By: Adriana Lage – First Class Magazine Sweden edition
Photo: Adriana Lage and press
All those scenes of Asian lush landscapes, adventure and exoticism that have permeated my mind since I first heard about this train trip strangely yet seamlessly matched those pictures of chivalry, sophisticated atmosphere and black tie.
And I decided to embark on this unique journey on rails to begin my sabbatical year in Asia in style. About a month before boarding, I receive a small white box with the golden E&O seal engraved on it. In it, my boarding card, two gracious luggage tags and a beautiful booklet with lots of information I should know regarding documents, luggage, customs, immigration and answers to many questions that were already popping up in my head. All set, time to fly.
Experiencing Thai among royalty
Legendary and exotic, traveling aboard Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) train from chaotic Bangkok in Thailand across the rice fields of Malaysia towards modern and impeccable Singapore feels like drifting back in time to those old days of romanticism that inspired renowned writers and poets’ imagination, like Ernest Hemingway.
After a long-haul flight with Etihad Airways in my comfortable cocoon in first class, I land in Bangkok feeling fresh and energetic despite the damp hot day.
From my taxi window, I see Bangkok, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, ancient Buddhist temples and high-rise skyscrapers, traditional street food and Michelin-starred restaurants. A sensory multitude that mesmerizes anyone who is willing to explore it and that inspired writers, playwrights, poets and filmmakers alike. And just as they did a century ago, I head to Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.
The first five-star hotel in Thailand hosted distinguished guests who came to visit the King of Siam when the country was still a kingdom. Kings, queens and princes, prime ministers and sheiks, movie stars and celebrities would arrive majestically at the once named The Oriental in 1876 by boat, sailing along the busy Chao Praya River.
Nowadays we can find those faces and moments eternized in framed photos hanging on the original building walls which now enclose the Author’s Lounge, a serene place to enjoy traditional Thai or classic British afternoon tea among Audrey Hepburn, Neil Armstrong, Lady Di and Queen Sofia of Spain to name a few.
I spend the whole day enjoying the facilities and services of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, known to be one of the best in the world, so as to adjust my biological clock to the local time. It’s the perfect place to experience Thai culture to the fullest. I hop on the hotel’s wooden boat to the other river shore toward The Oriental SPA and I lazily surrender to best traditional Thai massage I’ve had in the country. To end the day in high style, Sala Rim Naan, one of the eight restaurants in the hotel, offers typical Thai dance shows while guests enjoy the pleasures of local gastronomy with a refined touch.
Next day I see my anxiety disappear as I slowly eat breakfast and drink champagne by the river while watching boats crisscross Chao Praya waters. That’s Thai life, people going to and fro rhythmically, large heavy barges being towed by small vessels, tourists taking snapshots from a different perspective.
When I realize, it’s time to board the most luxurious train in Southeast Asia. The taxi drops me off at Hua Lamphong Train Station, 10 minutes far from the hotel, a luxury in Bangkok traffic jam. Check-in is done in an exclusive air-cond waiting room where my to-be travel mates are already enjoying tea and macarons, a feeling of expectation floating in the air.
One of the many employees, all wearing elegant green or red-burgundy silk embroidered uniforms in traditional Thai style accompanies us to Track N.1, where 16 out of the 22 stained-steel green and creamy-yellowish wagons originally from 1971 are waiting, a sign that this is still low season. Built by Japanese Nippon Sharyo & Hitachi company, the train was used in New Zealand and then taken to Singapore for a thorough renovation in 1993 when the first Easter & Oriental Express journey took place.
Once I find wagon C, a smiley Thai train attendant welcome me aboard. Panupong has been working here since the beginning of operations, 25 years ago. “Me and 70% of the current team, we are family”, Panu states proudly, as I affectionately nicknamed him. Later I realize that the whole staff is either Thai or Malaysian, except for the Italian train manager and the French chef.
He introduces me to my cabin, asks me if the room temperature is fine and leaves for a minute to bring me some lemongrass iced tea. As he leaves, I inspect the cozy room I’ll call home for the next three nights. I find myself in a mini living room with a red sofa, a small table by the window with a lampshade that will be useful in the evening, a couple of shelves embedded in a corner with water, a fruit basket, and a small vase with yellow orchids on top. Thai orchids. Behind the door, I find a robe with an embroidered golden E&O logo in the closet, where I hang my evening gowns and day-trip clothes. I’m happy to have packed a carry-on only, as recommended, my larger luggage was dispatched and I’ll only have it back upon arrival in Singapore.
The train whistle seems to bid farewell to Bangkok as we start moving. I’m sipping my cold tea by the window, watching the pinkish sun set in the horizon. I smile joyfully. Let the adventure begin.
