A luxury train journey was once the preferred way to travel across continents. For the elite guests of the fabled Orient-Express that ran from Paris to Istanbul, the trip itself was the destination. The hobnobbing, fine dining, and the promise of romance on board made the inconvenience of train travel more than just bearable, but exciting, too.
All that is lost with today's generation of bullet trains. The high-speed cars that dart across modern railway lines have cut travel time significantly, but in the process, they've also reduced the travel experience to a literal blur. So functional has travel by rail become that some train services now offer "No Talking" compartments with drawn curtains for an extra fee—the idea being that the sound of chatter or the view of moving scenery is a nuisance better avoided by those too busy for such triviality.
The Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) attempts to bring back the lost romance of travel with a train service that takes passengers across Europe and Southeast Asia in ways readers of Agatha Christie's mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, would recognize. E&O's Southeast Asian itinerary spans three days across three countries—Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand—and passes through the old colonial railway line built to ferry travelers, troops and—most importantly—precious tin discovered in the mines of British Malaya.
Passengers who choose to start their journey from Singapore board at the historic Tanjong Pagar station, which, by a fluke of diplomacy, still flies the Malaysian flag. The sight of the vintage train carriages parked on the tracks in the Art Deco station take you back to a time when nineteenth-century explorers began the same journey through the malaria-infested jungles of the region.
Too bad these adventurers didn't have a chance to enjoy the luxuriously-appointed, fully air-conditioned compartments of today's E&O. Those looking for the widest space will prefer the Presidential Suite, but even the more modest State and Pullman compartments have en-suite bathrooms and panoramic glass windows that give unobstructed views of the passing landscape—helpful for fighting cabin fever. Each of the 22 compartments is assigned a steward who looks after your every whim on board—including breakfast in bed, afternoon tea, and all immigration paperwork.
The compartment interiors recall colonial times: rattan and teak furniture, cherry wood wall panels, brass fixtures, crystal chandeliers, oriental carpets, and hand-embroidered upholstery. Even the train staff greets you in traditional dress.
Lunch and dinner is served in elegant dining cars with real silverware and crystal. From the hot kitchen on board, the chef prepares classic French cuisine infused with seasonal spices and ingredients common in Southeast Asia.
Old-world glamour is carefully recreated at dinnertime with a formal dress code befitting the chandelier-lit elm and cherry wood dining car. After the full-course meal, guests are escorted to the bar car where a tuxedo-clad pianist belts out jazz tunes amidst tipsy chatter that extends past midnight.
Conversations with fellow passengers occupy the hours, but it's solitude that train travel delivers best. From the privacy of the compartment or the observation deck, the hours of sunrise and sunset are the most serene times of the day to watch life in rural Southeast Asia pass you by. Vast swathes of jungle have since been cleared to make way for rice paddies and palm plantations, and there are modern motorways and high-voltage lines that interrupt the primitive scenery; but, for most of the way, you chance upon kampongs (tiny villages), lakes, and forests that seem little changed from the sepia-toned photographs taken by anthropologists a century ago. And in many stretches of the railroad track, you can even reach out and shake the hands of curious villagers or grab the tree branches of the ancient rainforest.
Carefully-timed off-train excursions are organized by the MO staff just when the thrill of rail travel threatens to cross over into claustrophobia—or worse, motion sickness. The first stop is at the World Heritage Site of Georgetown in Penang where passengers are taken for trishaw rides through some of the most authentic examples of Straits Chinese and colonial architecture in Malaysia. Another excursion, deep across the Thai border this time, brings passengers on rafts down the Kwai Yai and Kwai Noi rivers—the scene of the famous World War II battle memorialized in the film Bridge on the River Kwai.
The three-day sojourn comes to an end in the Thai capital of Bangkok where a whole new adventure opens up for those who wish to extend their journey through the heart of Southeast Asia.
The Eastern & Oriental Express heritage trail stops
1. Singapore. The former British port is where the train journey begins. Spend a couple of days exploring multi-ethnic neighborhoods and their unique architecture and cuisine.
2. Johor. Vast palm and rubber plantations line the railway and offer passengers a glimpse of traditional village life in the kampongs.
3. Ipoh. Lush lowland tropical jungles and limestone hills are visible from the train. The E&O makes an extended stop at dawn along the scenic Bukit Merah Lake.
4. Penang. From the Butterworth station, passengers take a ferry ride to Georgetown, World Heritage Site and the capital of Penang Island. Trishaw rides around the historic center provide unique views of authentic Straits Chinese and British colonial architecture.
5. Surat Thani. The busy harbor town offers a closer view of coastal life in Thailand. Passengers headed for Phuket on the Andaman Sea disembark here.
6. Hua Hin. The royal vacation town is increasingly popular with tourists seeking a taste of traditional Thai life. The train passes by plantations, shrines, and tiny villages along the tracks.
7. Kanchanaburi. Waterfalls, caves, natural parks, and a raft ride down the historic River Kwai make this second off-train excursion a highlight of the journey.
8. Bangkok. Passengers disembark at one of Asia's most colorful capitals. Excellent Thai cuisine, majestic temples, street markets, and a lively nightlife cap the three-day rail journey.
WHEN TO GO: The Eastern & Oriental Express offers year-round itineraries. Time your journey in the last quarter of the year when temperatures are slightly lower and rainfall is less likely.
GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines, Philippine Airlines, and Cebu Pacific offer direct flights daily between Singapore and Manila. Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines, and Cebu Pacific fly direct daily between Manila and Bangkok.
HOW TO BOOK: To make a reservation, email [email protected]
This story first appeared in Vault Issue 2, 2011.