In March 2014 I was lucky enough to journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express as it made it's leisurely, luxurious way from Singapore to Bangkok. Not only that, I got to take a friend. Sometimes life is very good indeed.
The resulting article made the centre spread of the 'Traveller' section of both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Fast track of glamour
Travelling in opulence by train is a rare treat, writes Megan Holbeck.
As I sat in the bar, Pimms in hand, the train’s motion gave rhythm to the pianist’s song. The palm trees outside had been swallowed by the sticky darkness of an Asian evening, but inside it was all air conditioning and evening wear, impeccable service, style and luxury. As I tried vainly to resist the drowsiness induced by the movement, as well as the consumption of five courses (and afternoon tea) in the four hours I’d been aboard, I thought to myself: I could get used to this.
The Eastern & Oriental Express is a three-day train trip from Singapore to Bangkok, but to describe it as such is to really miss the point. It is a 500 metre long bubble of colonial romance, luxury and imagination. It is time-out from the world of work and wi-fi, a chance to sit back and ‘do’ nothing but watch the world go by and talk to other passengers, an opportunity to use phrases like: ‘shall we get dressed for dinner and meet for a drink’ while feeling playful instead of pretentious.
The day began with an early flight to Singapore, a Raffles limousine the bridge between two selves: the writer and kid-wrangler left in Melbourne, and the luxury-traveller me. Raffles is one of the world’s iconic hotels and it’s easy to see why: it is a little oasis of colonial grandeur amid the high-rises of Singapore. It also hosts the check-in for the E&O, and is the perfect place to slip into your on-train persona. Sitting in the courtyard restaurant, my friend and I channelled 1920s style icons as we sipped Singapore Slings, around 2000 of which are served here daily.
And then, with the don’t even have to think about it simplicity of five-star travel, we were at Malaysia’s Woodlands Station, with all 22 carriages of gleaming train in front of us, as magical as Hogwarts Express. (The short bus ride and border formalities were outside the bubble and so quickly forgotten: what is a travel story but a collection of edited memories, selected to best capture a trip’s flavour?)
We stepped aboard into a plush, shiny but somehow understated world of wood panelling, hand-tufted carpets, fringed lamps and brass handles. Each individual detail didn’t really matter: what did is that the carriages were soft underfoot and warmly gleaming with the air of old-world privilege. We arrived at our cabins and were served afternoon tea by Woody, our cabin steward, and it got even better.
There are three classes of cabin on the train, all ensuite: we were in the most basic Pullman cabin, six of which make up one carriage. Five larger State cabins take up the same space, while two Presidential suites comprise one carriage.
Our cabins were small but well designed. A sofa runs along one wall, made into a comfortable bed while you’re squeezing down five courses. (It’s a single bed, with another bunk above: not ideal for romance unless you’re particularly inventive.) A table next to the large windows is perfect for composing witty one-liners to send home while gazing out at the passing view. The bathroom is compact, with a decent shower. And that’s pretty much it: your home for three days.
By the time we’d finished scoffing scones, it was time to change for dinner. (Jacket and tie or equivalent is customary, but ‘the train provides the opportunity to display glamour and style’ – dress to impress, people.) And then for the first challenge: negotiating half a kilometre of moving train wearing heels. A quick G&T in the Observation Car, an open-sided carriage with adjoining bar at the back of the train, and it was time to walk all the way back to the restaurant cars and our second challenge: five courses of Thai-inspired food. All food is all prepared in two kitchens smaller (and bumpier) than a large car boot, yet taste and presentation is on par with any five-star restaurant: the celery and fennel fronds on the tom yam cappuccino were perfectly curled, while the chef’s whites were still gleaming after the delicious green fish curry.
We lounged in the Bar Car while Peter the pianist did a few numbers, then waddled to the Observation Car to watch the buildings of Kuala Lumpur appear out of the thick darkness. A stop at the train station allowed us a more graceful return to our cabins, where we sank into monumental food comas.
I was awoken the next morning by breakfast delivered to my bed – another ‘I could get used to this’ moment – and the gentle unfolding of a day borrowed from the golden age of travel. There isn’t time for boredom, even though arranged entertainment is minimal: fruit tasting, Thai dancing, an excursion a day. The trip to Kanchanaburi, location of the ‘bridge over the River Kwai’ and Thailand-Burma Railway Centre was moving, if surreal. It’s hard to comprehend the remoteness of the area or the extent of the atrocities when cruising the river watching your luxury train cross the bridge built by war prisoners.
