“You can call me Chan,” said my steward just after the whistle announced the final “all aboard”. Even the whistle sound is unique, deep and resonating, a trusting comfy sound like that of a foghorn, like a wise grandfather. It called passengers as diverse as Agatha Christie’s characters to board the posh Eastern & Oriental Express for a three-night, 1,200 mile rail ride from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.
Travel by rail has always been my preference, and this trip fulfilled a life-long dream. We are so used to getting somewhere fast that travel is never considered part of a vacation. Until you board the Orient Express. Sure, there are faster and more frugal modes of transport but if you have the time and extra cash, the OE, known as “the train that never hurries”, is all about the journey rather than the destination. In fact it is the journey. And it is the epitome of relaxation and refinement.
In A Modern Utopia, written by H.G. Wells in 1904, his prophetic “Utopian” train travel sounds like the OE. “We shall dine and gossip and drink coffee at the pretty little tables...and decide to sup in the train, and we shall find pleasant rooms with seats and books-luggage all neatly elsewhere-and we shall exchange our shoes for slippers there.”
Once Chan acquainted me with my wood-panelled cabin decorated circa 1920s complete with art nouveau reading lamp, and explained how the bathroom doubles as a shower (every inch counts), my biggest decision was whether I wanted to dine at the early or late seating. I was the only singleton on board. I opted for early seating but could that be a mistake, would I be seated with senior seniors? On the other hand, the 9pm crowd could be pre-occupied newlyweds. As it turns out many of the invited me to join their table. The first night I dined with Yvonne and Peter Mann from Kent,. We were already acquainted, having sipped Singapore Slings in the observation deck as we pulled out of sprawling Bangkok into the sunset.
“We’ve both adored trains since we were kids,” said Yvonne. “We’ve been excited since booking this trip a year ago and already it has surpassed our expectations – the staff is so incredible and genuinely eager to please.” And, as I found out when I arrived at the dining car twinkling with silver and crystal table settings, they all know your name.
Next morning I woke to a tap on my door. Chan delivered breakfast en suite: croissants and exotic fruits, fresh squeezed orange juice and a steaming pot of coffee on a resplendent silver tray. He plumped up my feather pillows and with a beaming smile, asked if I was interested in attending the fruit tasting later in the bar car.
In the outdoor observation deck a few bleary-eyed passengers compared notes on how many hours of sleep they got last night. (Our head steward explained that the narrow track of the old railway, thankfully a short bit, wasn’t built for an ample train like the OE.) For the most part it’s not as smooth a ride as, say, Japanese bullet trains. But that’s a small price to pay for the OE’s ambience and luxury. And it’s slow enough to actually glimpse emerald green rice paddies, children waving by the train tracks.
“Eat durian and follow with mangosteen to balance your body,’ says Jep, our fruit tutor. “This is snake fruit,” she says, passing it around for us to sample. “This variety of banana -- the first thing baby eats after mother’s milk-- cannot be exported because it bruises easily. And wrap banana skin on mosquito bite.” Good to know. Did you know that pomelos are cut in half and left in house 45 days to keep bugs away? “Thais grow guava for a number of reasons: the bark is used for fuel and kids chew the leaves before going home after drinking alcohol but I didn’t fool my parents,” she laughs.
When it debuted in 1883, the OE ran from Paris to Romania, through Munich and Vienna. At that time it did for dining what George Pullman did for sleeping: the restaurant car was born. Five years later it ran to Istanbul and, as Christie fans know, it began running as the Simplon-Orient-Express in 1921. Alas, WWII stopped the OE in its tracks, but in 1977 an American entrepreneur, James B. Sherwood, resurrected the grand dame and by 1982 regular service had returned between London and Venice. The Istanbul route was reinstated in 1999.
Our train was built in 1971 for New Zealand Railways and in 1991 the carriages were transformed to an Orient Express luxury train. Regardless of its newness, this train is still a step back in time to that Golden Age of railways.
This journey, one of four called the Chronicles of South East Asia journeys, was launched in 2011. En route we travelled along part of the former Thailand-Burma Railway (the narrow bit I mentioned earlier), and, particularly fascinating for train and history buffs, we rode over part of the actual bridge on the River Kwai –built by WWII prisoners-of-war.
At the RiverKwaiBridge station we disembarked for a river cruise that brought us to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, dedicated to the infamous railway’s history. Across the road is the Don-RakWarCemetery with hundreds of graves of allied POW’s. (When I got home I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai movie again – it had a helluva lot more impact this time round.)
We rejoined the train for cocktails and dinner; the night steward deftly transformed my cabin from daytime seating to a bedroom and all but tucked me in.
And the food! It’s a wonder of French cuisine, interspersed with Asian dishes with local ingredients. The first night we had a foie gras appetizer. The second night’s dinner menu began with an amuse bouche of Chinese dumplings like ethereal pillows followed by lobster bisque, cheese soufflé and duck breast with cauliflower puree followed by chocolate ganache, Thai coconut cream and petits fours. Or we could choose Asian: Tom Yam Cappucino, steamed seabass with shitake mushrooms and a dessert of mangosteen panna cotta. Amazing, all coming out of that cramped railcar.
You are encouraged to dress up, which added even more glamour and romance to the experience. Especially the last supper – tuxedos and tiaras (well, not quite but everyone was elegant). By this time we were all great friends and repaired to the bar car en masse for our last hurrah as the pianist played requests on the baby grand.
“These marvelous Utopians have discovered that it is not necessary to bundle out passengers from a train in the small hours, simply because they have arrived. A Utopian train is just a peculiar kind of hotel corridor that flies about the earth while one slept.” – H.G. Wells.
If you go
The Orient Express is not as expensive as you think, particularly if you go low-season. Visit www.orient-express.com for more information.