Luxury train journeys through Asia
There’s nothing quite like a train journey to experience a new place. Unlike a cruise, where the countryside fades into the background, a train ride features windows to take in the changing scenery, promising a culturally immersive experience like no other.
Train travel on its own has perks — being slow and mindful — but luxury train travel takes things to the next level. It offers all the sightseeing promise of regular train travel, plus hotel-style living and above-and-beyond touches.
When it comes to train travel, it's safe to Asia stands out. These are some of the continent's most spectacular journeys.
Seven Stars Kyushu — Japan
With seven cars — one for each of Kyushu’s seven prefectures — the Seven Stars Kyushu is considered to be the creme de la creme of Japanese luxury trains. With modern, woody interiors, and a burgundy and gold exterior, the train features large panorama windows to soak in the countryside.
The train journeys through five of Kyushu’s prefectures: Fukuoka, Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima and Kumamoto. The trip includes a night’s stay at a traditional ryokan — an inn —at Yufuin, which is renowned for its onsen (hot spring baths).
Still, what sets the Seven Stars Kyushu apart is the connection guests experience to local families when visiting — not just when stopping at a prefecture, but also when passing through: local families and friends gather to wave and cheer as the train passes by.
Apart from taking in ever-evolving vistas and warm locals, passengers get a true taste of Japan through a carefully selected menu, both on board and off, with everything from French and Japanese cuisine to comforting farm-to-table meals.
River Cruise Haerang — South Korea
"Haerang" literally translates into "with the sun" — perhaps because this one-of-a-kind hotel on wheels travels with the sun, while showcasing some of Korea’s finest sights. With wacky decor and a king-sized bed, the suites on this train feature panoramic windows to take in the spectacular scenery.
Alongside the bar car, where passengers can enjoy a glass of wine while enjoying the sunset, the River Cruise Haerang's lounge car, aptly named the Four Seasons Car, has windows on both sides of the carriage, and hosts entertainment in the form of concerts and art shows. Not to mention, the food on the train features a variety of Korean fare, including much talked-about bulgogi (grilled meat).
The train has three journeys, the longest of which is three nights: the "Grand Tour of Korea." Depending on which journey you choose, you might stop at the Gochang Dolmen — a UNESCO monument often compared to Stonehenge — or the Suncheonman Bay Wetland Reserve, which is home to 140 species of birds, including the endangered black-faced spoonbill.
Palace on Wheels - India
Hailed by "Conde Nast Traveler" as the fourth-most luxurious train in the world, and the most luxurious in Asia, the Palace on Wheels promises luxury train travel with a distinct nod to old-school Indian royalty.
Each of the 14 coaches, which are named after royal Rajput states of yesteryear, come with matching Rajasthani interiors and khidmatgars (butlers). Additionally, two restaurants serve a full spread of Indian, Chinese, Continental and, of course, Rajasthani cuisine.
Tours one can take on the Palace on Wheels include trips to Jaipur, a tiger reserve in Ranthambore and the Taj Mahal, among others. The key attraction on board is the Sheesh Mahal Bar, which is modeled after the Sheesh Mahal, or Glass Palace, itself a stop on the tour.
While the original Sheesh Mahal is encrusted floor to ceiling with tiny mirrors to mimic stars in the night sky with the lighting of a single candle, this one is bright, blue and silver. Not to worry though: enough signature cocktails and you won't notice any difference between the two.
The Royal Express - Japan
As Japan’s newest luxury cruise train, the Royal Express runs along the coast of the Izu peninsula. In a three-hour journey, guests are treated to scenic views with gourmet meals crafted by chefs Michiyo Kawano and Chikara Yamada.
With a royal blue and gold exterior, the interiors are equally rich, featuring floor-to-ceiling wood and emerald and navy brocade. The train can accommodate up to 100 passengers and includes everything from a pianist for on-board entertainment to a multi-purpose hall. And since Izu is a quick getaway for those based in Tokyo, the train is entirely child-friendly, featuring a children’s library in addition to a ball pit in the Gold Class carriages.
