Nick Walton explores the lush landscapes of Southeast Asia aboard the region’s most luxurious train, Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express.
At 5.45 pm to the second, the gruff old conductor at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train Station, his eyes on the ancient clock mounted on the wall above, drops his red signal flag to a shriek of train whistles as the Eastern & Oriental Express, Asia’s queen of the rails, takes tentative steps towards Singapore.
My partner Maggie and I are standing, with many of our fellow train travellers, in the observation car, an open-air carriage dressed in gleaming brass and varnished Burmese teak. Located at the rear of the train, we wave to the Thai families, sweat-stained backpackers and the odd train enthusiast assembled on the platform, as the station drifts away into the encroaching dusk, bound for Kanchanaburi in Thailand’s far west.
The Eastern & Oriental Express may seem like a colonial remnant that has sauntered its way across Southeast Asia’s rails for generations – and a lot of work has gone creating such a first impression. Much of the E&O – as she is commonly referred to – started life as the Silver Star, running between the New Zealand cities of Auckland and Wellington. Even as a small boy I remember infrequent night-time visits to Auckland’s expansive main train station to collect visiting relatives who had travelled on the gleaming, stainless steel sleeper. Many years later I would encounter some of these same carriages being retrofitted in a rural New Zealand rail workshop, as I snooped for stories for the local paper.
So it’s with a certain degree of satisfaction that I now lean out, bathed in warm evening air laced with the smell of the track-side grills and the wildflowers that grow in thick clumps beside our path.
The Eastern & Oriental Express is a Southeast Asian (and decidedly more modern) version of its famed sister, the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express, which is also operated by Belmond, and which runs between Calais and Venice, with seasonal sojourns as far as Istanbul. The same elegance the made the Orient-Express a household name is found throughout the E&O, although its interpretation here is more a blend of tropical Asia and colonial pomp.
At a quarter of a mile in length (and seemingly much longer when you’re making your way down the train’s super-model slim passageways after dinner), the E&O comprises 66 air-conditioned cabins in three classes, catering to a total of 132 mainly British, European and American guests. There is also a saloon, three dining carriages, a library, and two bar cars, one of which opens onto the Observation Car at the train’s rear.
The train’s 30 entry-level suites – called Superior cabins – are simple but luxurious Pullman-style rooms that measure 5.8sqm and feature a comfortable banquette style sofa which converts into bunks at night. The 28 State cabins measure 7.8sqm each and feature one banquette sofa and one lounge chair, each of which fold out to create two side-by-side single beds, while eight Presidential Suites measure 11.6sqm a piece and also feature a lounge setting that converts into two single beds at night.
All cabins on the Eastern & Oriental Express boast en suites complete with showers, washbasins and WCs, as well as international power sockets, luggage storage space, a small wardrobe and attentive 24-hour steward service.
We retire to our room to prepare for dinner as the last light seeps from the skies over Bangkok. Our State cabin is comfortable and private; two large viewing windows frame the world whizzing by and come with Venetian blinds and thick curtains. The bathroom, although small, is surprisingly practical, and with the luggage stowed, there is plenty of room for one to wrestle their way into a tie and jacket for a whiskey sour, followed by a three-course dinner.
The bar car is the train’s social epicentre. While passengers spend daytime hours in the moisture-soaked air of the observation car watching the myriad green hues of Southeast Asia rush by, it’s in the bar car, fuelled by the shared experience (and a few well-made tipples) that guests meet and greet one another, making new friends and new dining companions for the many meals and miles ahead.
A Singaporean pianist called Peter quickly breaks what little ice remains on the first night; his ragtime classics draw in couples from both ends of the train while the rest of the passengers assemble for the first dinner seating. Drinks are surprisingly affordable in the bar car, which also sees live cultural performances take place later in the trip. Attentive Thai staff, dressed in gold and green silk chakkraphat uniforms, glide around the bar car offering drinks and smiles as Peter kicks his piano chair out – Elton John style – and adds a personal flair to the climax of Rhapsody in Blue.
The train manager announces the second seating for dinner and the occupants of the bar car file through to one of the three dining rooms, Adisorn, Rosaline and Malaya. Maggie and I dine with an Italian mother and son. They’re celebrating her recent retirement in style, and we dine on warm goat cheese soufflé with asparagus and a delicate Thai curry bouillon, followed by grilled snow fish with vegetables in a vermouth and soya sauce.
Although dessert is tempting, we excuse ourselves to the cool solitude of our cabin, which our steward, also called Peter, a 15 year veteran of the E&O, has turned the beds down. It’s not long until we’re both lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train as it powers through the darkness towards our first stop, the Bridge over the River Kwai.
