by Helena Zukowski
Photos courtesy of Eastern & Oriental Express except where noted.
Taaa-ta-ta-dum. taaa-ta-ta-da. The sound of wheels on steel wakes me just a few moments before a light rap on the door and the enormously cheerful voice of my cabin steward chirping, “Good morning, Ms Zukofffffski.”
Breakfast is served
Eakachai (“call me Eak”) walks in with an elegant silver tray laid with a starched white linen cloth. Hot, buttery croissants nestle in a woven silver basket next to a crystal tumbler of freshly squeezed juice and a pot of fragrant coffee. A small vase of orchids completes the picture. With the flourish of a courtier placing an emerald in the lap of a queen, he smiles broadly and leaves the tray for breakfast in bed.
Sitting in my elegant E&O robe watching the temple roofs and the exotic landscape of Thailand slip by while eating yogurt with a silver spoon, life seems as close to pampered perfection as it can be. All right, this kind of luxury doesn’t come cheap. However, the joy of seeing three countries from a perspective no white-knuckled jet passenger can get, makes a two-day odyssey on the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Express a trip from which dreams are wrought.
Train travel nostalgia
Like its cousin, the revived Venice Simplon Orient-Express, the E&O is part of a new concept in rail travel that is catching fire all over. It is luxury travel married to a nostalgia many of us feel for trains– and for a simpler, more sanely paced way of getting from place to place.
The E&O runs from Singapore north to Bangkok (and vice versa) passing through the city state of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand covering in total 1,943 kilometres/1,165 miles. It began service in September 1993 following right on the heels of the 1982 successful revival of the legendary European Orient Express by American industrialist, James B. Sherwood.
The original E&O was launched in October 1883 and carried a galaxy of kings, queens, presidents, dictators, millionaires and theatrical stars for almost a century until its last dispirited run from Paris to Istanbul on May 19, 1977. Over the years, you might find the Prince of Wales heading for Biarritz or King Carol of Romania fleeing the Germans with three carloads of treasure and mistress, Magda Lupescu, on his arm. The E&O spared no luxury for its guests and expected them to behave and dress with the style and deportment of (at least) a duke and duchess.
By 1977, the impact of the Great Depression, World War II and the consuming popularity of the airplane and automobile reduced the Orient Express to a mere shadow of its former self. By this point, it was a shabby, déclassé choo-choo carrying mostly students and Turkish workers heading for Germany.
James Sherwood pledged $16 million and four-and-a-half years to a facelift that not only restored the once-elegant cars but also brought back a new interest in elegant rail travel in Europe. The train’s overwhelming success encouraged Sherwood to launch his Eastern & Oriental route-the first luxury train in Southeast Asia.
He supervised every detail from the restoration of rail cars purchased from a defunct railroad in New Zealand to the final blessing of these cars by Maori chiefs (just to make sure that all the evil spirits that caused the line to go bankrupt in that country were removed).
The pampering begins from the minute I walk into the station to board the luxury train. My luggage is whisked away and I’m escorted into a cool, comfortable waiting room. I look around at my fellow passengers. In one corner, a middle-aged Chinese couple in dressed-to-kill clothes that scream Paris couturier sit looking regally ahead. Nearby, a German woman obviously travelling alone looks no one in the eye and I immediately dub her “the Countess”. A short, dark man in a moustache speaks in an indecipherable accent and looks suspiciously like Hercule Poirot.
When the E&O pulls in like a sleek, forest-green jungle snake with its windows lit up by tiny art deco lamps, the train staff literally bow passengers on board and escort us to staterooms panelled in a rich mahogany and cherry wood with distinctive inlaid designs done by local artists.
Since I boarded in Kuala Lumpur instead of Singapore, Call-Me-Eak brings in a late supper tray with warm rolls, cheese, a crisp salad, paté and ham. Sated and tired, I fall into a heavy sleep to the sound of wheels on steel, dreaming strange dark dreams of Poirot who looks disdainfully down his moustache and a regal Countess who speaks a little like Marlene Dietrich.
I wake in the morning to see thick green jungle shrouded in a mist that wraps itself around the train like a cocoon. As the light brightens, the landscape changes into cultivated fields lined with palm and banana trees where men and women in peaked hats have begun the day’s work. Every so often the green is broken by a kampong, a collection of Malay houses on stilts separated by clumps of papaya trees.
