As Ian Johnston discovered on a recent journey from Singapore to Bangkok, when you board the Eastern & Oriental Express, you know exactly what you’re going to get: fine, elegant luxury. But some things can never be predicted
It’s 9:15pm, two days and many, many glasses of wine into a rare opportunity to travel on the Eastern & Oriental Express and I’m telling the story of how my wife and I met for the umpteenth time this trip.
The journey itself has been truly memorable; from the constantly blurred cabin views to the atmosphere, ambiance and attention on board. But we’ve found — as we were told we would — that the E&O Express experience is as good as you choose to make it.
Mix with fellow passengers, strike up conversations with strangers, and this journey of a lifetime becomes something even more special.
It’s not half as hard as it may sound. Strangers on board this locomotive are strangely familiar — the type of people you’d expect to find travelling from Singapore to Bangkok by luxury train instead of plane, and the stories are all the more interesting for it.
For our second evening meal on board we’re paired with a couple from France whose English is limited but far more functional than our French. We bond straight away over the bread and butter that accompanies every meal served on the E&O Express.
While we’re simply doing Singapore to Bangkok, our new French friends are on a complete tour of the region. Indonesia has been checked, Vietnam done, the Philippines explored 20 years ago. And Laos? Laos follows Bangkok and both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Their life, they say as an immaculately presented starter of delicate seafood is rested in front of us, is a journey. That we are now a small part of that journey is a warming feeling as, shamed by our desire to snap a photo of the appetiser, we sit back and soak in the evening meal and conversation.
Rewind 36 hours and we find ourselves at Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel. The establishment’s famous Long Bar Steakhouse serves as the E&O Express check-in lounge, and after registering our details at the desk and choosing our preferred time for the evening’s on-board meal we’re ushered into the restaurant for lunchtime refreshments: an obligatory Singapore Sling and, later, the first of many cups of tea. There’s an unusual atmosphere in the room; one of great anticipation.
This is new territory for most, and truly a once-only journey for many on board. The wait makes guests anxious but it’s not long before we’re shown downstairs and escorted to minibuses taking us to the waiting train at Singapore’s Woodlands station.
We clear immigration while still in Singapore and walk out onto the platform to our first glimpse of the fantastic green and cream locomotive. It stretches for carriage after carriage; majestic yet clearly weathered.
The weathering is understandable. The Eastern & Oriental Express first ran in 1992 and mimics the service offered by the original Venice Simplon Orient Express — only running typically between Singapore and Bangkok.
While the service originally left from Singapore’s art deco Tanjong Pagar railway station — a fitting home for such a locomotive — the train has departed from the newer Woodlands Train Checkpoint since Tanjong Pagar closed in mid 2011. Otherwise the standard route has remained fairly consistent, meaning our three-day-two-night journey in the smallest of the luxury compartments, the Pullman Cabin, would take in Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth and Kanchanaburi before arriving in Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong station.
The sense of occasion is apparent before even getting on board. Stood by each carriage is a steward ready to guide guests to their compartments. But we can’t resist a photo first and pose beside the famous tiger logo before following our steward along the narrow corridor to our Pullman Cabin.
Stepping inside we’re shown all the facilities — wardrobe, table, bench seat and en suite — before we’re left to settle in. The view from the window is only of fellow passengers exiting the immigration building but the reality of starting our journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express begins to sink in. We don’t have a whole lot of space in the cabin, and we’re going to be spending many, many hours surrounded by its warm-hued wooden walls, but what an experience this already is.
The train leaves Woodlands with a tug that we’d grow used to throughout the journey and we’re soon crossing the Causeway alongside traffic queuing to leave Singapore on a Friday evening. And while they crawl into Johor Bahru, our steward arrives with our first sample of dining on board the E&O Express: afternoon tea for two complete with scones, sandwiches and the challenge of pouring tea while shaking and bumping along Southeast Asia’s aged rail tracks.
