination.

Each tour is led by a world-class guide, who will highlight the very best of their homeland, and includes authentic cultural experiences so you are not just seeing the sights, but truly immersing yourself in local life.

Say hello to ease at sea. Ambassador’s purpose is simple: they want to inspire every guest to experience authentic cruising, effortlessly and sustainably. Passionate about protecting our oceans and destinations, their ships comply with the highest industry emission standards and there is no single-use plastic on board.

On your voyage, you will receive the warmest of welcomes from the Ambassador community as you sail upon the friendliest ships afloat.

This is a global co-operative co-owned by local partners using real local experts and guides, which supports local communities, environments and wildlife. It offers travellers quirky places to stay, activity holidays and learning experiences. Not In The Guidebooks gets travellers off the beaten track into local culture with day experiences and longer, immersive adventures.

From wild wellness breaks in Wales to painting in Portugal, sustainable adventures in Mauritius to food safaris in Brazil, this is immersive, exciting travel.

Seabourn’s five intimate ships carry guests to the heart of great cities, exclusive yacht harbours and secluded coves around the world, while two new purpose-built expedition ships will combine exhilarating adventures in remote destinations with the sophisticated amenities of the world’s finest resorts at sea.

From the luxury of all suite accommodations to complimentary fine wines and spirits, and a no tipping policy, Seabourn exemplifies the definition of travelling well.