Some trips are all about the voyage rather than the destination. The luxury train journey from Bangkok to Singapore on the Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) run by Belmond is one of these.
The train trip is the destination itself, and it is an amazing ride that pushes jaded travelers out of their comfort zone.
With not a little excitement, I arrived at Bangkok’s Italian-designed circa 1912 Hualampong Station at 5 PM on a hot Sunday afternoon. This was to complete formalities for boarding the E&O that would take us passengers to the River Kwai, and then on to Malaysia and Singapore.
AN ELEGANT WELCOME
Afterwards, we met a smiling young girl in a Thai formal dress who took us to the other side of this bustling central train station. On platform # 21, a long line of gleaming green and gold carriages 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 through 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 is the original Orient-Express train, was made famous by the mystery writer Agatha Christie. For close to a century, it 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.
“Even the most luxurious trains in the world are limited by its size. The dining cars are intimate, the corridors so narrow two people can’t pass at the same time. And my standard cabin with en suite shower was 62 square feet — the size of a large walk-in closet.”
ORIGINS OF THE EASTERN & ORIENTAL EXPRESS
The E&O began life in the 1970s as the Silver Star train of New Zealand. The then 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 TRAIN INSIDE-OUT
Each of its 22 carriages magically transports passengers back to the golden age of leisurely travel. And these certainly impress at first encounter with its opulence and style.
HOW BIG IS THE ROOM ON A LUXURY TRAIN?
However, even the most luxurious trains are limited by size. The dining cars are intimate and the corridors are so narrow that two people can’t pass at the same time. And my standard cabin with en suite shower was 62 square feet — the size of a large walk-in closet.
Nevertheless, we adored the Belmond’s E&O. Our cabin was a marvel to behold. I loved the beautiful turn-of-the-century style brass fittings and intelligently-planned spaces and functions. Interestingly, the cabin exceeded my expectations completely. We actually found enough storage space for everything I had brought for a glamorous trip, including three long gowns and requisite paraphernalia.
FINE DINING ONBOARD THE TRAIN
The E&O has three on-board restaurants so passengers dine in two shifts and have the option of sharing tables. Meeting people is part of the onboard fun.
The kind of travelers who book this train are an eclectic if scarce bunch. For one thing, they are 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 budget airline tickets often costing only as much as a fancy dinner in Bangkok these days, this is not a trip for those who just want to get from Point A to Point B.
CHARACTERS ON BOARD
On this trip, we met a retired American schoolteacher living in Jakarta who’d always wanted to take an E&O voyage since reading the novel Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.
The famed mystery writer adored train travel herself, and she 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, with lots of champagne and whiskey. Meanwhile a group of Russians occupied an entire carriage, seemingly intent on re-living the days of pre-1917 Russia when the Imperial Family traveled great distances by luxurious trains.
On the other hand, 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 ON THE E&O
The standard cabins have bunk beds that reminded me of my college dormitory room in Japan. Meanwhile 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. While guests are at dinner, stewards visit each cabin and quickly — if not almost miraculously — transform the cabins into proper and extremely comfortable bedrooms. These are wonderful, with white linen, duvet blankets and fluffy pillows.
On the last morning prior to arrival in Singapore however, I watched with fascination as Thamasin, our efficient cabin steward, reverted my bedroom back into a daytime lounge in five minutes. 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 luxury train voyage from Bangkok to Singapore, both equally educational and interesting. The first option is 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.
The second is a stop at Malaysia’s Butterworth Station for a ferry ride to Penang and a quick rickshaw tour around Georgetown, Malaysia’s historic heritage capital. This ends with iced tea at the majestic Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Incidentally, it was on that short stop that I decided I would stay at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on my next trip to Malaysia. And that is exactly what I did.
The best part of an E&O voyage however, is still really the experience of stylish train travel itself. It’s the kind of wonderful journey that has all but disappeared from our fast-paced modern life. It is relaxing, glamorous, and romantic all at once.
The dining experience and service are both worth mentioning since the limitations for five-star service for 132 people in a moving series of luxury train compartments are obvious from the outset. And yet the flawless and discreet service of the cabin stewards and restaurant attendants on the E&O would shame any luxury hotel.
A compartment steward is on call 24-hours via a bell in the cabin. He serves a continental breakfast and a full afternoon tea. He also attends to every detail – from processing documents to ensuring passengers’ comfort.
Meanwhile, the restaurant staff executes a level of dining service at par with top restaurants around the world. At the same time, the maitre d’hotel, organizes each passenger’s meal schedules. He also undertakes the delicate task of pairing strangers for shared tables when needed.
The wonderful E&O service encourages passengers to re-discover the art of doing nothing. In this age of interconnectivity, it’s almost unthinkable but appropriate that the E&O does not offer Internet access or any form of electronic entertainment. At least it still didn’t, at that time.
There are no television sets or DVD players, although there is a reading room 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 windows or in the open-air observation car and enjoy the views over afternoon tea.
The slowdown in pace provides welcome opportunities for solitary reflection or interesting conversations among passengers.
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.
Immediately after crossing from Thailand into Malaysia, the scenery changed 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 that had grown rich on tin mining. It is also home of the large and hauntingly beautiful Bukit Merah Lake.
Cultural activities are also available onboard for those who wish to learn more about this part of Asia. During our voyage, a Singaporean pianist played old favorites in the bar until early morning, while traditional Thai musicians and Malaysian classical dancers performed as the train wound its way from one country to another.
For many passengers however, the best part of the voyage on a luxury train is the food. The wonderful meals are served in the restaurant cars according to a very high restaurant standard. Nothing is compromised despite the limitations of two small kitchens.
Meals include a full complement of fine china, silverware and crystal stemware, and everything is served with impeccable timing. Appropriate wines arrive with each course, and fresh pepper materializes just as you are thinking of it.
The pace of life onboard combined with the restaurant setting encourages appreciation for each dish. The menu we had was created by French chef Yannis Martineau. Throughout the voyage, Chef Martineau paced back and forth between two kitchens overseeing the food and service.
Having our share of luxury cruises and similar upmarket travel, we had few expectations to be impressed gastronomically on what is essentially a narrow moving vehicle. However, every dish on this train was well-conceived and expertly-prepared.
Most dishes by Monsieur Martineau were an excellent marriage of Western food with Asian herbs and spices. For example, one one evening we had roasted salmon paired with Asian vegetables and a Vietnamese bouillabaisse. On another, there was steamed sea bass served with egg tofu and shiitake mushrooms.
It’s fair to say that the gastronomic experience on-board, and the full-on sensory pleasures that accompany it, are the trip’s highlights. The pace of life onboard may be slow but time sure passes quickly. Before long, the E&O pulled into Singapore’s art deco-inspired train station. And the temporary return to an elegant past of grand voyages came to an end.