There is something magical about long-distance trains. Whether it is across the US, India, China, Australia or Russia and no matter what class of travel you are in, it is the best way to see a country. Sleeper trains in India are a festival of smells, some great, some not so great, and on trains in China, particularly as you get further from major centres, westerners can find themselves the subject of study by their fellow travellers.
That being said, it is always nice to travel in comfort or even in the lap of luxury whenever possible, and settling into a cabin on the Eastern and Oriental Express on the platform at Bangkok’s Italian Neo-Renaissance-style Hua Lamphong Station is certainly the latter.
After bags are loaded aboard and passports checked, there is a short walk to platform three where the E&O Express and a red carpet welcome await. The train itself looks squat with a rounded roof and not at all like the sleek aerodynamic trains in Japan. But then the four-day, three-night journey through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore isn’t supposed to be quick – it’s a leisurely trip with breakfast served in your compartment, long lunches and even longer dinners, with afternoon tea in-between and excursions thrown in for good measure.
In your cabin, carry-on bags are stowed, and before too long your carriage steward pays you a visit to make sure you’re settled in and tell you about the journey. Monty, short for Monthian, is a delight and made the trip better than it would have otherwise been.
The Pullman Cabins are the smallest of the four categories but they are easily spacious enough for two, and the in-cabin bathroom has a surprisingly spacious shower with water pressure that is better than some hotels.
Finally, and with a gentle lurch, the train ambles out of Hua Lamphong Station at around 6pm, just as the sun sets on the Venice of the East.
The E&O Express made its maiden voyage in 1993 and follows the tradition of its sister train, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express which operates between Venice, Paris and London. Bedecked in rich elm, cherry, Burmese teak, ash and rosewood, there is beautiful marquetry throughout, as well as brass and luxurious fabrics in muted burgundy and emerald that scream old world luxury.
This five-star hotel on rails heads west and, as the setting sun gives way to black, eventually into Kanchanaburi province. The suburbs of the city left long behind, the scenery changes to pastoral and agricultural with rice paddies and fields of sugarcane hiding in the twilight and eventual darkness. Fully relaxed and completely settled in, it is time to dress for dinner.
Dining on-board the E&O Express is a formal affair and gentlemen are required to wear a shirt, tie and jacket at a minimum; women are required to wear the equivalent. Many passengers choose to use the trip as an excuse to dress to the nines, and the stops are pulled out with many of the male travellers opting to go with bowties and dinner jackets while ladies don bejewelled dresses that sparkle in the dim lighting of the dining car.
There are two dining cars – a restaurant car and the saloon car which doubles as an informal after-dinner piano bar where a resident pianist entertains. Food aboard is superb, which comes as no surprise after reading the resume of Executive Chef Yannis Martineau. From La Roche-sur-Yon, Martineau made his way to the E&O Express via the restaurant of the French President’s Councillors at L’Elysee as well as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Road to Mandalay river cruise.
Dishes include hoisin-glazed Saba mackerel, a tom yam cappuccino, a duo of lamb with oyster mushroom and a fantastic coconut ice cream inside a chocolate globe. Meals are enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere, and it is clear many people were either celebrating a special event or celebrating being on the journey itself.
A nightcap on the first evening is practically mandatory if you really want to relax, and the breeze from the observation car’s veranda at the end of the train is the perfect foil to the slightly stifling heat of Thailand in November.
Guests stumble, because of the gentle rocking of the train and not because of the nightcap(s), back to the now converted compartment for a night of sound sleep as the train trundles on until 3am where it too rests for the night.
At around 6am the following morning, the smell of fresh coffee wafts down the hall and soon after, Monty gently knocks the door with a large silver tray with fruit, juice, coffee, cereal and hot pastries. The day starts as it promises to go on.
Available only on the second morning of the trip, the E&O Royal Celebration Breakfast offers those who want to celebrate the chance to do it in style. The rather indulgent breakfast offers the E&O Sawasdee Morning (omelette and goose liver wonton with straw mushrooms and truffle sauce), E&O Eggs Royale which includes salmon and caviar, the E&O Asian Sunrise (fried eggs with rice and chicken) and of course, Champagne, Louis Roederer Brut Premier in this case. The US$98 price tag can be somewhat justified by the inclusion of caviar, truffle and Champagne, plus the fact that for many, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Evenings after dinner can be spent in the observation car enjoying a few drinks, in the Piano Bar or in the reading lounge. There is also a small boutique selling souvenirs. Entertainment is also available in the form of an astrologer, traditional Thai dance, traditional Malay dance or even a relaxing foot massage.
Off the train
The journey includes two off-train excursions. The first, after breakfast on day two of the journey, delves deep into the tragic history of the region as the train stops on an iron and concrete bridge over the Khwae Yai River in the city of Kanchanaburi. This is the real bridge likely depicted in Pierre Boulle’s work of fiction, and the film based on the book, The Bridge over the River Kwai.
The nearby Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is an interactive museum, information and research facility that tells the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway. The 415km railway was built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II using Allied prisoners of war and impressed Asian labourers, which inspired Boulle’s work, and so while fictitious it is based on a horrifying truth.
The second excursion, on day three, is to the Royal Malaysian town of Kuala Kangsar in the state of Perak. Renowned for its old palaces, grand mosques and museums, it is routinely described as one of the most beautiful towns in Malaysia. The Ubudiah Mosque is the first stop. Interestingly it was designed by an Englishman, Arthur Hubback, and completed in 1917. Hubback applied the same Indian Mughal design principles to the mosque as he did to Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
The tour continues with a visit to the Sultan Azlan Shah Gallery. Shah became the Sultan of Perak in1984 and elected king of Malaysia in 1989, serving a five-year term before returning to his post as Sultan of Perak until his death in May 2014. The restored former palace contains mementoes as well as regalia from the life of the much-loved sultan.
The final day of the journey sees the train arrive in Singapore at 10am and so that morning, after breakfast in bed naturally, there is reluctant packing and smiles between passengers as they pass in the narrow hallways that represent contentment at having completed the journey with a hint of sadness that it is over.
The train pulls in and with a goodbye to Monty, the journey is over.
Extending your excursion
Both Singapore and Bangkok are wonderful cities and the E&O Express offers you the chance to arrive early in your departure city and stay late at your destination to enjoy a few days of what each has to offer.
For a night or two to get in the mood for the luxury that awaits aboard the E&O Express, Bangkok’s Sukhothai Hotel is a good place to start. Named after the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom, it provides sanctuary in the heart of this mega city. The hotel’s executive suites are spacious at 76sqm, and the open plan bedroom-living room makes them feel even larger. The pool is great for combating the heat of the city and with plenty of loungers and strategically placed landscaped gardens, it feels secluded. For the ultimate in relaxation there is Spa Botanica.
If one name is synonymous with luxury and service it is St. Regis. Ending the trip in Singapore will almost certainly leave you with a touch of melancholy, but if you get yourself to the opulent lobby of The St. Regis Singapore it will be like pulling off a very luxurious Band-Aid and replacing it with an equally opulent one. Pamper yourself to stave off these post-holiday blues with some of the city’s finest Cantonese food at Yan Ting or better still spend some time in the hotel’s Remede Spa before dinner – the Signature Warm Jade Stone Massage is soothing, but for something more tailored opt for a 90-minute customised massage.
Article first published on Asia Spa