By Chris McBeath

As the whistle blows, we are ushered aboard The North Borneo Train and immediately we have stepped back in time.

Within minutes, the station master calls “All Aboard” and the wood burning British Vulcan engine hisses steam into the morning sunshine, and heralds our departure. Slowly we begin to move, rumbling over the tracks out of the Tanjung Aru Station in Kota Kinabalu towards the steamy Borneo countryside.

The Vulcan is the last in a fleet of locomotives that has plied these tracks since the late 1800s although nowadays it carries mainly sightseers – adventurers of a gentler kind.

As a collaborative venture between Sutura Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway, the train has been renovated to reflect a bygone era; it comprises five colonial-style passenger carriages, each carrying 16 people. Seats are comfortable upholstered benches that have been embellished with the original logo design — a tiger standing on the royal crown. Light fixtures are nostalgic, wood trim is extravagant and while overhead fans fend off the ever-present equatorial humidity, you wait for the speed to gather momentum so that a soft wind breezes through the open-air windows. Through them, the familiar clackety-clack sounds seem amplified, and as we travel along the tracks of time, the Borneo countryside unfolds.

We hug the coast of Kinarut with Lokawi Bay stretching out into the South China Sea. Edging away from the road, we pass a Buddhist temple near the foothills of Mount Kinabalu and come to a near stop when a water buffalo meanders across the tracks.

“Cool lemonade?” asks our steward, dressed in crisp, colonial whites. Throughout the trip, we are waited on hand and foot, and enjoy a delicious “tiffin-styled” meal. Served in traditional tiffin boxes, the meal typifies the service style of yesteryear. It is a unique culinary experience that combines a variety of Malaysian delights from curried fish to gingered chicken and sliced papaya.

Before long, we’re traveling through mangrove swamps. Knitted together beneath the water, the mangroves rise up in a tangled landmass where monitor lizards laze and leeches are all too common. Seedpods hang from the leafy branches like long runner beans about to dive into the water where they take root and spread the land out still further. The forests here grow so dense, explorers create whistles out of the hollowed out pods, blowing them to keep tabs on each other’s whereabouts.

As we pass a palm oil plantation my imagination drifts back in time. Back to the turn-of-the-century when adventuresome Englishmen cut into the wilds of this untamed land and endured malaria, leeches, and the threat of headhunters, to create vast plantations – and fortunes from coffee, coconut, tobacco, ramen and cocoa. Those were the heady days of the “White Rajas”.

Suddenly, the mangrove forests open up and we’re riding past houses teetering on stilt foundations and paddy fields scattered with farmers harvesting grasses from the knee-high water. Their large conical hats match their wicker baskets like some agricultural fashion statement. The train then merges with the historic 450 metre long Pengalat Tunnel, crosses the Papar River over a steel trestle bridge and finally reaches Papar, “the Rice Bowl of Sabah.” But for all the sights we have seen, what lies before us is truly breathtaking. It is a stretch of track that, seemingly built atop the shores of Kimanis Bay, looks to carve its way through the yellow sand, like steel through butter and alongside a sea and a sky both tinted with the peaches of a late afternoon sun. National Geographic would die for this scene.

In a country that hosts more than 30 different indigenous groups speaking over 80 dialects, Malaysia’s multi-cultural mosaic is as intriguing as it is colorful. Most visitors are hard pressed to experience them all. However, with the North Borneo Railway at least, there’s a way to appreciate that diversity from its cities to its fields, riding an echo of time that is close enough to touch.

If You Go:

More on this train trip:
For more information: Tourism Malaysia (