The Eastern and Oriental Express captures the essence of old-fashioned train travel. The elegance, romance and adventure – with that extra allure of discovering exotic, far-flung destinations.
The dreamy, old-world journey through the heart of Southeast Asia on board the Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express is like stepping back in time. It’s an experience steeped in the romance of golden-age train travel, evoking timeless glamour with a touch of oriental opulence.
The ‘classic journey’ from Singapore to Bangkok, inspired by the 1932 motion picture Shanghai Express, takes three days and two nights on the luxury sleeper train. The handsome dark green and gold train meanders through the exotic landscape of Southeast Asia; along a route that promises a backdrop of rainforest, rubber plantations, glass-like lakes, glistening rice paddy fields and craggy limestone formations that abruptly punctuate the horizon.
After departing Singapore Woodlands Station the train soars through the Straits of Jahor, the railway then winds deeper into the rich countryside of the Malaysian Peninsula before traversing the Southern stretch of Thailand. There are a few off-train sightseeing stops along the way at Kuala Kangsar and the Kwai River.
You might already be familiar with the glamorous Venice Simplon Orient Express, made famous by crime novelist Agatha Christie’s 1934 ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which carves its way through the dramatic snow-capped European Alps. All the splendour of the classic can be experienced on the Belmond Eastern and Oriental Express, which was launched in 1993 – switching the European setting with the sights, sounds and smells of Southeast Asia.
The lavishly bedecked E&O also boasts interiors with a decidedly oriental twist – exquisitely panelled cherrywood walls, skilfully cut diamond marquetry, polished Burmese teak floorboards, touches of brass, ornate carpets and sumptuous fabrics (including Jim Thompson silks). This Thai-inspired design extends to the staff uniforms; silk waistcoats for the men and women dressed in striking pink jackets.
Check-in formalities are appropriately glamorous. We assemble at Singapore’s ‘grand dame’, Raffles Hotel. This storied heritage hotel is the ultimate in colonial-era elegance. Set in prime position, No. 1 Beach Road, like a grand three-tiered wedding cake decoratively iced with elaborate balconies and balustrades and fringed by sweet-smelling frangipani trees.
Setting the mood for the leisurely sojourn ahead, we convene in the East India Room by the palm court. It is here that we are greeted and checked-in, whilst our baggage is whisked away by the porters.
It’s a civilised affair – we while away the time prior to our departure sipping Singapore Slings. The iconic pink cocktail (gin, cherry liqueur, pineapple juice) was invented in the hotel’s Long Bar in 1915. We chat idly amongst ourselves and I glance around at a congenial crowd attired in what can best be described as ‘relaxed refinement’. I recognise some faces from my stay at Raffles, an unsurprising revelation as the hotel is a popular pre-departure choice of accommodation.
ON BOARD THE EASTERN & ORIENTAL EXPRESS
Stepping onto the railway platform on this balmy afternoon feels like being on the set of a classic film. I daintily climb aboard the train like a 1930s starlet, swinging out from the gold railing and casting my eyes down the contour of the seventeen-carriage, handsomely-appointed train.
The Pullman cabin is compact, the State Cabin is a little more spacious and, as the name suggests, the Presidential Suite is for those wanting the ultimate experience . All rooms offer comfortable daytime seating which allows for passengers to retreat to the privacy of their cabin and to gaze out at the passing scenery.
The cabins are richly furnished with ornate fabrics, an art-deco style reading lamp and plush curtains that frame a large window. The seating is discreetly converted into cosy sleeping berths at night. Personal conveniences include an en-suite bathroom with toilet, hot-water shower, amenities and hairdryer. This might be old-fashioned train travel, but modern conveniences such as air-conditioning are not forsaken. There’s also WiFi available in the observation car for those who simply can’t switch off from modern life.
Shortly after departure we are served a dizzyingly good afternoon tea (light-as-air scones, thickened cream and zingy pineapple jam) and bottomless cups of tea sourced from the Cameron Highlands. The sumptuous treat is privately enjoyed in the cabin, as we peer out of our window Singaporean skyscrapers fall away and are replaced with lush jungles and endless palm trees.
Travel was once seen as an occasion to dress-up. Passengers on board the E&O tend to follow this tradition, particularly for dinner. Gents look dapper in an obligatory jacket and tie, whilst women opt for evening attire in the style of tropical elegance. Dining is a social event and seating is moved around the two opulent dining cars (much like musical chairs) throughout the journey – encouraging conversation amongst fellow travellers.
The dining car resembles a five-star restaurant on wheels – the intimate setting is adorned with rosewood panelling, floral motifs and elaborately upholstered chairs. Whilst white tablecloths, crisp napery, polished silver cutlery and hand-cut crystal glasses decorate the tables.