Nevertheless we quickly grow accustomed to this most civilised of pursuits on what already feels like the region’s most civilised vehicle and enjoy the greenery outside as we leave Johor Bahru behind.
Malaysia's rail network follows a route more in line with the local roads between Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.
So while the highway heads north to the west of towns like Kulai, Kluang and Segamat, the train runs straight through them, revealing landscapes with far more intrigue than the palm estate that marks most road journeys in this part of the country. Shortly after passing through Segamat, the train heads west, back towards Malacca and closer to the highway as it skirts around the southern Titiwangsa mountain range.
Now comfortable in our compartment, we’re blissfully unaware of our location though. The slowly changing scenery gives a definite sense of movement but it’s hard to pinpoint the distance we’ve covered.
The pace is leisurely, that’s for certain, but as we shower and change for our first evening meal (the dress code for dinner is, as you might expect from a journey like this, formal — jackets for gentlemen and cocktail dresses for ladies) we’re still struggling to find our legs. The train rocks to and fro, bumps, grinds and rattles its way over the roughest of sections, making the three-carriage trip to the dining cart a perilous walk for my wife in heels.
It’s with much relief that the train hits a lengthy delay over dinner. There’s something very liberating about being on a delayed train when the journey itself is your holiday. There’s no stress about making connections; no worry about relatives waiting at the station; just the knowledge that time lost here, somewhere between Johor and Malacca, can be comfortably made up over the following two days.
The break, we can’t help but feel, must also be a delight for the train’s French executive chef Yannis Martineau. Yannis works with a team of Asian chefs to create the E&O’s legendary fine cuisine. Taking on the role in 2011, he fuses traditional French fare with the best of Southeast Asia’s ingredients to create exquisite tastes and presentations.
When combined with impeccable service delivered by mostly Thai wait staff, the dining experience on board can match the very best of restaurants that the train passes on its 2,000-kilometre journey.
With the train paused in an unidentified town we get our first chance to soak in the movements of life outside the E&O. Children play on bikes in the evening light, shopkeepers draw their shutters on another day and mamaks start to fill with hungry diners.
On the other side of the glass we’re working our way through the first bread basket. We agreed to dining with another couple on our first evening — guests are encouraged to do so on check-in, though the train can accommodate couples dining alone — but a preference among most guests for the later sitting means we can enjoy a romantic meal for two.
And if there’s one thing the E&O Express does well it’s romantic dining in its Malaya and Rosaline cars. A four-course meal watching Malaysian life go by is just about the perfect ending to a day that both started and will end in central Kuala Lumpur. We retire to our compartment, now converted by the steward into a two-person sleeper, and prepare for an inevitably bumpy night’s sleep.
The train stops briefly in Kuala Lumpur overnight to refill water tanks and guests are welcome to explore the historic 1910 railway station, but we decide to stay on board, tucking in and looking forward to breakfast and day two of our adventure.
Breakfast on the E&O Express is a Continental affair. Croissants, pastries, yoghurt and cereal accompany tea, coffee and juice, but it’s the scenery that’s the real highlight. We sip our drinks as the train bisects Bukit Merah Lake and shower before we pull into Butterworth.
We’ve spent around 16 hours on board and we’re looking forward to the fresh air offered by the morning’s excursion. A ferry hop takes guests over to Georgetown where we’re led on a guided tour of the historical and cultural landmarks, starting at Kapitan Keling mosque and finishing at the town hall. It’s a good break from the train but with just an hour or so on foot it doesn’t feel long before we’re boarding a coach to take us back to Butterworth.
Back on the train there’s time for a quick shower before we head down to Rosaline for lunch. Lunch here isn’t as formal as dinner, but it’s far from a quick bite to eat. We’re presented again with a wine menu and a choice of main course and dessert — and with it, more fascinating window views.
Now the scenery outside is superb. North of Penang Malaysia’s landscape changes quite dramatically. Here, palm estate gives way to flat, low-lying paddy fields, where giant jungled karsts — mounts of scraggy limestone — rise from the otherwise bland horizon. After lunch we slip to the back of the train for a better look.
