On this episode of Talk Travel Asia podcast we explore riding Asian trains. Train travel is one of the most in-touch and connected ways to travel. Many a novel has been written around such journeys and the romance therein. With the advent of air travel and the cost of doing so dropping, train travel has become not as economical as it once was. At the same time, many countries are upgrading their rail systems, and others still rely on decrepit ones, which can be part of the appeal and charm. On this episode we’ll chat with train travel expert, Mark Smith, also known as The Man in Seat 61, who maintains the world’s top website for train travel information.

Traveling by train in Myanmar; photo courtesy Mark Smith

Scott & Trevor talk about train trips they have done.

Scott: As a kid I did a couple from Ottawa to somewhere in the east coast but can’t remember where. Also overnight in Thailand to Chiang Mai and also to Songkhla in the south. But my father and I did the Trans Siberian from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, then onwards to Beijing. From there we took a high-speed train to the far south of China, crossed the border into Hong Kong, which was incredible. That took about 3-weeks and we used The Man in Seat 61’s website extensively.

Trevor: I like the idea of riding Asian trains but I have done very little train travel. I’ve done the overnight Bangkok to Chiang Mai a few times and I always dreamed of having a train party until they annoyingly banned alcohol from the trains. And I took an overnight private cabin from Saigon to Nha Trang which was kind of cool. That’s about 75% of all my train experiences save a few on day trip trains on the east coast of the USA. 

What Scott and Trevor don’t like so much about train travel:

Scott: Showers and toilets can really suck at times. Was partially the case on the Trans-Siberian at times. There are Russian and Chinese trains that ply the route from Moscow – Ulaanbaatar. We had a Chinese one – not sure about the Russian ones. We had a very nice, brand new train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing which was really clean and comfy. The high-speed train in China was nice too but I’d go for the first class seats next time – we had second class which was okay but a bit chaotic at times. But hey – 2,100km in 11-hours was pretty incredible.

Trevor: Seems awesome. I hate flying because I can’t sleep on planes and I need to walk up and down the aisle the whole flight. Red eyes are the worst. So the train seems great. Can walk around they have bar carts, you can get a private room for a reasonable price it seems. What’s not to like except when the guy gets on board selling dried squid and stinks up the whole thing. God I hate that. 

Traditional fisherman at Inle Lake; photo courtesy Mark Smith

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The good points of train travel vs other modes of travel:

Scott: The connectedness. The journey is a major component of the trip. Watching scenery go by, smiles and conversations with people onboard, and then grabbing items during quick stops along the way from people selling goods on the platform. There is a real charm in this and I get a kick of looking at a map later and seeing where I went by land.

Trevor: Just seems like you can see the countryside and you might be able to meet other passengers more easily than on a train or a bus. And those high speed trains they have in China… i’ve only been on a short one but that even beats airplanes simply because it seems so much more efficient to check in and then leave on time. 

The Man in Seat 61, Mark Smith; photo courtesy Mark Smith

Guest Intro: Mark Smith is from the UK and has enjoyed a life in rail. He started his career as a station manager for British Rail, and also assumed that position for London’s Charing Cross & London Bridge stations in the 1990s. He’s also been a customer relations manager for two UK train companies and later head of Fares & Ticketing regulation at the Department for Transport. Mark started his website, The Man in Seat 61, purely as a hobby in 2001. It became his full-time job in 2007, and now receives up to 1 million visits per month, helping people travel by train and ferry in the UK, across Europe and worldwide. He joins us from his home in Quainton in the UK to talk about riding Asian train.

Questions about riding Asian trains:

  • Did you always love train travel or was it a byproduct of your occupation?
  • I had a number of model train sets when I was a kid: did you play with trains as a child?
  • What were some of your earliest memorable train journeys?
  • What prompted you to start your website, The Man in Seat 61 
  • Tell our listeners what kind of information they might find on the website. 
  • Why the name?
  • How did things get to the point that you were able to transition to running the website as your full-time career?
  • Tell us a bit about the experience and journey running the website and service?
  • How often do you now get out and travel by train?
  • You listed your two favorite train journeys as being ones in India and Myanmar. Can you share those with us one at a time? Let’s start with the New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling on the Darjeeling-Himalaya Railway.
  • Tip: Stay at the Windameer hotel in darjeeling. 
  • Wow – amazing. Okay, now let’s go to another country in Asia where the British built the rail system and learn about your other favorite train journey: the Mandalay-Gokteik & Nyaungshwe -Thazi routes in Myanmar.
  • Are these two rail journeys the kind of trips people without much train travel experience can do or would you suggest start with something a little less complex for people looking for a train-specific holiday?
  • How do you see high-speed rail in Asia changing train journey experience for travelers? I’m thinking about the one from China into Laos and eventually further afield.
  • What is the future of riding trains in Asia?Will it get better or worse for travelers?
  • Is part of the charm of train travel for pleasure the older technology and lines?
  • What train journeys are still on your bucket list?
  • Do you generally take your own food on train journeys or do you like to roll the dice and try dining in the cars?
  • Difference between narrow gauge and wide gauge railways and what’s better?
  • Finally, any tips for people wanting to plan an epic train trip?
Train travel in Myanmar; photo courtesy Mark Smith


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Trevor: Riding Asian trains seem awesome. I wish I had more opportunities to travel by train. But I’m American and I live in Cambodia. Two very un-train friendly destinations. Though Cambodia does have a train running again, albiet mostly a novely train, and then there’s the Bamboo train, which is fun…. 

Train trips we’d like to take:

Scott: Both that Mark mentioned here sound great. I’d also like to take any overnight journey in Myanmar as I’ve heard the system is so old, outdated and pretty nuts, but a great experience. In Sri Lanka would be nice – I’ve seen pictures of some routes. To go across Canada would be interesting but is quite expensive now. Perhaps some routes in India too. Across Central Asia would be very cool

Trevor: Anything man. I love the idea, I’ve just never had many opportunities. It seems to me that making the train ride the focus of a trip would be the way to go about doing it, the way you did with your dad or the way that Mark can help people plan. I’m game for it someday. I don’t know that it will happen any time soon unfortunately.


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