The indulgence extends to culinary delights. Lunch and dinner service comprises of lavish four-course meals made from fresh, local ingredients sourced from the stops along the way. The menu designed by French-born Executive Chef, Yannis Martineau, exquisitely blends flavours from East and West. Guests linger over each beautifully-presented course (served like clockwork) – an entrée of fragrant Thai beef salad, followed by barramundi fillet and tian vegetables served with shallot soya butter sauce and zesty lime foam. Even the desserts benefit from the fusion of French and Asian flavours, such as the decadent chocolate and pandan mousse on crispy hazelnut praline and drizzled with coconut coulis.
After the bottles of wine that accompanied dinner have been polished off, frivolities are relocated to the piano bar. It is here that we mingle with American tycoons, well-heeled Koreans, jolly British couples, an intriguing group of young women from Moscow and intrepid veteran travel writers. Many of our new acquaintances are train-travel enthusiasts who wax lyrical on their favourite routes. It feels as though you’ve stumbled upon one of London’s private clubs and had a glimpse into a charming cross-section of high society.
The atmosphere is convivial. Bartenders mix up signature cocktails (such as the warm and toasty Coconut Plantation) whilst the resident pianist entertains. ‘Singapore Pete’ has been running his fingers up and down the ivories and crooning timeworn tunes on the train for over twenty years. After-dinner tipples overflow, bow ties are loosened and a Cole Porter sing-a-long ensues. After the evening’s tomfooleries I needn’t even begin to consider catching a tuk tuk back to the hotel – my room tonight is merely a short amble down the corridor.
The E&O hurtles through the inky-black countryside at night, so we have the pleasure of waking up in a new destination ripe for exploration. The daily-organised excursions are a nice way to stretch your legs and delve into some local culture. The trip was a well-oiled machine with a surprising lack of idle time due to a carefully curated schedule.
One can’t sightsee on an empty stomach, so we are served breakfast in bed – a tray brimming with mango yoghurt, tropical fruit, a basket of warm pastries and bread to be enjoyed with a trio of jams, orange juice and coffee was the perfect start to the day.
There are two stops for sightseeing on the ‘classic journey’. The first day we explore Malaysia’s Kuala Kangsar. The former imperial city is home to the Royal Museum of Perak, the Sultan Azlan Shah Gallery and one of the country’s most beautiful mosques – the Ubuidiah mosque – with fairy-tale golden domes and minarets stretching up into the sky.
The following morning we rise early as we’ve crossed the Malaysian-Thai border and find ourselves pulling into the stop by the River Kwai .
We disembark to watch the train majestically cross the bridge made famous by the award-winning film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1952).
The area is steeped in history of World War II and we catch a raft downstream to the Thailand Burma Railway Museum – a small but impressive exhibition documenting the lives of thousands of ‘Prisoners of War’ who were put to work on the infamous railway. As well as pay a respectful visit to the War Cemetery.
In the afternoon leisure time stretches out like the tracks before us. After taking another exquisite afternoon tea in my cabin, scrawling a few postcards home on my E&O stationary (kindly posted by my steward) and reading in the gorgeous saloon, I ventured to the open-air observation deck. Located at the very back of the train, this is the prime viewing position with a splendid panoramic outlook over the countryside. In my opinio, it’s best observed in the golden-hued splendour of the late afternoon.
There is already a small pose of passengers assembled – some with binoculars at the ready pointing at water buffalo, others fabulously sipping champagne or gentlemen contemplatively puffing on their cigars.
The graceful train speeds through the rugged landscape, my hair blows in the balmy breeze as I watch the tropical scenery unfold. Glimpses of local life pass us by – flashes of gold from the wing-roofed Thai temples, motorbikes speeding down the open dirt roads, farmers taking a short break to wave back at us from the rice paddies, colourful rural stations with monks sitting in their bright orange robes and trackside vendors selling the ‘Queen of Fruits’ (mangosteen) a sweet flesh encased in a dark purple shell.
The brakes screech to halt and I realise that the train has pulled into Bangkok’s grand, century-old Hualamphong Station. Sunlight streams through the bones of the lofty neoclassical arches. As I step off the train into the sticky heat and rush of commuters, I’m brought back to my senses. I had been so focused on the journey, I had quite nearly forgotten about the destination. With happy lifelong memories formed and new friendships forged over the course of the journey, we exchange contacts with fellow passengers before parting ways. We all look just a little confused – our dream-like ride into a bygone era has come to an abrupt end. We are thrown into the excitement of vibrant street life, bustling markets and chaotic traffic jams of Bangkok – a world away from the halcyon days on board the Eastern & Oriental Express.
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The writer was a guest of Belmond. My opinion is, and will always be, my own. The Portmanteau Press only includes content that aligns with the aesthetic, standard and values of the brand.