As daylight streaks across the sky, Peter, ever resplendent in his green and gold uniform, serves a continental breakfast of fresh fruit and warm croissants with strong Columbian coffee. It’s an early start; the train is preparing to pass over the dramatic 300 metre-long wooden trestle bridge that clings to limestone cliffs on the approach to Kanchanaburi. Almost all the train’s passengers make their way to the observation car as the train crawls along the trestle, and before long we’ve stopped on the iconic iron arch bridge at the River Kwai, a historic locale on the Thai-Burmese Railroad built by Allied prisoners during World War II.
During an hour-long river cruise, a local historian from the United Kingdom that helped found the Kanchanaburi Railway Museum fills us in on the strategic importance of the bridge, and how its construction cost the lives of so many prisoners of war.
Coaches take us to the newly built centre, which overlooks the expansive POW cemetery, and its various exhibits on the railway’s construction and the conditions in which the prisoners lived are moving. Passengers are given plenty of time to walk under the blazing sun in the manicured cemetery and read the tombstones of those who fell.
We rejoin the train at Kanchanaburi’s tiny station, where she stands gleaming in the afternoon sun. Locals and a few sunburnt backpackers lean out of the windows of a distinctly less lavish local train that has stopped beside the E&O. They smile and take photos before we move off again.
As the train charges south towards Butterworth in Malaysia, couples read, enjoy massages in the library, or play cards in the shaded saloon. Maggie and I have afternoon tea in our cabin; Peter serves steaming hot Earl Grey tea from polished pots, with traditional Thai coconut desserts on the side. It’s a fantastically leisurely way to enjoy an afternoon of exploration, sans laptop and mobile.
Meals are a major event on the train. The tariff includes breakfast and afternoon tea, served in your stateroom, as well as formal dinners and less formal lunches in the dining cars. How the culinary team manage to create such exotic dishes – each of which combine traditional French cooking techniques with local flavours and ingredients – I’ll never know, but meals are leisurely and intimate affairs and there is always someone keen for a post-meal cognac in the observation car.
We cross into Malaysia in the middle of the night; the tracks are in much smoother here and passengers sleep late, waking only for breakfast in bed and later a light lunch as the E&O approaches Butterworth, for a tour of the island of Penang.
We take a local car ferry across to Penang; it’s painfully slow after the powerful train trip but before long we’re walking through Georgetown’s ancient streets, past Chinese shrines stained with generations of incense smoke, and into the courtyard of a local clan house, where a fleet of the island’s iconic trishaws stand to attention, each shaded by a cream and green E&O umbrella against darkening skies.
The trishaw drivers deftly glide us through the narrow cobbled streets and out into the traffic, their bells echoing off time-tired pockmarked walls. Weathered but colourful shopfronts line the streets as we explore Little India, Malay fruit markets, and bustling Chinese neighbourhoods, before passing the famed Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan association grounds and pulling into the stunning Eastern & Oriental Hotel (no relation to the train) in time for a lime soda and a cold towel. Passengers make it back to the train as the sky starts to grumble and from the observation car, the air is thick with moisture and the anticipation of a tropical storm.
As the E&O curves her way around the banks of Lake Bukit Merah two hours later, it’s waters almost silver under the storm clouds and the fading light, the first thick tropical raindrops descend from the heavens, dousing the earth in a chorus of insect calls and the patter of droplets hitting leaves thirsty for the monsoons.
After dinner Maggie and I breathe in the fresh, clean night air. The rain cleared during the meal and now the world seems refreshed. The train is fighting delay; for much of the route there is only a single track, meaning the E&O must often stop in sidings and wait for other trains to pass by. With the night at her back and a quick water stop in Kuala Lumpur ahead, she charges through the night, roaring her way through the impossible darkness of rural Malaysia.
Sleepy Ipoh, Maggie’s hometown, in ahead and we lean out the windows of the observation car, eager for signs of civilisation after long hours of dense jungle and plantations. Fortunately, the train slows and we glide gently through the tiny plateau town long enough for Maggie to point out her school, her father’s restaurants, and the colonial-era architecture of her childhood.
We wake in the morning to endless palm oil plantations on both sides of the railway line. The train still charges, determined to make up lost minutes, and before long the Eastern & Oriental Express is passing over the Johor Causeway between Singapore and Malaysia, and our journey has come to an end.
It’s with great reluctance that we leave the E&O and her crew; the train grows on you. We’ve made friends, exchanged phone numbers and promises of future visits. We’ll miss Peter’s smile and evenings of ragtime and champagne in the bar car, the smell of frangipanis at night, and the sight of orange-robed monks and cheering schoolchildren beside the tracks.
In many ways the train has taken us much further than from one city to another; it has shown us another side to the region – its people, its history and its elegance – and we can’t wait to do the return trip one day, on Asia’s grandest dame.
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