Saturday, February 11, 2012

The most luxurious train in the world



Some trips are all about the voyage rather than the destination, and the three-night train journey from Bangkok to Singapore on the legendary Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O), covering over 2,000 kilometers and passing three countries, is one of these. The train trip is the destination itself, and it’s one amazing ride guaranteed to push even the most jaded travelers out of their comfort zone of nonchalance and make their hearts skip a beat.

With not a little excitement, I arrived at Bangkok’s Italian-designed circa 1912 Hualampong Station at 5 PM on a hot Sunday afternoon to complete formalities for boarding the E&O that would take us passengers to the River Kwai, and then on to Malaysia and Singapore.

Afterwards, we were led by a smiling young girl in a Thai formal dress to the other side of this cavernous and bustling central train station, with people and their luggage sprawled all over the floor. On platform # 21, a long line of gleaming green and gold carriages majestically awaited.

The E&O is among the most luxurious trains in the world, and this journey through Asia is perhaps the most exotic. On its journey up and down the Malay Peninsula, it passes by the sea, through jungles, and along rivers and rice fields.


THE GLAMOROUS BIG SISTER

Its big sister, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, which is the original Orient-Express train made famous by the mystery writer Agatha Christie, was inaugurated in 1883; and for close to a century, it glamorously crisscrossed Europe carrying royalty, world leaders, and other important personalities. Today it still plies the London-Paris-Venice route in the same old-fashioned style.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The E&O began life in the 1970s as the Silver Star train of New Zealand. The Orient-Express company purchased the train in 1991 and completely remodeled it into the rolling, ultra-deluxe hotel still operational today. After a thorough two-year workout, it opened for business in 1993 and became the first train to seamlessly carry passengers between Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. (Before this, travelers had to change trains at Butterworth Station outside Penang in Malaysia).

LUXURY INSIDE-OUT


Today each of its 22 carriages, with its wood-paneled interiors and hand-cut marquetry, rich Western furnishings, Thai accents, and potted plants and flowers, is designed to magically transport passengers back to the golden age of leisurely travel – and certainly to instantly impress at first encounter with its opulence and style.

SIZE LIMITATIONS

At the same time, being a train that must conform to standard railway specifications, its luxury is nevertheless limited by its size. The dining cars are cozily intimate, the corridors are so narrow two people can’t pass at the same time, and my standard cabin with en suite shower was all of 62 square feet -- the size of a large walk-in closet.

Nevertheless, we were instantly enamored with the E&O. Our cabin was a design marvel to behold -- with its beautiful turn-of-the-century style brass fittings and intelligently-planned spaces and functions – and it more than adequately stored everything I had brought for a glamorous trip that enthusiastically encouraged dressing up, including three long gowns and requisite paraphernalia.

FINE DINING WITH NO SHORTCUTS

The E&O has three on-board restaurants -- passengers dine in two shifts and have the option of sharing tables. Meeting people is part of the onboard fun. The kind of travelers willing to pay a small fortune for the E&O and spend three days traversing a distance nowadays easily achieved in an hour, and with a budget airline ticket that often costs only as much as a fancy dinner in Bangkok, are an eclectic, if scarce bunch.

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CHARACTERS ON BOARD

We met a retired American schoolteacher living in Jakarta who’d always wanted to take an O&E voyage since reading the novel Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. The famed mystery writer adored train travel herself, and once said: “Trains are wonderful...to travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns...and rivers, in fact, to see life.”


Two British gentlemen were also spending their 60th birthdays on the train, while a group of Russians, occupying an entire carriage, seemed intent on re-living the days of pre-1917 Russia when the Imperial Family traveled great distances by luxurious trains. Meanwhile two smiling Japanese ladies, evidently on a girls’ bonding trip, spent most of their time going from one end of the train to the other in elegant kimonos.

OVERNIGHT MIRACLE

While at dinner, stewards visit each cabin and quickly – if almost miraculously - transform the cabins into proper and extremely comfortable bedrooms bedecked in white linen, duvet blankets, and fluffy pillows.

The standard cabins have bunk beds – reminding me of my college dormitory room in Japan – while the suites have twin beds. The set-up, perhaps coupled with the train’s rhythmic rocking motion and the complete absence of telephones and electronic gadgets, provided me with the best sleep I’d had in months.


The changeover from day lounge to bedroom always occurs seamlessly while passengers are at dinner. Everyone leaves for a meal and returns to cabins that are ready for sleeping.

On the last morning prior to arrival in Singapore however, I finally watched with fascination as Thamasin, our ever-smiling and efficient cabin steward, reverted my bedroom back into a daytime lounge in exactly five minutes. Nothing extraneous was brought in or out. In that tiny space, there was designated storage and function to go expediently from day to night and back.