Trailing the bar and reading room is the E&O’s observation car — an open-sided carriage where fresh air floods in and the tracks below disappear far into the distance. From the observation car you can take in not just the emerald surrounds but the full presence of the train, too.
We bend slightly to the left and the Express’s true length is revealed. Far ahead of us, others still enjoy lunch at the second sitting, and further still the locomotive whirs and whines as it pulls the 18 carriages along. But here there’s no sense of that might; just the noise of the wind rushing past and the chug of tracks passing beneath.
The ride hasn’t got any smoother though, and as we step inside the bar carriage glass bottles chink against each other as if to welcome us back and we brace for the trip up to our compartment.
There's no lack of food on the E&O Express, and it’s with an almost reserved sigh that we greet the arrival of afternoon tea not too long after lunch. Breakfasts and teas are the only meals on board that aren’t prepared fresh from the dining carts, so while they do the job they certainly lack the complexity and flair of Chef Yannis’ lunch and dinner services. But we were prepared.
A cheeky diversion on our Penang walk took us to China House’s delicious Beach Street Bakery so afternoon tea in compartment D6 was enjoyed with slices of Penang’s finest cake. What a way to begin waving goodbye to Malaysia.
The train exits into Thailand through Perlis’ Padang Besar checkpoint meaning that in roughly 24 hours we’d travelled through an incredible ten Malaysian states, only missing Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang on the peninsula.
Thailand, we were warned by train manager Ulf Buchert, was expected to be bumpier than Malaysia had been. So while we thought the Malaysian tracks were in need of work, Thailand’s were reportedly — and, later, evidently — in much worse repair.
Ulf is a cheerful man. His German accent comes through the tannoy regularly, updating passengers on delays, changes in schedules and sometimes, it seems, just to say hello to everyone. His presence is exceptionally common as he wanders through dining cars at meal times, greets guests along corridors throughout the day and chats with couples at the bar.
With passports collected earlier in the day, immigration at the Thailand border is taken care of while we stay on board and we soon find ourselves running past Thai signs that mark the town of Hat Yai.
From here, the train runs up Thailand’s east coast passing Surat Thani on its way to Hua Hin and then Kanchanaburi. It’s a long way up through Thailand’s slender south but the afternoon sees some activity on board.
We wrap up an intense game of Monopoly Deal in the rearmost bar cart just in time for the tropical fruit exhibition in the lounge. The event is well attended and while there’s not much surprise for expatriates stationed in Southeast Asia, it’s interesting seeing the European guests marvel at the tastes of pomelo, rambutan, dragon fruit and other exotic items.
The rush of landscapes now has become almost natural but a setting sun on this second day looks particularly serene as we rattle onwards. Back in our compartment we raise the blind, laze with a book and enjoy, for half an hour, the movement of the carriage and the slowly dimming sky.
An hour later, we’re sat with the French couple at dinner and over a glass of wine, between mouthfuls of the trip’s culinary highlight — a chunk of firm, flaky sea bass — the gentleman explains his reason for travelling this route.
They wanted to see the real countries of “Malaisie and Thailande”, he says. They’ve seen Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but they hadn’t seen rural Malaysia. They seemed to be impressed, and their enjoyment is testament to the E&O Express’ combination of elegant luxury travel and tourist experience.
Even, or perhaps especially, for long-term expatriates, the train offers glimpses of a very different side of the country we call home, and it’s refreshing to see a totally new Malaysia.
With that thought in mind we return to our compartment and look back on the day: Bukit Merah, Butterworth, Penang, Kedah, Hat Yai. We may not have left the train at each point but you get the feeling that you’ve seen a unique piece of each and every town or settlement that you pass.