Time to get ready for the movie, I mean, my own humble version of acclaimed Shanghai Express, directed by Marlene Dietrich in 1932, a favorite of the Orient Express founder, James Sherwood. He was inspired by the movie to furnish the wagons we enjoy today. Without delay, I have a shower in my private bathroom with luxury organic amenities by Pañpuri, a Thai company pioneer in skin care in Asia. I put on my black dress and high heels, wear my best perfume and jewelry and head to the restaurant cart. On my way, it is impossible not to marvel at the noble woods like cherry, teak, elm tree and rosewood adorn the compartment panels in fine marquetry, with diamond-shaped designs hand-cut by skillful craftsmen.
The maître leads me to my table by the window in a dim-lit ambience under the sound of silver cutlery and wine glasses tinkling. It is pitch dark outside and I believe that’s on purpose, so we focus our attention on the carefully prepared menu. Gastronomy on board is one of the highlights of this trip, in the hands of French chef Yannis Martineau who’s been conducting a team of 14 employees in a small kitchen installed in one of the wagons for over ten years. Sophisticated banquets are served at each meal in truly artistic presentations, all prepared on board using the finest fresh and local ingredients available each season.
We sample sublime creations of typical dishes according to the country we are. Tonight, we start with Tom Yam Cappuccino, a new version of the typical Thai soup followed by coconut ice cream, one of the most common fruits in the country. After all, gastronomy plays an important role in the culture of a country and is such an expected moment for travelers.
I’m too happy to sleep so I decide to enjoy a drink at the bar wagon, where famous E&O pianist Peter Consigliere amuses a cheerful group singing old classics like Frank Sinatra, ABBA and Roy Orbison.
As I return to my cabin, it looks like magic has happened. The living room has been transformed into a cozy bedroom, with white crispy sheets with E&O logo silk-embroidered on it, a soft white robe carefully laying on the bed, tomorrow´s itinerary with scheduled activities printed on paper and a hand flower garland made of fresh scented jasmines, given as a token of welcome to all passengers, a symbol of Thai hospitality. I couldn’t have imagined a better end for today, falling asleep with the sound of the wheels on the track.
A Thai Day, stepping into war history
Knock knock knock, “Good morning, Ms Adriana, I’ll bring your breakfast in five minutes”. That’s Panu waking me up so delicately, bringing fresh orange juice, crispy warm breads and green tea on a tray to allow me to eat in bed.
I look outside and realize we are already at Kanchanaburi station, 140km northwest Bangkok. Our first stop includes a visit to famed Bridge over Kwai River, a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, adapted for the movies and won the Best Movie Oscar in 1957, immortalizing the notorious bridge.
In his work, Boulle seeks inspiration on his own experience as a war prisoner but adds many fictitious data to tell the story of the time when the railway was built, killing around 100 thousand Malay, Thai and Burmese workers during WWII along with 13 thousand British, American and Dutch war prisoners. They are all buried along the railway we have just traveled on. Nicknamed the Death Railway, it was a massive Japanese project which aimed to build in record time a connection between Bangkok and Yangon, nowadays Myanmar.
Less romance and more facts about the Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia during WWII are given us in a lecture on board a catamaran while we float down Kwai River watching the way of life of local people as little wooden boats, colorful Buddhist temples and poor houses on stilts pass by. Our lecturer is Rod Beattie, an Australian historian who directs the Thai-Burmese Railway Center in town, a kind of a museum where scenes of those times were recreated to help us see the subhuman conditions those workers lived under. Opposite the museum, a tranquil grassy cemetery is the final home of the deceased from 18 to over sixty years old.
Back on the bus, the group is already more friendly and relaxed as we get to know each other better. Everyone is inevitably wondering what we will have for lunch, so amazed we were last night with the Michelin-style experience: scrumptious dishes using fresh ingredients, different textures and colors in a crafted refined presentation. Yannis Martineau, the French chef in charge of the menu, is impeccable. Same wagon, same table, now enjoying Kaeng Keaw Wan, fish green curry, also a very famous Thai specialty, with Thai rugged mountains at the background. Behind them, the idyllic beaches we constantly daydream about while at work behind a computer screen.
The afternoon is spent in the last cart, the Observation Wagon, covered with large panoramic windows through which we appreciate the landscape. Time to get to know each other while listening to a Thai artist playing traditional music next to the bar, open 24 hours, offering an extensive drinks menu accompanied by appetizers.
I have the pleasure to meet some of the nearly 40 passengers onboard, mostly German, French and English. A couple from Dubai, another from Australia, both with grown up children; a young American with his girlfriend. All interesting people who love to travel and have loads of stories to tell. But my idol is John, a retired 82-year-old American who worked for the Air Force and has visited over 300 places in the world. And he keeps walking.