STOPS ALONG THE WAY

There are two excursions on this voyage from Bangkok to Singapore, both equally educational and interesting: a ride down the River Kwai on a wooden raft for a view of the famous bridge and a visit to the Thai-Burma railway museum in the town of Kanchanuburi; and a stop at Malaysia’s Butterworth Station for a ferry ride to Penang for a quick rickshaw tour around Georgetown, Malaysia’s historic heritage capital, ending with iced tea at the majestic Eastern & Oriental Hotel.


The best part of an E&O voyage however, is still really the experience of stylish train travel itself – a wonderful journey that has all but disappeared from fast-paced modern life. It is relaxing, glamorous, and romantic all at once.

OVERCOMING LIMITATIONS

The limitations for five-star service for a maximum of 132 people in a cramped and moving series of compartments are obvious from the outset, and yet the flawless and discreet service of both the cabin stewards and restaurant attendants would shame any luxury hotel or Michelin-starred restaurant.


A compartment steward is on call 24-hours via a bell in the cabin. He serves a continental breakfast of coffee and freshly-baked croissants and a full afternoon tea each day, and attends to every detail – from processing documents for border formalities to ensuring passengers have every possible comfort.


Meanwhile, the restaurant staff executes a level of dining service easily at par with top restaurants around the world; while Chanyuth, the maitre d’hotel who has been with the E&O since 1993, organizes each passenger’s meal schedules, and undertakes the delicate, all-important task of pairing strangers for shared tables. After every meal, passengers receive a card with the time, venue and table number for their next meal.


The wonderful E&O service encourages passengers to re-discover the art of doing nothing. In this age of constant interconnectivity, it’s almost unthinkable but appropriate that the E&O does not offer Internet access or any form of electronic entertainment.

NOTHING AND YET EVERYTHING TO DO

There are no television sets or DVD players, although there is a reading room with a modest library and a foot masseuse on stand-by. So in between excursions and meals, there is little to do but sit leisurely by one of the panoramic windows, or in the marvelous open-air teak-paneled observation car at one end of the train, and enjoy the ever-changing views over proper afternoon tea.


The forced slowdown in pace also provides much welcome opportunities for solitary reflection or interesting conversations amongst passengers.

Thankfully, even for a Filipino well acquainted with the rice paddy-and-jungle scenery of Southeast Asia, the views of Thailand and Malaysia are still fascinatingly different from the Philippines.


Amazing views of craggy mountains rising out of nowhere, interspersed with graceful Thai temples and houses and a colorful, ornate railway station, for instance, delighted us as we left the royal seaside town of Hua Hin in Thailand.

BEAUTIFUL MALAYSIA

Immediately after crossing from Thailand into Malaysia, the scenery changes wondrously into endless kilometers of rubber tree and palm oil plantations, a landscape interrupted occasionally by golden-domed Islamic mosques and colorful Indian temples adorned with Hindu statues amidst the fields.

Between Penang and Kuala Lumpur, we journeyed through the Perak region, a prosperous state grown rich on tin mining, and home of the large and hauntingly beautiful Bukit Merah Lake.


Cultural activities are also available onboard for those wishing to learn more about this part of Asia, via daily entertainment in the bar cars and lounges. During the entire voyage, a Singaporean pianist played old favorites in the bar until early morning, while traditional Thai musicians and Malaysian classical dancers took turns performing as the train wound its way from one country to another.

CULINARY EXCELLENCE

For many passengers however, the best part of the E&O voyage is the food. The wonderful three- or four-course lunches and dinners are served in the three restaurant cars in a style and standard equivalent to some of the world’s best restaurants. Nothing is compromised despite the limitations of two small kitchens in a constantly moving vehicle.

Meals are served with a full complement of fine china, silverware and crystal stemware; and with impeccable timing. Appropriate wines arrive promptly with each course so that diners wait nary a minute for their beverage of choice, and fresh pepper materializes just as you are thinking of it.


The leisurely pace of life onboard coupled with the elegant restaurant setting and the constantly changing scenery outside encourages full appreciation and satisfaction for each dish, as created by French chef Yannis Martineau, a veteran of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train. Throughout the voyage, Chef Martineau paced back and forth between two kitchens overseeing the food and service.

Having had our fair share of luxury cruises and other similarly upmarket travel involving volume meals for passengers, we had few expectations for being truly impressed gastronomically. However, every single dish on this train was well-conceived and expertly-prepared.

Most dishes prepared by Monsieur Martineau were an excellent marriage of Western food with Asian herbs and spices: roasted salmon is paired with Asian vegetables and a Vietnamese bouillabaisse, for instance, while steamed sea bass is served with egg tofu and shiitake mushrooms.

It’s almost fair to say that the overall gastronomic experience on-board the E&O, and the slow but full-on sensory pleasures that accompany it, are the trip’s highlights. The pace of life onboard is slow but time passes all too quickly. Before long, the E&O pulled into Singapore’s art deco-inspired train station – and the temporary return to a graceful and elegant past of grand voyages came to an end.

* * *

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