Hop on a luxury rail journey from Singapore to Bangkok and discover how there’s no place like home aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express.
My butler, dressed in a gold-leafed, mandarin-collared waistcoat, hands me a Jim Beam and coke on the rocks. A woman wearing an elaborate silk gown bows her head as I enter the restaurant. A crooning piano player launches into ‘As Time Goes By’ in a dimly-lit lounge bar.
It’s not an unlikely beginning to a luxury holiday. Except that the butler, the restaurant and the piano are all speeding through Malaysia and Thailand on a train.
When the Orient Express first departed Paris for Constantinople back in 1883, its sole raison d’être was for passengers to experience a week of indulgence, decadence and all-out glamour. When you stepped aboard the train then, you unpacked your leather Louis Vuitton steamer trunk, donned your finest bespoke linen suit and clinked glasses with your fellow passengers, toasting the good life as the world chugged by.
Plus ça change, or so it would seem. Three weeks ago, I joined the inaugural journey of Fables of the Hills, one of four new luxury train routes operated by the Eastern & Oriental Express through Southeast Asia. Our weeklong trip from Singapore to Bangkok began where all great trips should: at the dinner table.
Once the locomotive pulled out of Singapore’s Keppel Road station and crossed the straits into Peninsular Malaysia, we were summoned to the train’s teak-floored dining car for a sort of travel theatre. Tables were laid out with Italian linen tablecloths, French crystal stemware and Ginori china.
Passengers suited up in evening wear before taking our places in velvety black chairs, greeted by wait-staff flashing courteous smiles.
And then came the dishes. Lobster medallion and crispy bacon on shitake and enoki veloute topped with milk foam. Tranche of lamb chump on fricassee of vegetables and stuffed pimento with jus of Asian spices.
Chocolate ganache and orange blossom jelly in delicate jasmine mousse with mandarin orange coulis. It was hardly your standard issue train grub. How Parisian chef du train Yannis Martineau conjures up haute cuisine worthy of Michelin stardom from a kitchen the size of a broom closet—and one travelling at 60mph, no less—is anyone’s guess.
That night, after a long hot shower in my private cabin, the train’s soporific rocking motion sent me off to slumber in a few minutes.
By midday, we were amidst the strawberry fields and quiet tea plantations of Cameron Highlands, a one-time British hill station with gorgeous vistas and temperatures that rarely rise above 20°C. I had forgotten how hot Asia can be, but walking among rolling hills at 1,448m was the perfect respite from the mugginess of the lowlands.
The 1,249-mile rail journey between Singapore and Bangkok can be done in a straight shot of just under 48 hours, but why rush things and miss everything in between? Master of rail travel intrigue Agatha Christie wrote, “To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns, churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”
Besides, haven’t you heard? Romantic and eco-friendly rail travel is the new black. I’ve become an avid proponent of modes of travel that help you preserve the planet, especially ones that afford you the opportunity to look dashing at the (open) bar while you’re at it.
While a journey aboard the Orient Express is admittedly about spending as much time on the train as off it, there was plenty to tempt us on the ground. In Thailand, I (literally) crossed the bridge over the River Kwai and watched as monkeys were trained to pluck coconuts from trees. Early one morning, we visited a place that gets few tourists these days.
Kuala Kangsar, the first foothold of the British Empire in Malaysia during the late nineteenth century, is now the seat of the Sultan of Perak. This small city has a markedly strong sense of ethnic identity— something that isn’t immediately evident in the Sultan’s Art Deco-styled royal palace.
We strolled around the gardens of the golden-domed Ubudiah Mosque, regularly considered one of the country’s most stunning, and the nearby royal mausoleum, final resting place of Sultans and Rajas.
Later that same day, we arrived in Penang, where local historian Leslie James led us round George Town to see Buddhist temples and clan houses belonging to the island’s Chinese population, descended from 15th and 16th century immigrants.
The immigrants also left something else of interest to current visitors: the best street food in Asia. That evening, I got my fingers greasy at a hawker centre under the tutelage of our chef, who took a break from five-star fusiondom to help us taste some local colour.
Yannis introduced me to the island’s spicy Peranakan cuisine, working our way through scrumptious plates of stingray, squid, horseshoe crab and my favourite – cheese-stuffed king prawns cooked in coconut juice.
“There’s only one word for all this food in English,” I told him, my mouth nearly full, “Yum.” A local woman sitting at our table smiled, then leaned over to us, whispering, “Sounds like a Chinese word.”
RAIL BOOKERS offers rail holidays and iconic journeys throughout the world. Prices for the 8-night Fables of the Hills route from Singapore to Bangkok begin at RM 29,250 per person, including one night each at the Raffles Singapore and Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, plus RM 915 per couple, of excursions of your choice.
For information, availability and to book, ring:
Tel: +6102–8096 0596 or visit www.railbookers.com.au.
In Singapore, the quirky, artist-designed Wanderlust has a superb French restaurant, Cocotte, and is ideally located between Chinatown and Little India. Promotional rates from around RM728++ including breakfast, WiFi and non-alcoholic beverages from the minibar. Christmas and New Year rates start from around RM977++. .
Tel: +65–6396 3322
In Bangkok, visit the The Sukhothai, an oasis of luxury and calm with an outdoor pool, several excellent restaurants and possibly the best hotel service in Asia. Rates from RM1,131++ per person.
Tel: +66–2344 8888
Quintessentially Travel, masters of couture travel offers rates starting from around RM932 for an Executive Deluxe Room at The Sukhothai, until December 2011.
Tel: +852–2544 5595
Still, while Southeast Asia’s exotic landscapes had no shortage of allure, it was hardly a secret who the real star of our journey was. With its clean lines, fine rosewood panelling and polished, British racing green paint job, the Orient Express itself felt more like a vintage Bugatti than a rail transport vehicle.
The journey deftly weaves luxury and the nostalgia of olde-worlde train travel, with subtle details such as tiny art deco lamps and distinctive, artisan-carved inlaid designs in the cabins. We even became exotic attractions ourselves when the locomotive called at several stations along the way and groups of locals and Westerners giddily approached to snap photos of us kicking back on our train. Tourists!
Each evening, after our time out on terra firma, we would make our way back to the observation car to trade war stories or play charades until the wee hours. By the end of our journey, acquaintances who had firstpassed awkwardly in the carriages’ slender wooden corridors became close friends.
I thinkwe bonded so strongly because we had all jumped into the same time machine for a week,suspending reality to savour a unique mode of travel all too forgotten these days.
On our last evening, I shared a cigar in the observation car with an editor from Le Figaro, a svelte Peranakan princess and a forty-something Canadian man who makes his living in gold trading. As we zoomed past the paddy fields of Asia, the air heavy with palm oil and jasmine and the wind rushing through our hair, I closed my eyes.
I heard the train rumbling along the tracks, the soft laughter of my fellow passengers and the ice cubes clinking around in my glass. I imagined for a moment that I was someone else, living in another time. And in an experience so uncommon since childhood, the Orient Express made it ok to pretend.