All aboard … Sophie Digby luxes out on the E & O to Bangkok and beyond.
I HEAR it’s not about the direction; I hear it’s about the journey. So maybe it’s time to jump on board the Eastern & Oriental Express and fall back into the 1920s, in an elegant, Venice Simpleton kind of way. The route? Singapore to Bangkok. Why not?
Life is a journey so let’s enjoy the ride.
“To travel by train is to see Nature, and human beings and towns … and rivers, in fact to see life,” commented Agatha Christie.
Taking these words to heart, and realizing that a trip aboard the E & O is possibly on most people’s bucket list, I packed ‘appropriately’ so as not look amiss in any Great Gatsby film or similar, (the dress code is elegant frocks, bling, dinner jackets and black tie).
Words that conjure up, titillates and make this railway Gatsby mood compelling? Porters, Bar Car, Saloon Car, Dining cars, Observation Car; Motorcoaches; Sightseeing excursions, and taking it to the next level, the word – Cabin Steward.
Stating the experience as a ‘Journey like no other’, the Belmond Group’s luxury train departs the Singapore/Malaysian border with destination Kuala Lumpur. Passing kampongs (hamlets), rice paddy fields and plantations, time to dress for dinner.
I meet Prana, one of the Cabin Stewards (and in charge of Carriage 22 for all his sins) who kindly reinforces, in a most genteel manner, the elegance of this unique two-night, three-day journey. Unpacking, advising and assisting, Prana guides each of ‘his’ carriage 22 guests to which dining cart ‘one’ would eat in, and with whom ‘one’ would sit.
But first to meet the other guests, as the Bar Service starts at 7pm in the Observation Car and in the Saloon Car before answering the call to dinner. The food is as elegant and as five-star as the train. Table d’hote and silver service all the way. Luxurious to the enth degree, three splendid restaurant cars carry the names of Adisorn, Rosaline and Malaya.
Here, waited upon by white-gloved waiters, gourmet food is served on elegant chinaware warmed to perfection, paired with distinctive silver ware. Glasses are lead crystal – no expense is spared to really make this that ‘journey like no other’. After dinner the choice is to head to the Saloon Bar and listen to the piano man and join in the revelry or make your way to the Observation Car should you wish to smoke, alternatively call it a day and retire to your cabin.
The train’s stainless-steel-bodied carriages, originally built in Japan in 1971, boast three categories of cabin, Pullman, State and Presidential ranging form 5sqm to 11.6sqm; most with twin accommodation, fully air-conditioned with toilet, hair dryer and personal safe. The Presidential Cabin also boasts complimentary mini bar, CD player with adapter for your personal iPod/MP3.
NB: plugs are the three-pin UK style standard of 220 volts. Of note, your mobile will only occasionally be of use; throughout the journey the signal is not remotely strong – which is bliss, and such a treat these days!
Travelling north, passing lakes, forests and villages, the E & O Express arrives at Kuala Kangsar, the seat of the Sultan of Perak, nearing the northern border with Thailand.
An early morning, brief yet educational, two-hour stop-over encompasses visiting three kinds of traditional houses, part-Malay, part-colonial in design and beautifully architected from bamboo; the golden-roofed Ubudiah mosque and the Sultan’s very own Gallery/museum; a couple of spectacular watch and china collections are seen here.
Return to the train for lunch and an afternoon siesta as the carriages pull out of Kangsar with destination Padang Besar and the Thai border. A quick locomotive change, customs formalities and a time update (there is an hour’s time difference between Bangkok and Malaysia) and the new engine throatily chuffs towards the next destination on this privileged experiential journey.
On board I head to the Reading Room for an hour’s foot reflexology, where I sit comfortably surrounded by elm, and cherry wood paneled walls, transported into another time zone way, way back when; this is a totally revitalising experience.
As the locomotive clickety-clacks it’s way north, once again we wine and we dine in elegance; the Piano man plays his tunes. All is privilege.
Breakfast is a cabin affair and is prepared by the wonderful steward. While silver salver in style, it is Continental in ingredients, and Prana has a whole carriage to do!
We next alight to visit the River Kwai and the Death Museum – a river ride and a short coach ride make this a very laid back affair, easy for any age group. The history however is mind-blowing and very eye opening. A sense of awe hangs in the air as we climb aboard once more for our final destination, Bangkok. In a mere four hours our journey will be over and exist only as a suspended memory of a journey like no other.
Eastern & Oriental Express – the world’s most exotic Rail adventure, thankfully I seem to have managed to tick that box.