On a recent trip to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, I learned of a nineteenth-century train line that’s still in operation. Starting from Kota Kinabalu, the biggest city in Sabah, the train takes you along the coast to the small town of Beaufort. From there, you can take a second train that roughly traces the Sungai Padas River to the coffee-producing town of Tenom. I love traveling on old trains, so this adventure seemed right up my alley. But it was not without its roadblocks (or landslides).
The train from Kota Kinabalu went smoothly. It wasn’t crowded, so I was able to get a window seat without issue. We made several stops along the way, picking people up and dropping others off in the villages on Borneo’s north coast. There was nothing wrong with this journey – it was efficient and the carriage was air-conditioned – but it wasn’t very scenic and it didn’t have that “step back in time” vibe that I was hoping for.
We arrived in Beaufort at around 10 AM, leaving me three hours before the train to Tenom was scheduled to leave. I meandered every block of the small town, taking in a Chinese New Year celebration at a grade school and eating at one of the Indian “curry houses” next to the open-air market, all while taking in many smiles and hellos from the friendly locals. I even had time to check out a World War II memorial for an important battle that was fought there. By the time I returned to the train station, it was early afternoon and scorching hot.
But the journey wasn’t meant to be. A recent rain storm had caused a landslide midway to Tenom, blocking the tracks. I was disappointed but not ready to give up. It was still possible to go by bus, taking a long detour around the Sungai Padas to the city of Keningau, and then onward to Tenom. Unfortunately, the next bus wouldn’t leave for four more hours, but I still felt it would be worth the wait.
I found a nice park next to a pond and napped; eventually a nearby mosque’s call to prayer woke me. I ate another meal, walked around a bit more, and chatted with a few locals who had no idea that the train line was even blocked. The bus took me into the foothills along Borneo’s main highway and eventually dropped me off in Keningau at 8 PM. It was an industrial city without any tourist attractions, so I got a room and went to bed early, with plans to head to Tenom the next day.
Tenom was a beautiful town, located in Sabah’s main coffee-growing region. As an added bonus, its higher elevation meant lower temperatures. I spent the afternoon wandering through the hills and stumbled upon the Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin, where I took in the sunset. While relaxing I met an American man (the first foreigner I had seen in several days) who said that he had just arrived by train! I had assumed that clearing the landslide would take weeks if not months, but apparently the train was already running again. I decided that I would take the train back to Beaufort in the morning.
At night there was a giant New Year’s celebration, complete with lion dances and lots of fireworks, with thousands of people prancing through the streets. But I was mostly excited about my upcoming journey.
The train had an engine and two cars. As soon as an employee opened the entrance gate, the local passengers made a mad dash for the carriage with bench seats, but I sauntered to the open-air boxcar. This train was more my thing! I met a group of young Malaysian teachers who were equally enthralled to be aboard.
We left Tenom at 8:30 and the train slowly traversed the tracks that wound through the river valley. I leaned out the door and took in the green jungle as it flew past. Others sat in the doorway, feet dangling over the tracks. We occasionally approached a small platform next to a few houses, and a single passenger flagged down the train as if it were a bus. There were no roads leading to these houses, so the train was their only mode of transportation. It slowly got more full as we continued.
Halfway into the trip, the train stopped at a rare location with two parallel tracks. The engine disconnected, took the second set of tracks around us, then reconnected behind us. It then pushed us the rest of the way to the landslide area.
When we reached the landslide, we all got out, walked a few hundred meters along the tracks, and waited for another train to approach us from the opposite direction. When it arrived, we swapped places with its passengers and continued on our way.
The trip was quite scenic, with the brown river flowing, and verdant hills in the background. And this trip truly was like stepping back in time, not only because of the train itself, but also the price: less than $1.
We arrived in the familiar town of Beaufort at noon. I made my way back to Kota Kinabalu in the afternoon, happy to have completed one of southeast Asia’s great train rides. And there was plenty more adventure still to come.