For those opting for longer trips, extensive cruise plans are available, incorporating overnight stays in Izu. Attractions up for viewing include Mt Omuro, an extinct volcano, and an old ryokan inn, Tokaikan.
The Golden Chariot — India
A South Indian luxury train, The Golden Chariot comes equipped with 44 air-conditioned cabins, each featuring an LCD in case you get bored of the rolling hills and golden beaches of Karnataka unfolding outside your window.
In the week-long journey, passengers can expect to take in UNESCO World Heritage sites like Hampi and Pattadakkal (both exceptionally preserved temple complexes), stop at a wildlife reserve and enjoy the ever-buzzing beaches of Goa.
This train comes equipped with two dining cars, plus a gym and spa. Still, the highlight is its cigar lounge and bar, Midira, which was modeled after the Mysore Palace.
The Golden Chariot runs in two circuits: Pride of the South, which covers the state of Karnataka alone, and Southern Splendour, which extends its journey to two more states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Train Suite Shiki-shima — Japan
A futuristic-looking train from the outside, the inside is minimalist glamour to a T. The lounge, with its woody, forest-inspired interiors, has a cozy fireplace, live piano music and, to round things out, a full-service bar, so you can settle down with a drink whenever the mood strikes.
The suites themselves are luxury redefined, featuring traditional design elements and a cypress bathtub to help you soak away your woes. Because, you know, it’s so stressful going on a luxury rail cruise.
The highlight of the Train Suite Shiki-shima, however, is the viewing terrace. This indoor terrace boasts bright, white decor, a handwoven carpet and massive windows to take in the sights as the train travels through Hokkaido. The train journey changes depending on the season, so experience is guaranteed to be unique.
Maharajas’ Express — India
Travel like royalty on this train, which offers seven different rail journeys, each traveling a different set of destinations. You can choose to visit wildlife sanctuaries like Ranthambore or a renowned tiger reserve in Rajasthan, or to absorb unadulterated Indian heritage, depending on which route you choose.
Naturally, the perks of traveling like a maharaja are all about exclusivity: the Maharajas’ Express only accommodates 88 guests at a time, but the train offers a full-fledged dining car, a bar and a lounge. And if your budget affords it, the Presidential Suite has two bathrooms, one of which has a plush bathtub, plus a living room, dining room and two bedrooms within its 448 square feet. Oh, and butler service — duh, because you’re royalty.
Eastern & Oriental Express — South East Asia
Journeying between Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, the Eastern & Oriental Express is the ultimate train journey through Southeast Asia. The train features a Presidential Suite, State Rooms and Pullman Cabins with single beds or bunks - all with plush wooden interiors. It’s the perfect tribute to old-school glamour: much like the Agatha Christie novel, one might say - except with modern amenities
The Dining Car is straight out of Christie’s novel, too, with renowned chefs crafting one-of-a-kind menus to suit a blend of east meets west, for each destination. And for breakfast, there’s also the option for breakfast in bed and a champagne breakfast.
Since the train also services multiple routes, each city and jungle it passes through has inspired a signature cocktail on the bar menu.
Twilight Express Mizukaze — Japan
Japanese rail travel is, arguably, the global gold standard. Where luxury train travel elsewhere focuses on opulence, in Japan, they focus on an optimal blend of elegance and simplicity.
The concept behind the Twilight Express Mizukaze is to provide a luxury hotel on wheels which doesn’t detract from the landscape, with a nod to its predecessor, Twilight Express, which ran between 1989 and 2015. The new train was thus designed by a team of experts in both architecture and industrial design, with additional details both inside and out resulting from a team of local artisans.
