Malay Peninsula on Velvet Rails
Written by Mark Eveleigh
The Shangri-La Hotel limo purrs down the gleaming steel and glass canyon of Singapore’s Orchard Road. We have a rendezvous with one of the world’s most luxurious trains. Within an hour will have abandoned this world of steel and stress for the restful romance of the golden age of travel.
We’re ushered aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express by our carriage butler and shown around the bijou Pullman cabin that will be our pampered cell for the next three days. It is cleverly fitted out so that the collapsible bunks provide a comfortable daytime sofa and the en-suite bathroom is just large enough for the average adult to squeeze in among the stack of fluffy white towels and Bulgari toiletries.
Ms X and I are still unpacking when the French accent of Valentin Waldman – the train manager – crackles out of the Tannoy system. While I’m still scrabbling for a pen he reels off a fascinating set of statistics and specifics of our 2,030 km journey to Bangkok. Then he begins to acquaint us with the renaissance atmosphere aboard: “We encourage formal attire and for evening meals gentlemen will feel most comfortable with a minimum of jacket and tie. Ladies may feel that the ambience on board provides the perfect opportunity to display glamour and style…”
We dress accordingly and head to the saloon car. About half the passengers are Japanese and a couple of the ladies have maximised on the ‘opportunity to display glamour and style’ by donning spectacular kimonos and make-up that borders on full Geisha regalia. Sitting primly among them are an international mix of expats and jet-setters. For some passengers the E&O is simply a restful break: for others it’s a whirlwind once-in-a-lifetime sample of the romance of Singapore, Malaysia, and southern Thailand. They are attracted by the fleeting tours, and the E&O guarantees them at least a glimpse of some of the most beautiful landscapes in Southeast Asia.
Many are attracted to this journey, however, as an opportunity to enjoy three days of fine Asian fusion food. The first evening on board we share a table with a food blogger and a Brazilian art director. Silver cutlery and specially balanced wine glasses tinkle cheerily as we rattle through the rubber plantations of southern Malaysia, dining on quail tom yam vichyssoise and Chilean sea bass with Sichuan-style vegetables. We take our Thai coffee and Cameron Highlands tea out onto the open observation deck at the rear of the train to watch the soaring silver rockets of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers come into sight in the distance.
By the time the butler knocks on our cabin door the next morning, the tropical sun is illuminating the paddy fields in glowing neon green, and I realise that the hours of darkness have already carried the Cameron Highlands away with them.
We find that we gravitate constantly back to the observation deck, where we feel closest to the intriguing lands we are passing through. Beyond the Thai border we enter wild country again: monkeys swing from the trees along the line and monitor lizards slither away over the railway sidings. From time to time the lyre-horned roofs of temples rise alongside the track, and in every village we pass through, people wave happily in welcome. Even while we luxuriate in the enforced relaxation (no internet, no mobile phones), I’m vaguely frustrated to think about what we’re missing. Of course it’s clear that no three-day trip would ever be sufficient to appreciate even a tiny fraction of the diversity that this region offers. The Malay Peninsula through the flickering windows of a racing train is, however, one of the most hypnotic road-movies the world has to offer.
The tacka-ta-tack, tacka-ta-tack rhythm of steel wheels thrumming over rails has a lulling effect. With each clack you are a metre closer to your destination, yet the old adage that travel is more about the journey than the destination is never truer than when you are luxuriating in a long-distance train journey. There’s something enchantingly timeless about travel by train and this feeling is never more powerful than on the Eastern & Oriental Express.
The Eastern & Oriental Express offers a three-night voyage between Singapore and Bangkok for US$2,410 per person (including all meals and excursions).
Keeping in tone with the mood of a luxury cruise, the E&O offers what are called ‘shore excursions’. The first of these (if you’re coming from Singapore) begins at Butterworth, where you transfer onto buses for the short trip to old Penang Island, Pearl of the Orient. Georgetown is a delightful tangle of shop-houses, mosques, temples, and colonial history that would ultimately take many more hours to unravel. The second stop (in Thailand) is also brief and offers just enough time to take in the WWII sights – the bridge and war cemetery – at the place that has become known as the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ after the famous movie.
Before & After
Three days travelling in E&O luxury really ought to be topped and tailed in style. Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel (shangri-la.com/singapore) offers wonderful suites in its Garden Wing from US$390 (double B&B) and can arrange limo transfers to your rendezvous with the train. The Mandarin Oriental (mandarinoriental.com/ bangkok) is often called Bangkok’s finest hotel and occupies an idyllic waterfront position on the city’s Chao Phraya River. Rooms are available from