Holiday on Rails - The incredible Eastern & Oriental Express
The incredible Eastern & Oriental Express
There is something compelling about a train journey that no other form of travel can really match. Air travel is far too quick for you to really immerse yourself in it. Road trips are more involving but do not really facilitate close interaction with fellow passengers. It is only on a train that you have both the leisure to really explore your journey in depth and, at the same time, engage with your co-passengers at length. A train journey, thus, is an immersive exploration of what both God and man have wrought, a trip through the varying hues of human existence. Indeed, it is a metaphor for life itself. When you disembark from a train journey, you carry with you memories of shared experiences that will stay for a lifetime. And rewarding new bonds that will sustain as rich and enduring friendships. The next time you are looking for a vacation that offers you a truly enriching experience we recommend that you seriously consider a train journey. And what better than the finely curated Eastern & Oriental Express?
The Eastern & Oriental Express made history on its launch in September 1993 as the first train to travel the whole length of the 1262 miles (1943 km) Singapore-bangkok journey, linking the railway systems of both Malaysia and Thailand. The train is the brainchild of visionary businessman James B Sherwood, founder of Belmond. Today, the train travels through Southeast Asia, linking the trio of tropical countries of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The journeys start and end at a combination of three locations: the City State of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and the Thai capital of Bangkok.
A typical journey begins with an overnight stay at Raffles hotel in Singapore, a white wedding cake of colonial architecture with shutters, balustrades and wraparound balconies outside; and dark wood, ceiling fans and antique furniture within. Singapore Slings - as invented at the hotel - are served on the veranda. Then dinner in one of the hotel’s stunning restaurants takes you back to a more gracious era - the perfect prelude to a journey aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express.
Passengers are transferred to the train for a five-night adventure. Once in Malaysia, the train stops at Kuala Lumpur for a morning city tour. This is followed by a journey on into the scenic mountains of Malaysia for an overnight stay at the historic Cameron Highlands Resort. In the morning you may choose between a walk in the rainforest with a guide to discover the wildlife and a trip to a tea plantation where you’ll meet a tea master for a tasting on a terrace overlooking the plantation.
You then rejoin the Eastern & Oriental Express and spend all subsequent nights on board with stops for sightseeing along the way. One is to the Malaysian island of Penang and its photogenic capital, George Town, with its traditional wooden houses and Chinese temples.
The train crosses the border into Thailand and makes a stop at Baan Huay Yang, a small fishing village. Passengers are taken by boat to Koh Chaan, a stunning island in a national park and home to thousands of bird colonies. On returning to the beach at Koh Chaan a fabulous buffet barbecue will have been set up. The following day the train arrives in Bangkok at the grand Hualamphong station.
From the Eastern & Oriental Express’s observation deck there’s a unique view to be had of local life. The train passes through brightly coloured rural stations where food stalls might be set up along the platform among shrines, plants and flowers. You may glimpse Buddhist monks in their distinctive orange robes chatting on a station bench or a group of locals sitting in a row of deckchairs enjoying an evening foot rub. Children riding bicycles try to keep up with the train while hard-hatted construction workers on the outskirts of Bangkok wave at the train with equal enthusiasm.
Everywhere, people stare or smile – the Eastern & Oriental Express seems to have an uplifting effect on everyone who sees it. The leisurely train journey takes in the rubber plantations and palm trees of the Malaysian countryside and the paddy fields of Thailand where golden temples and statues of the Buddha can be glimpsed among the trees.
Kuala Kangsar is a popular stop on the route between Malaysia and Thailand. This beautiful town, an easy 15 minutes from the station, is full of traditional old wooden houses. A former royal capital, its Ubiudiah mosque is one of the most beautiful in Malaysia, featuring gold domes and minarets. Nearby is the Royal Mausoleum of Perak and the Sultan Shah’s former residence, a colonial mansion, now an art gallery.
When the gleaming Eastern & Oriental Express pulls into a stop right next to the River Kwai bridge it invariably causes quite a stir. People are intrigued and delighted by the train and clamour to take pictures. Meanwhile, passengers disembark to take a gentle raft journey along the Kwai, floating under the infamous bridge as a local historian tells its story. The tour continues to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, a small but fascinating museum, and the
adjacent cemetery for Prisoners of War – a very moving yet soothingly attractive spot.
The carriages of the romantically named Eastern & Oriental Express are painted a handsome dark green and gold. The staff, too, are elegantly attired in Thai-inspired uniforms. Cabin stewards and waiters wear crisp white jackets and richly coloured silk waistcoats while female staff are dressed in long skirts with pink silk jackets.
The train interiors are traditionally furnished with Asian touches. There’s exquisite marquetry and inlay work on cherrywood and elm burr panelling; and fine fabrics and carpets including Jim Thompson silks. Unlike its sister train, the Venice Simplon-orient-express that travels through Europe, the carriages are not Art Deco antiques. But what they lack in age they make up for in modern comforts, some with a nod to the train’s Southeast Asian home: ensuite bathrooms, air conditioning, an observation deck for enjoying the tropical climate and a reading room that’s home to a resident reflexologist and fortune teller.
Like the Venice Simplon-orient-express though, guests do dress up for the journey. While breakfast is brought to your cabin, lunch and dinner are served in the Dining Car which is elegantly furnished with marquetry, deep carpets, silk wall coverings and upholstered armchairs. The tables are set with white cloths, silver and glassware and tropical flower arrangements. Through the drape-framed large windows there’s a panoramic view of the passing scenery.
In the lively bar car you can enjoy aperitifs and entertainment such as traditional Thai dancing before dinner. Later, the gregarious pianist, Peter, keeps playing until the last guest goes to bed. When you return to your cabin you’ll find it has been magically transformed into a cosy bedroom: bunk beds in the Pullman cabins and twin beds (from the sofa and lounge chair) in the State cabins. All have ensuite bathrooms including a shower and lavatory. There’s also a Presidential Cabin with a larger sitting area and spacious bathroom.
During the day time, the sleeping arrangements vanish – after breakfast the cabin steward whisks away the beds and the cabin once again becomes a sitting area.
The trip is a convivial one: there’s something about a train journey spanning a few days that draws people together. Friendships are forged in the bar car, on the observation
deck, over lunch and dinner. Your fellow passengers can range from couples to families with young children or teenagers or older parents, and several singles. There are honeymoons, anniversaries and blossoming romances – some of which have led to marriage.
A culinary journey - Eastern & Oriental Express has launched a new series of ‘pop-up’ collaborations with acclaimed international chefs Ian Kittichai and Luke Mangan cooking for you on board.
Hosted by the train’s Executive Chef, Yannis Martineau, these award-winning chefs have crafted menus blending their contemporary signature styles drawing inspiration from the timeless train and the captivating countries through which it travels. Ian’s creations are vibrant, with his dinner menu featuring a tartlet of chopped yellowfin tuna tartare and peanut with a Petchaburi palm sugar-fish dressing, a theatrical main course of spice-rubbed and charcoal-grilled chicken flambéed at the table and an indulgent jasmine flower infused panna cotta.
Luke, on the other hand, has firmly established himself as a leading figure on the Australian and international food scenes, with 19 restaurants and key partnerships with cruise lines, an airline and now a train to his name.
All told, the Eastern and Oriental Express is a journey that you must definitely take at least once. Especially, if you are an aficionado of tropical landscapes, convivial company and Southeast Asian cuisine.