and Oriental Express
by Rowena Carr-Allinson
The Orient Express
dates back to October 1883. By the 1920's the train was running
from Paris to Istanbul via Venice, through the Simplon Tunnel.
Those were the train's glory days. Decadence was the mot
du jour. Royalty and celebrities alike travelled in pure
luxury and opulence throughout Europe. And for us mere mortals,
it was the latest chic in honeymoons. And it still is.
The Orient Express has a mythical quality which has been with
me for as long as I can remember. Tales of eccentric and eclectic
travellers taking a voyage to far flung places have been lurking
at the back of my mind since childhood. Movies, books and stories
told, had me waiting for the day when I might too, be part of
that chosen few, that group of distinguished passengers heading
for an exotic destination.
The train would take us from Bangkok to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur
through some of the worlds most luxuriant and beautiful
countryside, through Thailand and Malaysia.
The first railway
built in Malaysia was completed in 1869 under the orders of the
Sultan of Johor. But, entirely made of wood, it was soon eaten
by termites. Sixteen years later the network was rebuilt and,
by 1909 both Malaysia and Thailand had their own railway systems.
Eight years later the two joined at the border.
In 1923 the causeway joining Singapore to the mainland enabled
travellers to journey from Bangkok to Singapore -- taking a total
of 60 hours. Our trip was to be more leisurely. On the schedule:
tranquil but substantial breakfast in bed followed by an excursion.
Back on board, a little time to recover from the days exertions,
silver service afternoon tea before deciding what to wear for
dinner at 8. Nothing too strenuous, then. The journey was due
to take three days and two nights.
Travelling through these two countries on one train is a first.
The Eastern & Oriental Express is the only company to have
this privilege. The agreement signed in 1991 with both Malaysian
and Thai rail networks was a necessity for the luxury train to
travel the length of the 1,262 mile peninsula.
"This is still the most exotic way to see this part of the
world, a civilised way to see the backyards of the country"
says the train's manager. And I couldn't agree more.
We arrived at Hualampong Station on a hot, muggy morning in Bangkok
full of anticipation. Entering the Orient Express lounge was the
start to a journey in a parallel universe. Outside, baggage handlers
were scurrying around while passengers waved their goodbyes. Inside,
we checked in and were seated for brunch by the Maitre D'. "Would
you care to share a table?" he asked. Honeymooners may prefer
to dine "en amoureux" but for the more sociable sharing
tables with fellow travellers is well advised. Who knows who youll
As I stepped aboard the elegant dark green and cream wagon, I
was transported back in time. I fully expected to see two English
spinsters, an Austrian baroness and Hercule Poirot having tea
in the Restaurant car, while, in the corner, a glamorous blonde
puffed seductively from a cigarette holder, as she flirted with
an elderly gentleman.
Although the Bangkok to Singapore route has only been operational
since 1993, the cars all ooze traditional colonial poise mixed
with Thai style and Malaysian grace.
The carriages were first built in 1972 for the Silver Star train
in New Zealand but the team responsible for decorating the British
Pullman and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express trains, under the
supervision of Gèrard Gallet, wove their magic once again.
All 22 carriages were entirely gutted and redecorated. Major changes
included adding air-conditioning, adjusting the gage to make sure
it was compatible with the Malaysian and Thai railway tracks and
refitting with lavish interiors. The Observation Cart at the end
of the train had been especially built to withstand both intense
sunlight and tropical downpours. Soft furnishings were imported
from Paris. Only the best!Everything was thought of to ensure
a pleasant voyage - even the numbers of the carriages bring luck.
Certain numbers were avoided according to Chinese superstitions!
Surely an ideal start to any life of wedded bliss.
To start the trip off in style, dont forget to tell the
train manager that you are newly weds, he says that they always
do a little something extra for happy honeymooners.
This is no ordinary train. Luxury prevails. In fact, Ulf Bruchert,
the manager, confides that the train was modelled on the one in
the 1932 Marlene Dietrich movie 'Shanghai Express'. The spacious
carriages were designed for your comfort: antique brass fittings,
gleaming wood panelling, large viewing windows, soft towels and
Bulgari shower cream - total indulgence. And there's more: you
have your very own cabin steward who is on call 24 hours a day.