So far the landscapes, communities and towns we’ve passed have been full of life, but tomorrow we’ll make a poignant stop at the Death Railway Museum on the banks of the River Kwai. Our steward has left us mini bouquets of flowers and information on the construction of the Death Railway — interesting if harrowing reading as we turn off the lights and say goodnight to our first full day on board.
We're woken early on our third day. The tracks seem even bumpier than they have been and sunlight is starting to creep through our slightly-ajar blinds. We open them fully and, with no accurate sense of where in Thailand we are, enjoy the apparent remoteness of our location.
The flowers fill our room with a new freshness and cramped though we now feel in the Pullman Cabin, we start to feel part of each landscape we cross. We give the flowers pride of place on our small window desk and shower before breakfast.
Showering on board is a fascinating experience. The cubicle isn’t spacious, but it’s certainly big enough and hot water flows powerfully from the shower head. A wide stance is advised but after a while you grow accustomed to this, the fastest-moving wash you’re likely to have.
We savour breakfast with a book and prepare for what many of the train’s passengers are expecting to be the highlight of the trip. The Thailand-Burma Railway, often now known as the Death Railway, was constructed by 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 180,000 civilians under Japanese command in 1942. It was planned as a way for Japanese forces to transport equipment and supplies from Thailand to their newly-captured post in Burma.
The tracks were completed in October 1943 and though Allied air attacks ultimately put the railway out of commission in 1945, construction claimed the lives of over 100,000 labourers — around 90,000 civilians and over 12,000 Allied POWs. Parts of the railway were rebuilt in the fifties, opening a 130-kilometre-long section, part of which is used by the Eastern & Oriental Express today on its way to Kanchanaburi.
We leave the main track to Bangkok at Ban Pong and head northwest towards the bridge made famous by Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here the plan is for guests to disembark the train, take a river cruise down to the bridge where the E&O is posed for a particularly iconic keepsake photograph.
We disembark to yet more smiles and nods from Ulf. The manager has held his position here since the very first E&O Express left the station in 1992, but he shows no less enthusiasm today than he presumably did at the beginning.
This is genuine enthusiasm, too — like all members of staff in his on-board team, Ulf appears to truly enjoy the experience he is creating for passengers. The route may not chance a great deal, but the guests do, and staff take the time to adjust to the individual preferences of passengers, engaging in conversation with some while leaving space to those who prefer more privacy.
This is a system honed over 22 successful years, and it shows from the minute you step on board. We complete our river cruise to much delight from the other passengers; the train’s 18 carriages stretched across the bridge and fading into the somewhat scruffy distance are a sight to see. It’s in historical settings such as this, such as the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and such as Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong, that the E&O Express belongs.
This is a train running in the twenty-first century but the experience it delivers is most definitely from a time gone by. There’s not much time to linger on such thoughts though, and back on land we’re soon approaching the Death Railway Museum where images, artefacts and recreations show conditions for the railway labourers in stark contrast to the surroundings we’ve enjoyed for the last couple of days.
Back on board we freshen up for one last meal before our scheduled late afternoon arrival in Bangkok. There’s a little time to reflect on the journey before the restaurant manager invites us to the dining cart as he has done for each sit-down meal on the train.
We start to list the things, people and places we’ve seen, going back through the camera to jog our memories. Ultimately though, it’s a pointless exercise. There’s no way to capture everything on this journey, and that’s really not what the trip is about.
This is about taking in things while they happen, enjoying moments as you see them and looking forward to the next one. This is about immersing yourself in the incredible experience and taking pleasure in simply being on board.
It’s the perfect way to get away and it is, we’re quite convinced, the best journey in Southeast Asia.
TRAVELLING ON THE E&O EXPRESS
The Eastern & Oriental Express is operated by Belmond and marketed in Malaysia by YTL Hotels. The most common journeys are between Singapore and Bangkok, though special trips, run less frequently, take in the likes of the Cameron Highlands or travel north of Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
The three-day-two-night trip from Singapore to Bangkok that we travelled on costs from USD2,690 per person, including meals but excluding alcohol.