Where former E&O passengers shared a bathroom, each of us now has our own ensuite with a shower. All the pampering touches are here: bath robes, a basket with fine English soaps and lotions, fresh flowers, and even a safe (in case you’ve brought your diamond tiara).
We arrive at Butterworth Station about 9 a.m. where everyone disembarks for a short ferry ride to Georgetown, the capital of Penang Island and a “shore excursion”. Penang is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia and it has become a highly popular beach resort because of its clean, casurina-fringed, white sand beaches.
A veritable army of trishaws (rickshaws run by pedal power) wait upon us for a tour of Penang’s historical heart. My trishaw driver catapults us into traffic for a tour of temples, 18th century prayer houses, clan houses, and the “street of harmony” with its Moslem, Taoist and Christian prayer houses.
An exotic mixture of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai shops feature goods spilling out into the street. The tour ends at the gracious Eastern & Oriental Hotel, a “grand old lady” and relic of colonial days. Noel Coward once hung out here, and it is said that the hotel serves Asia’s best Singapore Slings, a drink developed at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Lunch is served
Back on the train, lunch is served by waiters who wear green silk brocade vests and move like cats on padded feet. I notice that the Countess is sitting alone, aloof, and staring out the windows as the endless green padi fields flash by. We’re in the state of Kedah, the rice bowl of Malaysia, and the world outside seems one vast rice field. Both women and men bend over the plants while in the distance water buffalo whisk away flies.
Course after course, we move through lunch. For starters, there’s a lightly flavored curry soup with noodles and fresh shrimp followed by sea bass sautéed in a delicate peppercorn sauce. The fish is divine with tiny explosions of flavor that come from a touch of lemon grass. All of this is washed down with a good Sancerre wine and as a finale, tropical fruits on a crisp phyllo-like wafer.
After lunch, I waddle down to the observation car with its open platform on the very end. The air is thick and moist with humidity, but it’s the place to be as we cross the border from Malaysia into Thailand. The scenery changes gradually from the equatorial jungle of Malaysia to the semi-
tropical forest of southern Thailand. Now and again we spot a gold-roofed Thai spirit house loaded with flowers and incense as offerings to the gods.
A little further north, we pass through rubber and coconut plantations and occasionally the curved peaks of a pagoda are visible in the distance. At Surat Thani station, several passengers disembark to catch a connection for the famous beach resort of Phuket.
Tea is served
While I nibble away at “afternoon tea” (puff pastries with filling, shrimp tarts, carrot and other cakes), the panorama beyond the windows continues to change. A boy wearing saffron robes rides slowly along the dike on a buffalo; a whole family whizzes by in a motorized cart; children wave and hold up signs written in graceful Thai script.
As we get closer to Bangkok, more and more temples peek out of the rich green forests. In Phetchaburi, temples are everywhere including the leaning spire of War Khao Bandai and sparkling Tra Keow on a nearby hilltop. The summer palace of Rama IV, the king credited with introducing the modern world into Thailand, is also here.
When Call-Me-Eak knocks on my door with breakfast the next morning, I watch the green countryside change to the reality of life in the huge urban sprawl that is Bangkok. Moving more slowly, our luxury train passes an uninterrupted collection of squatter shacks pasted together with wood and corrugated metal. People are engaged in morning activities as they are all over the world: shaving, washing clothes, cooking, just sitting and thinking. Children in various stages of dress stand and watch the train or swim in the fetid canals. Only feet from the track, the laundry is pinned to lines strung between the shacks in neatly color coordinated rows.
Agatha Christie, famous for writing her mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, once said: “Trains are wonderful. To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers. In fact, it is to see life.”
How right you are, Ms Christie. From the shanties of Bangkok’s suburbs to the world-weary insouciance of the Countess, our odyssey has been an aperture on a whole spectrum of lives.
Follow Up Facts
The Eastern & Orient Express operates year round.
Check the website: www.orient-express.com/web/eoe/eoe_c1a_home.jsp for dates, availability, prices and booking procedures, or talk to your travel agent.
When their trip has finished on the Orient Express many of the passengers choose to extend their holiday by renting a holiday villa.
In 25 years of traveling and writing from her home-base on Canada’s west coast, Helena Zukowski has tromped through more than 60 countries generating articles and photographs that have appeared in magazines and newspapers from Hong Kong to Houston. She has also served as president of the Travel Journalists Guild in the U.S. Helena’s numerous writing awards include an ANTOUR Travel Writer of the Year and the Leonardo for best Canadian article on Italy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.