Established in 1896, the North Borneo Railway – NBR in short – is one of the main valuable artefacts in Sabah following the British Colonial era. History has it that the railway was built by an English engineer with the help of his assistant who is a Murut man. The North Borneo Railway features a vintage British Vulcan steam locomotive which was designed and built by the Vulcan Foundry in England as part of the last order before the factory converted to diesel and electric locomotive construction.

Boarding the North Borneo Rail at the Tanjung Aru Station in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
As the rest of the world switches to bullet trains and Mass Rapid Transits (MRT), Sabah is lucky to still have a functioning ‘choo choo’ train that runs on steam. Nonetheless, it was not all roses and sunshine for the North Borneo Railway. Almost two decades back, when Sabah’s roads are almost fully paved, the authorities almost shut down its operation thinking that the railway tracks will soon be obsolete following the use of automobiles. Thankfully, certain concerned parties have raised a petition, hence, keeping the North Borneo Railway alive for the new generation and tourists alike.

Under the management of Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, the newly refurbished North Borneo Railway now operates twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The train departs from the Tanjung Aru station at 9.00am, heading towards Papar and making several pit stops in between. From Papar, the train will make a turn back for the Tanjung Aru station and scheduled to reach it at circa 2.00pm.

In the age of speed and hectic lifestyles, where one practically rushes from one destination to another, sitting back and relaxing is considered a rare luxury. One of these days, why not reward your hard work by allowing yourself the luxury of sitting back and relaxing in a vintage Vulcan steam train? A ride on the North Borneo Railway offers passengers a deeply nostalgic and romantic experience of a bygone era.

Chug, chug, chugging along…

From the Tanjung Aru Station, the North Borneo Railway train will chug along the small towns of Putatan, Kinarut and Kawang before reaching its terminus in Papar.

In addition to its nostalgic and romantic novelty, the best thing about the train ride are the ranges of sceneries you’ll encounter along the way – from rustic countryside and bucolic old towns to verdant hillside forests and places of cultural interest.

In Putatan, you will be able to see small shop houses that look like those from 10 years back. Slowly, the development of Kota Kinabalu city begins to slip away as the train rolls into the countryside. One of the best views along the route between Putatan to Kinarut is the Lok Kawi Bay with offers a serenely picturesque view of the South China Sea.

Aside from a luxurious view outside the window, you will also be served with a sumptuous breakfast consisting of coffee or tea and a basketful of fresh Danish pastries!

In Kinarut, the train will make a 30-minute pit stop, allowing passengers to disembark and take the chance to visit the Tsim Shen Tsui Temple – a Buddhist temple which features 18 statues of Buddhist monks, a 20-foot monolithic smiling Buddha and a lotus pond dedicated to Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. One of the largest Buddhist temples in Sabah, the Tsim Shen Tsui Temple boasts an intricate architectural design and a setting that displays the amalgamation of local culture and Buddhism.

Passing through Kawang, you will be able to drink in an abundance of greens in the vast mangrove jungles, fruit orchards and paddy fields. According to Gayle Lambert, an Australian lady whom I had the opportunity of meeting and chatting with on the train, the abundance of greens and the quaint countryside are the most anticipated parts of the train ride.

“You’ll be surprised at how much we look forward to seeing what you consider as common as your backyard,” said Gayle, chuckling.

For those who are keen to go shopping, the Papar Tamu (open air market) welcomes you with wide open arms as the train makes another 30-minute stop in Papar before turning back. In addition to offering a myriad of souvenirs, food and other precious trinkets, the Papar Tamu is where you can meet the locals and absorb bits and pieces of their culture. The merchandize sold at the Tamu are also often cheap to a fault.

The journey home

As the train rolls back to where it came from, we were served with the Tiffin Set Lunch – consisting delectable servings of chicken satay, fried spiced mackerel fillet, cucumber and pineapple salad, mixed vegetables and prawns, chicken biryani rice and a fruit platter. A ride on the North Borneo Railway turned out to be pleasing to more senses than one.

Tiffin-style Lunch aboard the North Borneo Railway in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
As for Gayle Lambert, she was excited to show off the pictures she took of our Sabahan backyard – as well as the colourful purses she had gotten on a crazy bargain from the Papar Tamu.

Book your North Borneo Railway tour here.

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