Chugging back to colonial Borneo
By Shanti Gunaratnam
reminder of the colonial era in Borneo awaits discovery. The North Borneo Railway,
completed in the 1800s and only mode of reliable transport to Sabah's interior right up to
World War 2, has been revived.
From the Tanjung Aru station, it chugs on past the market towns of Kinarut and Papar, on
the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu.
The train meanders past the backyards of small settlements, villages, Chinese temples and
churches, mangrove swamps, a 136m tunnel as well as padi fields and oil palm plantations.
The journey is powered by an old steam engine pulling five dining carriages and gives
visitors a wonderful insight into a bygone era.
While passengers enjoy the countryside along the route, lemonade is served and on the ride
back to Tanjung Aru from Papar, a tiffin-style lunch of assorted savoury pastries, fried
chicken, sandwiches and dim sum is provided.
As the steam engine and non-air conditioned carriages roll past houses, villages and
towns, one will be delighted to see little children and adults waving at passengers.
Tourists, especially those from the West and Taiwan, are often fascinated by the sight of
buffaloes wallowing in the mud.
At Papar, the rice bowl of Sabah, the train stops between 20 and 30 minutes to allow
passengers to disembark and walk around the small town's tamu (market) which sells all
sorts of jungle and farm produce.
The original railway established by the British ran from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort (the old
capital of the British North Borneo) and the line passed through Kinarut and Papar.
Later, it was extended to Tenom and Melalap, which are still important coffee and
vegetable growing areas and for years, steam engines made the run from Jesselton (now Kota
Kinabalu) to Tenom carrying daily necessities and returning with rubber sheets, timber,
coffee and jungle products to be traded locally or exported to England and elsewhere.
When the British packed up and left Malaya, the fate of the railway suffered and for
years, the steam engines were left to rot at Jabatan Keretapi Sabah's (Sabah Railway
It was Sutera
Harbour Resort and Spa's idea to revive the train service in order to preserve part of
the State's heritage. It approached the department and three years and RM1.5 million
later, the North Borneo Railway and its steam engine train, is back on track.
Sutera Harbour Resort general manager James Loo says the train belongs to JKS and the
resort has a licence to sell tours on the train.
The engines and tracks are maintained by JKS while the resort, which has a 30-year lease,
takes charge of the carriages.
The tours are popular with the British because they can relate to North Borneo.
"Taiwanese, on the other hand, simply love to try something different. We have done
some charter tours as well where the train goes right up to Kimanis Bay and you will be
surprised if I told you that the tracks stop right at the beach where picnics and
barbeques are held for the groups," says Loo.
A return trip to Papar including food costs RM160 per adult passenger and RM80 per child.
Services are available twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The return journey takes
about four hours.
Special charter runs to Kimanis Bay or even "the gate of the interior" Tenom,
which formed the heart of British North Borneo, cost between RM250 to RM350, including
transfers, per person.
Times, New Straits Times