Sutera Harbour – North Borneo Railway Experience


The North Borneo Railway is definitely an attraction not to be missed and it is currently rated as #1 thing to do on trip advisor. The history of this railway is dated back to 1896 whereby the British administrators initiated its construction. It served as a major transportation tool for bringing paddy, sago, pineapples, soya beans, silk and many more, out to Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu’s british name) for export.

Today, the wood-fueled steam engine is one of the few existing ones left in the world. Its iconic “Choo Choo” sound, made from the release of  steam onto the exhaust pipe, is a major crowd-puller, especially among fans of “Thomas the Train”.

With courtesy of Sutera Harbour, We were given the opportunity to be part of this 4-hour rail tour (inclusive of breakfast & lunch) which is usually fully booked.

If you have pre-booked your tour, shuttle bus would be provided from both hotel lobbies at Sutera Harbour at around 9am. The ride from the hotel to Tanjung Aru Station is approximately 15 minutes. We had to collect the tickets from the ticket counter and we were given a “passport” and a hand fan as well.

As you can see, the staff were all well-dressed in their colonial uniform for this themed ride. From 9:30am, you will be able to board this non-air conditioned train (think colonial times!) but most people would rather hang around outside to take photographs of this artifact.

This is what the interior of the train cabin looks like: 2 to a table on each side and if I’m not wrong. the maximum capacity of this train is only 80 people.

No, this is not the head of the train.. The iconic firewood-fueled steam head has yet to arrive.

Legendary steam train head is reversing in! As you can see, the entire green carriage is just for firewood.

According to our guide, this steam train head was actually already in the museum but in 2000, the North Borneo Railway was re-launched as a joint venture project between Sutera Harbour and Sabah State Railway.

Are you reminded of Harry Potter and the train to Hogwarts via Platform 9 3/4?

Behind a moving steam train, there’s a lot of sweat, hard work and a massive pile of firewood.

Beautifully presented Menu for the day – Breakfast & Lunch

The Danish Pastries (supplied from the kitchen of Sutera Harbour) were really delicious but I ate too much during the hotel breakfast to enjoy this :/

Do remember to try the Sabah Tea. It tasted really nice and I ended up buying a box of tea home from the airport.

The train set off at approximately 10am. Together with the pastries, I felt very ‘English’ for the day as I sipped the tea and look out of the window on a moving train. The feeling on this train was so different. Unlike most train travels whereby I was transiting for one location to another, I was not feeling rushed or stressed. It was a pleasant morning with 4 hours of nothing but relaxation (and heat).

The ‘Passports’ given to us earlier were stamped by the train staff along the way. It’s a pretty boring chop with just the name of the place – which explains why I forgotten to take a photo of it. It could be a little more interesting if each chop is uniquely designed. There are 5 chops to collect in total.

After approximately 40 mins, we arrived at our first stop was at Kinarut. We saw the 1960s-looking traditional wooden shop houses and followed the train staff and walked to see a Buddhist temple.

(I love this photo to bits)


I don’t know what is the significance of this but there as this random elephant statue at the back of the temple.

It was a hot and humid day but this heavenly cold towel was waiting for us when we returned back to our seats. Two thumbs up for their thoughtfulness! Sutera has definitely brought the 5-star experience onto this nostalgic train ride.

We saw a lot of Mangrove plants along the way. There were supposed to be fields of padi (rice) but we were unable to sight any as the harvest season was just over on 31st May.

There would be bits and pieces of the local life in the suburbs – like a school in the picture below.

As the train passes by, we can see people, especially young children waving to us excitedly. Well, and you have to smile and wave back to them 😉

There will also be random abandoned houses along the way.

The train staff kindly opened the door for us to stick our heads and hands out to take this lovely photo when the steam train turns. Beautiful ain’t it?