There’s plenty to do on board: eating and drinking, writing, reading or games in the ‘reading room’, as well as mingling with the other passengers: friends and couples ranging from their 30s to 70s, mothers and daughters, and immaculately coiffed older ladies. And there’s the old-fashioned pleasure of watching the world go by, without distractions or demands for food/entertainment/nappy changes.
The train ride covers 2100 kilometres and a range of landscapes: rural villages, urban sprawl, plantations and agricultural land, dramatic limestone peaks and dense jungle that makes putting your head near the edge of the Observation Car potentially dangerous. It’s always interesting though: from smiling locals beside the tracks to rubber trees wearing old-fashioned collection cups and the pleasure of lying in bed watching the dawn light reflecting on rice fields. And then there are the cultural pointers: the gleaming winged temples of Thailand, the colourful spirit houses perched like elaborate dolls houses in every yard, the changing styles of house and dress. I spent a chunk of my childhood living in Bangkok with my family, and it was amazing how familiar it still seemed.
Animal sightings were restricted to the usual collection of mangy dogs and the odd squirrel. I wasn’t expecting a wildlife safari, but my childhood memories from trips in the area are of water buffalos in the fields, working elephants and monkeys. During a road trip from our home in Bangkok to KL, we stopped for a jungle tour. We weren’t allowed more than arm’s length from our mother: she was worried that tigers were lurking in the grass, waiting to devour unaccompanied farang children. She wouldn’t have to worry now: there are only around 300 wild tigers in Thailand, while Malaysia has around 450 of the 3500 wild tigers left in the world. To raise awareness of the tiger’s plight (and funds for the non-profit Save Wild Tigers organisation), the one-off ‘Eastern & Oriental Tiger Express’ is running in October, a five-day extravaganza of gala dinners and cocktail evenings, luxury hotels and train travel.
On the second night, I decided on a different approach, combatting the food overload with whisky, music and chat. I remember it like Casablanca – witty, meaningful and fleeting – but it was probably more like classy karaoke. The wartime classics were replaced by Elvis numbers as immaculately-attired people of all ages and nationalities bonded while speeding through rural Thailand. I stumbled to bed knowing that I didn’t have to get anyone’s breakfast in the morning, not even my own.
THAI fly from Melbourne to Singapore (via Bangkok), returning from Bangkok, with prices starting at $1235.
The Eastern & Oriental Expres is a two-night trip from Singapore to Bangkok, or three nights in the other direction. From $2860 per person for everything except drinks. The five-day E&O Tiger Express event begins on 2 October: easternandorientalexpress.com/tiger
Three ways to extend your trip (in the manner to which you’ve grown accustomed)
Raffles is an institution: few visitors to Singapore would leave the country without going to the Long Bar or dressing up for afternoon tea. The hotel first opened in 1887, and it is all about heritage and reputation: Rudyard Kipling wrote lovingly of the hotel, it has its own historian and the ‘last tiger in Singapore’ (escaped from a circus) was shot under the billiard table.
The Mandarin Oriental was opened in 1876 as the first luxury hotel in Siam. In the intervening years, it’s hosted royalty, presidents, actors and authors: the ‘Authors Wing’ is the only original structure remaining, containing a Reading Room and suites named after guests such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. The hotel’s facilities (including nine restaurants, tennis courts and spa) are spread over both sides of the river it overlooks, with a complimentary riverboat shuttle. It is a little cocoon of calm in the chaos of Bangkok.
Jim Thompson’s house
Jim Thompson was an American architect and entrepreneur, best known for revitalising the Thai silk industry. His other great achievement is his home, constructed from six traditional Thai teak houses, up to 200 years old, reconstructed in a junglesque garden on the banks of a klong (river). Decorated with art, antiques, taste and whimsy, it’s easy to imagine when the house was the centre of the social scene in Bangkok. Jim Thompson disappeared in 1967 and no trace of him has ever been found: prime fodder for a murder mystery…
The writer travelled courtesy of Eastern & Oriental Tiger Express and THAI.