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Railways as they Ought to Be

The Orient Express dates back to October 1883. By the 1920’s the train was running from Paris to Istanbul via Venice, through the Simplon Tunnel, built in 1906. Those were the train’s glory days. Decadence was the ‘mot du jour’. Royalty and celebrities alike travelled in pure luxury and opulence throughout Europe.

Rail enthusiast, James Sherwood re-launched the service in 1982. Having purchased original carriages at auction at Sotheby’s and spent five years investing and modernising. The legendary Orient Express became the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Just four years later Sherwood came up with the plan for an Asian equivalent, linking two cosmopolitan poles: Bangkok and Singapore.

The Orient Express has a mythical quality which has been with me for as long as I can remember. Tales of eccentric and eclectic travellers taking a voyage to far flung places have been lurking at the back of my mind since childhood. Movies, books and stories told, had me waiting for the day when I might too, be part of that chosen few, that group of distinguished passengers heading for an exotic destination. 

The train would take us from Bangkok to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur through some of the world’s most luxuriant and beautiful countryside, through Thailand and Malaysia.

The first railway built in Malaysia was completed in 1869 under the orders of the Sultan of Johor. But, entirely made of wood, it was soon eaten by termites. Sixteen years later the network was rebuilt and, by 1909 both Malaysia and Thailand had their own railway systems. Eight years later the two joined at the border.

In 1923 the causeway joining Singapore to the mainland enabled travellers to journey from Bangkok to Singapore – taking a total of 60hours. Our trip was to be more leisurely. On the schedule: tranquil but substantial breakfast in bed followed by an excursion… Back on board, a little time to recover from the day’s exertions, silver service afternoon tea before deciding what to wear for dinner at 8. Nothing too strenuous, then. The journey was due to take three days and two nights.

Travelling through these two countries on one train is a first. The Eastern & Oriental Express is the only company to have this privilege. The agreement signed in 1991 with both Malaysian and Thai rail networks was a necessity for the luxury train to travel the length of the 1,262 mile peninsula.

“This is still the most exotic way to see this part of the world, a civilised way to see the backyards of the country” says the train’s manager. And I couldn’t agree more.

We arrived at Hualampong Station on a hot, muggy morning in Bangkok full of anticipation. Entering the Orient Express lounge was the start to a journey in a parallel universe. Outside, baggage handlers were scurrying around while passengers waved their goodbyes. Inside, we checked in and were seated for brunch by the Maitre D’. “Would you care to share a table?” he asked. Of course, I thought, who knows who you might meet on the Orient Express….

As I stepped aboard the elegant dark green and cream wagon, I was transported back in time. I fully expected to see two English spinsters, an Austrian baroness and Hercule Poirot having tea in the Restaurant car, while, in the corner, a glamorous blonde puffed seductively from a cigarette holder, as she flirted with an elderly gentleman.

Although the Bangkok to Singapore route has only been operational since 1993, the cars all ooze traditional colonial poise mixed with Thai style and Malaysian grace.

The carriages were first built in 1972 for the Silver Star train in New Zealand but the team responsible for decorating the British Pullman and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express trains, under the supervision of Gérard Gallet, wove their magic once again.

All 22 carriages were entirely gutted and redecorated. Major changes included adding air-conditioning, adjusting the gage to make sure it was compatible with the Malaysian and Thai railway tracks and refitting with lavish interiors. The Observation Cart at the end of the train had been especially built to withstand both intense sunlight and tropical downpours. Soft furnishings were imported from Paris. Only the best…

Everything was thought of to ensure a pleasant voyage – even the numbers of the carriages bring luck. Certain numbers were avoided according to Chinese superstitions!