Somewhere along the journey, there would be this 450m Pengalat Tunnel whereby you get to experience total darkness (as if it was in the olden days). I couldn’t really enjoy the darkness as I was too glued to my phone doing social media updates~ #addictedtohavingdata

At about 11:45am, the train arrived at its final destination – Papar Town. Instead of rushing off to explore the town, everyone remained at the platform to watch how the train head changes its direction.

Anyway, suaku me who has never watched a single episode of Thomas the Train asked the tour guide how the train head changes its direction. My question was answered by a (sounds like Singaporean) Dad who said ”TURNTABLE” then I’m like wow.. and he then continued, because I watch Thomas the Train with my son.

Right, so now I’m more ignorant than a kid.. I need to start watching more cartoons to learn more general knowledge.

This is how a turn table works. The train head enters this circular movable platform which turns 180 degrees to adjust the direction and then the train moves out again.

After watching this, I remembered that I have actually witnessed this turntable operation during my rail bike experience back in South Korea 2 years ago. *face palms*

*CHOO CHOO* jugg jugg jugg jugg jugg *CHOO CHOO* jugg jugg jugg jugg..

Finally, we were done with the turntable entertainment and proceeded to the town of Papar. Unlike Kinarut, this town is significantly more crowded and busy. The guide brought us to visit the local market which was only a short 5 minutes walk from the train station.

In this town, my aim/hope/dream/wish was to eat durian but we couldn’t find any. Maybe it wasn’t the season yet.

In the market, our tour guide introduced to us this amazingly delicious fruit called tarap/ Its fruit has a texture and taste which seems like a fusion between Soursop and Jackfruit.

It’s a uniquely Eastern Malaysia fruit and the taste is memorable – You gotta try it some day!

Delicious! SEDAP! MUST TRY!

After filling our stomach with Tarap, we returned back to our train station. When we returned to the station, we were really lucky as we glimpsed upon the (twice a day) local train (Sabah State Railway – Malay).

It’s funny how these trains only cost a fraction compared to our North Borneo Steam Train yet they are fully air-conditioned. On a hot and humid day, the only thing in your mind would be air-con……..

In my next trip, I would love to take their local train.

After we returned to our seats, it was time for TIFFIN LUNCH! Looking at these containers do bring back some memories.When I was a lot younger, we had catered dinner and it came in a container like this.

The spread was amazing in terms of taste and quantity and my favourite would be the extremely sweet fruits and the very fresh giant prawns in the vegetables 😀

For our return journey, we were advised to swoop seats with the other table so that we can enjoy the other side of the view which (to me) seems prettier as there are more greenery and mountains in the backdrop.

It was a non-stop 1 hour journey all the way back to Tanjong Aru station.


As there’s always room for dessert, they gave us Magnolia ice cream (though a bit melted) which tasted heavenly in that weather.

Upon reaching Tanjung Aru Station, it was time to say goodbye to the Steam Train and the lovely train staff who were really courteous and hospitable.

For pricing of this experience, please click here.

In my opinion, the prices are not cheap but this is probably due to the limited supply against the growing demand. The train only operates twice a week – Wednesday & Saturday (depart at 10am); which means that they can only accommodate a maximum of 160 passengers per week.

HOWEVER, it is a very pleasant experience that I would recommend to all. For the older crowd, it would be very nostalgic and for the younger children, it would be really educational. There were so many things to learn from this steam train experience and you should definitely try it before the steam train’s head ends up in the museum again.


Check out my other entries in this series:

(1) Bloggers Sponsored trip to Kota Kinabalu (June 2014)

(2) Air Asia Red Carpet Experience to Kota Kinabalu

(3) Sutera Harbour – Luxurious 5-Star resort in Kota Kinabalu

(4) Sutera Harbour – North Borneo Railway Experience

(5) Sutera Harbour – Sunset Cruise on Puteri Sutera Yacht

(6) Island Adventure in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

(7) Kota Kinabalu – Half Day City Tour by Sutera Tourism Board

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