Trains, Tiffins & Temples – All Aboard the North Borneo Railway

I’ve always enjoyed train journeys, maybe it’s the gentle rocking motion and the rhythmic clack-ity-clack of the rails that I find comforting, like a type of meditation, or a primal reminder of the comfort and safety of my mother’s womb. Or maybe it’s that I’m a hopeless nostalgic that romanticises the idea of ‘The Grand Tour’, back in the day when slow travel was the only option, and if you were lucky enough to have the means, it was done in style.

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

When I imagined how we would pass our time in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, it never crossed my mind that we would be spending a day riding the rails on a historic vintage train pulled by one of the few remaining wood fueled steam engines remaining in the world. You don’t need to be a train buff to enjoy this journey, the North Borneo Railway experience has something to offer every adventurer.

North Borneo Railway - A day well spent in Sabah

Just a short 10 minute transfer from our hotel, The Sutera Harbour Resort, we arrive at Tanjung Aru Station for the beginning of our journey.

The railway was originally constructed in the late 1800’s by the British North Borneo Chartered Company and the British Colonial Office who administered this area of Borneo at the time. The idea was to open up access to Sabah’s interior and haul products like tobacco, sugar, rice, silk, pineapples and soya beans from the interior plantations to the port of Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Now the railway runs regular diesel passenger and freight services to Tenom, but for an extra special heritage experience, the vintage steam train service to Papar (and back) is a real treat.

This is really one rail trip where the highlight of the experience is not the destination, but the journey.

Steam train - North borneo railway Sabah Malaysia

North Borneo Railway - travel with kids Sabah Malaysia

On arrival at the station stewards dressed in colonial attire greeted us with a smile and we each received a passport that was stamped as we passed through each town along our route.

North Borneo Railway - A day well spent in Sabah

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

vintage steam train journey Sabah Borneo

steam train in Sabah Malaysia Borneo

We arrived early enough to take a really good look at the engine. It was a hot day and the heat given off by the fire box was almost unbearable. I don’t envy the job of the fireman and engineer working in this heat, but for train lovers, I’m sure working on a locomotive like this is a real privilege. If you’ve ever wanted to blow a old steam train whistle, here’s your chance.

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

And then the final whistle blew, time to get settled and we were off.

The journey is a round trip of around four hours duration, and includes a morning tea of local treats and a tiffin style lunch. But more about that later…

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

Stepping into the carriage is like stepping back in time. The five carriages were actually built in the 70’s but have been meticulously restored and renovated to recreate the era when train travel was in it’s heyday, all with the convenience of a bathroom on board and ceiling fans for extra comfort.

There is no air conditioning on board, but I think that enhances the experience as the windows and doors are open throughout the journey, allowing you to get close to the sights and sounds of the landscape as it rolls by.

Refreshments of homemade lemonade and a chilled towel cool us off before tea and coffee is served. Locally grown organic Sabah tea is on offer and I make a mental note to pick up a pack to take home, but sadly it slipped my mind until now.

sabah tea on the North Borneo Railway

Emma and I both enjoyed the tasty local tea time treats served on a basket plate lined with a banana leaf.

Local Malay breakfast on the North Borneo Railway

Breakfast treats – Kaya toast, Chicken Curry Puff, Kuih Penjaram (Rice flour & coconut milk cake) and Steamed Cassava parcels.

And as we pass the town of Putatan the train line heads inland and the scenery changes from coastal views to lush green scenery, fruit plantations and mangrove jungles.

This is really one rail trip where the highlight of the experience is not the destination, but the journey.


north borneo railway

A short 20 minute stop at Kinarut allows us to disembark, stretch our legs and explore a  Buddhist temple in this traditional village. A short walk across the tracks under a shady canopy of trees and over a small creek bring us to a small but colourful temple called Tien Nam Shi.

north borneo railway journey


It was watched over by 18 statues of Buddhist monks and a 20-foot smiling Buddha. Emma took a turn of ringing the bell and beating the drum.

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

This bowl of water dances when the handles are rubbed at the correct frequency. Our guide Roland explained that you need to be in a state of ‘zen’ to get the vibrations just right. Try as I might, the water just wouldn’t dance for me, so one of the locals showed us how it was done.

dancing water bowl

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

At the correct resonant frequency, little bubbles are formed on the surface of the water making it appear like the water is ‘dancing’.

Tien Nam Shi temple Sabah

Back on the train and our tables are already set for our Tiffin lunch.

Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

Tiffin Lunch Steam Train - North Borneo Railway

We each receive a four tiered stainless steel lunch box containing an array of delicious local dishes and some fresh fruit for desert. I love food in compartments, there is something quite satisfying in methodically unpacking a tiffin, and it’s all the more exciting when you don’t know what is contained inside. It’s like a little surprise parcel you can eat.

Tiffin Lunch - North Borneo Railway

Our Tiffin Lunch on the North Borneo Railway – Stir fried fern shoots with prawns, Fish curry with Okra, BBQ spiced boneless chicken leg with steamed Sabah brown hill rice, Fresh local fruit.

Tiffin Lunch - North Borneo Railway

The train continues onto Kawang and Papar, passing villages, over rivers, through tunnels and past lush jungle growth.

North Borneo railway

North Borneo railway

North Borneo railway

We are lucky to pull along side a local commuter train and have a moment chatting to the passengers traveling in the opposite direction.

North Borneo railway

As the train rattles past schools, the children wave through the windows and run alongside the train. We seem to be a welcome distraction from school work and this steam train that comes past only twice a week is as much of a novelty to the young kids as it is to us.

school kids sabah - travel with kids

North Borneo Railway - family travel

At Papar there is an option to go and explore the town and it’s local market, but I was feeling a little light headed so I chose to sit on the shaded bridge that crosses the tracks to catch the cool breeze, and watch as the locomotive turned around on a giant turntable ready for it’s return journey.

Kids activities on the north borneo railway

The journey back to Kota Kinabalu was relaxing as Emma entertained herself with some colouring pages and I chatted to our fellow travelers about their experiences in Sabah.

We arrived back in town a little later than the time table schedule, but our guide Roland says it’s not unusual as the engine is very old and sometimes a little temperamental, so they don’t always travel at top speed. We had nowhere to be and still found plenty of time to hit the pool when we returned to our resort.

WHERE: Tanjung Aru Station, 10 min from Kota Kinabalu
WHEN: every Wednesday & Saturday, boarding at 9.30am
HOW MUCH: RM 345.00 per person (about AU$ 110), children under 4 are free.

Bookings essential at least 24hrs in advance
Free transfers for Sutera Harbour Resort Guests

My Poppet travelled to Sabah as guests of Sabah Tourism Board.
We flew with Royal Brunei Airlines.


  • Karen says:

    Thank you for this detailed review. We are going to visit Sabah in November and have booked our tickets for the train. I’m pretty sure it will be a highlight for us!

  • Jane Louis-Hemmingway says:

    WOW! Looks awesome, thank you so much for sharing your adventure. I have added it to my bucket list 🙂 x

  • Hello there, this brings back some happy memories, I went on a train in Sabah in the 1980s, it went from inland to the coast – must hunt out the photos. Would for sure do this trip with the kids if we visited.

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