This is no ordinary train. Luxury prevails. In fact, Ulf Bruchert, the manager, confides that the train was modelled on the one in the 1932 Marlene Dietrich movie ‘Shanghai Express’. The spacious carriages were designed for your comfort: antique brass fittings, gleaming wood panelling, large viewing windows, soft towels and Bulgari shower cream  – total indulgence. And there’s more: you have your very own cabin steward who is on call 24hours a day. For $65 he will even bring you a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Sheer extravagance…

TVs, radios and constant mobile ring tones are conspicuously absent. A rarity, and a luxury today. Yet there is no time to get bored. From leaving Bangkok and its tin-roofed shacks, houses on stilts and diligent communities on the rail side to the bright lime green jungle; it’s simply impossible to stop looking out and taking in the diversity of life.

On day one you are invited to the Bridge over the River Kwai located at Kanchanaburi, near the Thai/Burmese border. This excursion includes a boat trip and a stop at the cemetery where many British and Dutch POWs involved in building the infamous ‘Death Railway’ lie. As you float down the river listening to the story of the River Kwai remember to drink plenty of water as the heat can be a knockout – literally for some. To finish off the tour, the guides give a small tutorial on lotus flower folding. Having folded the perfect lotus flower, I felt peculiarly proud of my achievement.

Surprisingly, the passage from Buddhist Thailand to Muslim Malaysia is quite clear. Even without the cabin steward’s little card advising travellers to adjust their watches (there is an hour’s difference), looking outside said it all. From Thailand’s terraced farms we were plunged into Malaysian rubber plantations. The change was startling.

In Malaysia the train stops in Butterworth for a visit to the Spice Island of Penang. A chequered history of British, Malaysian and Chinese influence throughout time makes George Town colourful and diverse. From the people to the architecture, it’s a real melting pot of cultures. The visit by trishaw takes you from a Chinese clan house, impressive with its ornate, colourful and complex carvings, past little India and the legendary Eastern and Oriental hotel. A good opportunity to see a lot without walking in the stifling heat! 

Back on the train, after a wobbly shower it’s time to meet fellow travellers in the Observation car. The open-air car is ideal for soaking up the tropical environment while sipping an aperitif and socialising. Hair flickering around your face, you are free to embrace the heat, sights, sounds and fragrance of the sultry Malay Peninsula.

The restaurant, run by British Chef, Kevin Cape is a highlight of the journey. Dinner is a formal affair where men are expected to wear jackets and ties and the ladies can dress in their finest garb.

The food is worthy of a Michelin star in my opinion. Your taste buds are in for a feast of flavours. French silverware, heavy crystal and impeccable service enhance the experience making you glow some more.

Sampling Grilled Snow Fish steak, Clear Wonton Soup with Tamlueng leaf or Warm Goat’s Cheese Souffle with Fricassee of Lobster and Thai Asparagus is quite something. And that’s only the starters.

Watching the landscape at night, while enjoying Pan Fried Sea bass with Lemongrass Risotto, Traditional Thai Massaman Chicken Curry or even Aromatic Confit of Duck with Szechwan style vegetables is a unique, somewhat surreal experience.

And if that weren’t enough the delicately prepared deserts range from Asian Mixed Fruit Crumble served with Roselle Ice Cream, Delice of Chocolate with Cassis Sauce to Warm Mango Tart and sticky rice. After Petit Fours and coffee, it’s time to head to the Bar where a piano player provides the entertainment while you enjoy a nightcap.

After crossing the Straits of Johor, the train pulls into Singapore and disappointment sets in. Back to the real world. Your ‘train feet’ have finally found the right motion but it’s back to solid earth.

Everything they say is true. The Orient Express legend deserves its glamorous reputation. Definitely the thing of novels, stories told at dinner parties and the stuff of great memories.

Flip the page for practical information

Additional information – where to stay:

To complement your trip you’ll be needing some stylish accommodation at either end.

If you are making your own plans the Sukothai in Bangkok is said to be the most stylish in town. An interior designer’s dream, the hotel exudes luxury and comfort – from the smart porter opening doors, the bell boys with their shiny brass buttons carrying your bags, and the welcoming staff who will take you to your quarters. The hotel boasts three restaurants and has gained international recognition when one of them was named “The Best Restaurant in Bangkok” by Travel & Leisure Magazine 2000.

In a crazy city like Bangkok, The Sukothai is an oasis of calm and plush luxury.

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