We all retire to our cabins for some rest, laughing at each other that we must find room in our stomach for tonight’s banquet. Again, food on board is the main topic. Silence in my private living room is broken when Panu arrives with my afternoon tea, a mini scale of a sumptuous French high tea. Who needs to diet while on vacation¿
I lose track of time writing my diary, inspired by the golden light of today’s sunset. I dress up in my elegant red dress to enjoy the pleasures of Chef Martineau cuisine. Tiger prawn with green mango salad to start with, followed by Kaeng Keaw Wan, green curry with fish accompanied by Thai vegetables and jasmine rice. To bring some sweetness to our lives, Banana ice cream with lychee mousse, crumble stone and raspberry coulis for dessert so beautifully presented that I feel guilty to spoil it.
So many scenes, an overload information, amazing exchange with my fellow travelers in such a short time. They all echo in my mind enhanced by the red wine I drank at dinner. Back to my cabin I find it ready for a good night sleep. Panu left tomorrow’s itinerary on my bed and a reminder that tomorrow we shall put our watches one hour forward as we enter Malaysia. I can’t help but be amazed by their attention to every detail.
A day with Malay sultans
We wake up in Malaysia, a constitutional monarchy country and land of sultanates. All immigration procedures have been cleared at the boarder by the staff and I’m glad we weren’t disturbed at night. After breakfast in bed, we hop on a bus to explore Kuala Kangsar, Malaysia’s royal capital, known for its imposing palaces, museums and grand mosques, of which the Royal Mosque of Ubudiah is considered the most beautiful in the country. It was commissioned in 1917 by Sultan idris Murshidul Adzam Shah to fulfill a promise for being cured of a serious disease. The name of the mosque reveals the sultan’s gratitude and means “surrender to the will of God.”
We realize how beloved the deceased sultan was by his people when visiting the Sultan Azlan Shah Gallery, in his former palace, filled with personal documents, family photographs and trophies, showcasing the many contributions of the Sultan to its nation and providing an insight into the royal family’s way of life. The gallery’s highlight, however, is the sultan’s collection of luxury old cars, in a separate building.
As an architecture lover, I was astonished to see the Bamboo Palace, built in 1926 without a single nail or a model being used. Unbelievably enough, the walls were artisanally sewn with diamond-shaped bamboo strips and it stands tall as an architectural masterpiece.
On our way back to the train, my new friends and I are guessing the lunch menu, so in love we are with the gourmet experience we’ve had so far. We were served brunch-style Malay lunch, a delicious Aromatic Steamed Cod Fish with Fress Leek Salad served with Egg Tofu and Shitake Mushroom to die for, not forgetting the delectable Lime Mousse Cake and Marshmallow with Fresh Fruit Salad. Not sure if all passengers noticed this little attention to detail, but I didn’t miss it. As we crossed a time zone and advanced the clock in an hour, we had lunch “earlier” and Chef Martineau prepared a light meal to attend to our body clock.
This afternoon is lazily spent between foot massage, landscape contemplation, chatting and resting. Time flies and I want to enjoy our last night aboard to the fullest. It’s time to party! The Observation Cart is at its liveliest with a couple wearing traditional embroidered costumes and big smiles on their faces interpreting typical Malay dances and inviting us to participate. Everyone is having fun, talking and laughing until late, all of us more relaxed and intimate, totally different from the shy introduction on our first day together.
The party is over when we arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, where some of the passengers disembark and we realize the journey is coming to an end. The famous Petronas Twin Towers stand lit up majestically on the horizon. That’s good bye. Next morning we will be in Singapore.
Early in the morning I feel a feeling of expectation in the air. I jump out of bed and run to the the Observation Cart at the end of the train, where some passengers are enjoying the view. We are about to cross the Johor Strait, the natural boarder of Malaysia and Singapore. Far in the distance we see the skyscrapers rise in the horizon and a few minutes later we stop at Woodlands Railway Station.
Panu knocks on my door telling me we are ready to disembark and bids me farewell with the same adorable smile on his face, showing his happiness for another great trip.
And when I think I couldn’t be surprised anymore, as I enter the station, I find the whole train team lined up in the main hall, waving goodbye, showing in their eyes the same feeling I saw in Panu’s eyes, the satisfaction of another mission accomplished with perfection. I wonder if they know they’ll be forever in my memories.
I’m happy our destination is tropical Singapore, a city-state who is proud of its fishing village background that has recently grown into a rich economy. That afternoon, spread in the hut by the swimming pool at Mandarin Oriental Singapore, I recognize each of the city’s postcards around the bay. The iconic Marina Bay Sands defying gravity; the Ferris Wheel going round and round gently and slowly; the Merlion, half fish half lion and symbol of the city, jotting water from its mouth. The Business Center modern skyscrapers playing with lines and light in an orchestraded symphony with the sunset at its backdrop. One of the most amazing cosmopolitan cities I’ve ever seen, mingling old and new, tradition and high tech, a melting pot of cultures where Malay, Singaporeans, Chinese, Indian and expats from all over the world live peacefully.
I spend the whole day by the hotel pool, taking in the wonderful view, enjoying the memories of my trip. Four days, three nights, three countries, many friends, priceless experiences. Indeed, Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express is the journey of a lifetime.