Its glossy, dark green body travels covers a two-night, three-day round-trip journey from Osaka or Kyoto through to Okayama, Shinji, Higashihama and back. Stops on the route include sunset over Lake Shinji and Korakuen garden, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
Deccan Odyssey — India
From heritage sites to an Asiatic lion reserve, and a stop at one of the largest salt marshes in the world, the Deccan Odyssey has an odyssey for everyone. The word "Deccan" refers to the Deccan Plateau — an expansive volcanic plateau which spans India from west to south, spanning a total of eight states.
The train is itself iconic: The exterior is painted a blue that is fit for royalty, with golden trims around windows and striping the length of the train.
Apart from two dining cars that feature regional as well as continental and Chinese cuisines, this train comes with a bar, gym and spa. And if you want to, you can make your Odyssey a work-trip, because they even have a conference car with secretarial services.
Aru Ressha — Japan
Otherwise known as the "Sweet Train" because of its extensive on-board gourmet sweets selection, Aru Ressha came to be a luxury food destination on wheels thanks to renowned chef Yoshihiro Narisawa. Narisawa creates a five-course meal (of which three are sweet courses) with ingredients sourced from the Kyushu region, all served in elegant interiors which include romantic colors and soft maple wood under a coffered ceiling.
The train’s black and gold body screams class, owing in aesthetic to the founder of the Hara Model Railway Museum in Yokohama — Nobutaro Hara, who modeled a train infused with romance called the "Aru Ressha." The two-car train travels on a one-day round-trip which changes route — and menu — with the seasons (it currently operates between Sasebo and Nagasaki). But the fare remains a constant ¥24,000 (U.S. $210), which includes food and non-alcoholic beverages.
The Shangri-La Express — China
The Shangri-La Express by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains is a truly unique train journey, in that it journeys past everything from the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to isolated yurts to the Xinjiang Province of China.
The train features two classes: a Diamond and a Heritage class — the former of which homes a double bed, desk, wardrobe and large bay window. On-board facilities include a piano bar with a resident pianist — which is said to remain open till the last patron leaves — as well as a dining car that serves a full spread of both Continental and Chinese meals.
Additionally, the ticket price includes on-board and off-board accommodation, spanning eight destinations, including Lhasa, Urumqi and Kashgar. The Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Museum in Urumqi houses mummies of Western travelers that are believed to have visited China up to 4,000 years ago, while Lhasa is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, and the former winter palace, Potala.
Trans-Mongolian Express — Mongolia
Another gem by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, the Trans-Mongolian Express takes passengers from Moscow, Russia to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Along the way, passengers experience the little-known Naadam Festival, a uniquely Mongolian midsummer festival where the country’s nomadic, Herculean past is honored in a set of three competitive games: archery, horse racing and wrestling.
Rooms on this train take luxury to a new level - guests spending their nights in the Imperial Suites can expect to be greeted by a bottle of Dom Perignon in addition to their all-inclusive minibar. Better still, while on off-train excursions, Imperial Suites come with private guides and cars - because, you know, sharing and luxury don’t always go hand in hand!
Jokes aside, the entertainment on board this train is what sets it apart: From lecturers by local experts to Russian lessons, and a resident pianist, the Bar Car Lounge is forever abuzz with something to do. And, as for the menu, the journey boasts freshly baked treats at teatime alongside extensive regional options.
Silk Road — China to Russia
Spanning a whopping seven countries, the Silk Road train is by far the most extensive journey through Eurasia by train. Passengers on this route stop by The Great Wall, Terracotta Soldiers, the Historic Centre of Bukhara and the Walled City of Baku among many more UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
When you’re not steeping yourself in history and culture, however, the train has two dining cars in which to indulge in both local and international cuisine, as well as a bar where guests can take in some live piano music, try their hand at cards or attend a vodka tasting.
Of course, a luxury train journey would be nothing without the hotel-on-wheels accommodation, which is why the train offers plush furnishings, en-suite toilets with hot running water and a complimentary bottle of vodka in every room, to wash down the "Caviar Dinner" hosted on the Russian leg of the journey.