For $65 he will even bring you a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Sheer
TVs, radios and constant
mobile ring tones are conspicuously absent. A rarity, and a luxury
today. Yet there is no time to get bored. From leaving Bangkok
and its tin-roofed shacks, houses on stilts and diligent communities
on the rail side to the bright lime green jungle; it's simply
impossible to stop looking out and taking in the diversity of
On day one you are invited to the Bridge over the River Kwai located
at Kanchanaburi, near the Thai/Burmese border. This excursion
includes a boat trip and a stop at the cemetery where many British
and Dutch POWs involved in building the infamous 'Death Railway'
lie. As you float down the river listening to the story of the
River Kwai remember to drink plenty of water as the heat can be
a knockout - literally for some. To finish off the tour, the guides
give a small tutorial on lotus flower folding. Having folded the
perfect lotus flower, I felt peculiarly proud of my achievement.
the passage from Buddhist Thailand to Muslim Malaysia is quite
clear. Even without the cabin steward's little card advising travellers
to adjust their watches (there is an hour's difference), looking
outside said it all. From Thailand's terraced farms we were plunged
into Malaysian rubber plantations. The change was startling.
In Malaysia the train stops in Butterworth for a visit to the
Spice Island of Penang. A chequered history of British, Malaysian
and Chinese influence throughout time makes George Town colourful
and diverse. From the people to the architecture, it's a real
melting pot of cultures. The visit by trishaw takes you from a
Chinese clan house, impressive with its ornate, colourful and
complex carvings, past little India and the legendary Eastern
and Oriental hotel. A good opportunity to see a lot without walking
in the stifling heat!
Back on the train, after a wobbly shower it's time to meet fellow
travellers in the Observation car. The open-air car is ideal for
soaking up the tropical environment while sipping an aperitif
and socialising. Hair flickering around your face, you are free
to embrace the heat, sights, sounds and fragrance of the sultry
The restaurant, run by British Chef, Kevin Cape is a highlight
of the journey. Dinner is a formal affair where men are expected
to wear jackets and ties and the ladies can dress in their finest
food is worthy of a Michelin star in my opinion. Your taste buds
are in for a feast of flavours. Dimmed lights, French silverware,
heavy crystal and impeccable service enhance the experience making
you glow some more.
Sampling Grilled Snow Fish steak, Clear Wonton Soup with Tamlueng
leaf or Warm Goat's Cheese Souffle with Fricassee of Lobster and
Thai Asparagus is quite something. And that's only the starters.
Watching the landscape at night, while enjoying Pan Fried Sea
bass with Lemongrass Risotto, Traditional Thai Massaman Chicken
Curry or even Aromatic Confit of Duck with Szechwan style vegetables
is a unique, somewhat surreal experience.
And if that weren't enough the delicately prepared deserts range
from Asian Mixed Fruit Crumble served with Roselle Ice Cream,
Delice of Chocolate with Cassis Sauce to Warm Mango Tart and sticky
rice. After Petit Fours and coffee, it's time to head to the Bar
where a piano player provides the entertainment while you enjoy
After crossing the Straits of Johor, the train pulls into Singapore
and disappointment sets in. Back to the real world. Your 'train
feet' have finally found the right motion but it's back to solid
Everything they say is true. The Orient Express legend deserves
its glamorous reputation. Definitely the thing of novels, stories
told at dinner parties and the stuff of great memories! Something
to tell the grandchildren.
The unique atmosphere aboard and the stunning vistas make this
journey a delightful and truly romantic honeymoon destination.
However, be warned that its single beds only --so its
time to get cosy!
Information: Where to Stay, Practical Details
is hipvoyages.com's editor. She is also evalu8.org's Contributing Editor Travel and
Hip Travel Editor for Suite101.com. Her articles have appeared
in Travellady.com, Travelmag.co.uk, Britishexpat.com, Renault.co.uk,
Newwoman.co.uk, Redmagazine.co.uk, and Men's Health Magazine UK.
"My mixed European background has given me broad horizons.
Born in one country, raised in another, and being seen as a 'foreigner'
everywhere, has led me to feel home is wherever I lay my hat.
my career in journalism at the Financial Times in London, I then
worked as a sports reporter and editor. Steering away from sports
took me to a position producing interactive programming for UK-based
lifestyle cable channel: LivingTV. Producing content for web and
interactive TV took me to the spookiest places- from interviewing
oddball celebrities to all-night live ghost hunts. Next up the
day job took me to Columbia Tristar producing content for big
is travel, preferably long-distance in business class, but anywhere
will do. I have visited over 23 countries and am planning to see
a lot more. I live with my partner in London and am partial to
cooking, entertaining chez moi, cats, sarcasm and global shopping.