There is something magical about long-distance trains. Whether it is across the US, India, China, Australia or Russia and no matter what class of travel you are in, it is the best way to see a country. Sleeper trains in India are a festival of smells, some great, some not so great, and on trains in China, particularly as you get further from major centres, westerners can find themselves the subject of study by their fellow travellers.
That being said, it is always nice to travel in comfort or even in the lap of luxury whenever possible, and settling into a cabin on the Eastern and Oriental Express on the platform at Bangkok’s Italian Neo-Renaissance-style Hua Lamphong Station is certainly the latter.
After bags are loaded aboard and passports checked, there is a short walk to platform three where the E&O Express and a red carpet welcome await. The train itself looks squat with a rounded roof and not at all like the sleek aerodynamic trains in Japan. But then the four-day, three-night journey through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore isn’t supposed to be quick – it’s a leisurely trip with breakfast served in your compartment, long lunches and even longer dinners, with afternoon tea in-between and excursions thrown in for good measure.
In your cabin, carry-on bags are stowed, and before too long your carriage steward pays you a visit to make sure you’re settled in and tell you about the journey. Monty, short for Monthian, is a delight and made the trip better than it would have otherwise been.
The Pullman Cabins are the smallest of the four categories but they are easily spacious enough for two, and the in-cabin bathroom has a surprisingly spacious shower with water pressure that is better than some hotels.
Finally, and with a gentle lurch, the train ambles out of Hua Lamphong Station at around 6pm, just as the sun sets on the Venice of the East.
The E&O Express made its maiden voyage in 1993 and follows the tradition of its sister train, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express which operates between Venice, Paris and London. Bedecked in rich elm, cherry, Burmese teak, ash and rosewood, there is beautiful marquetry throughout, as well as brass and luxurious fabrics in muted burgundy and emerald that scream old world luxury.
This five-star hotel on rails heads west and, as the setting sun gives way to black, eventually into Kanchanaburi province. The suburbs of the city left long behind, the scenery changes to pastoral and agricultural with rice paddies and fields of sugarcane hiding in the twilight and eventual darkness. Fully relaxed and completely settled in, it is time to dress for dinner.
Dining on-board the E&O Express is a formal affair and gentlemen are required to wear a shirt, tie and jacket at a minimum; women are required to wear the equivalent. Many passengers choose to use the trip as an excuse to dress to the nines, and the stops are pulled out with many of the male travellers opting to go with bowties and dinner jackets while ladies don bejewelled dresses that sparkle in the dim lighting of the dining car.
There are two dining cars – a restaurant car and the saloon car which doubles as an informal after-dinner piano bar where a resident pianist entertains. Food aboard is superb, which comes as no surprise after reading the resume of Executive Chef Yannis Martineau. From La Roche-sur-Yon, Martineau made his way to the E&O Express via the restaurant of the French President’s Councillors at L’Elysee as well as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Road to Mandalay river cruise.
Dishes include hoisin-glazed Saba mackerel, a tom yam cappuccino, a duo of lamb with oyster mushroom and a fantastic coconut ice cream inside a chocolate globe. Meals are enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere, and it is clear many people were either celebrating a special event or celebrating being on the journey itself.
A nightcap on the first evening is practically mandatory if you really want to relax, and the breeze from the observation car’s veranda at the end of the train is the perfect foil to the slightly stifling heat of Thailand in November.
Guests stumble, because of the gentle rocking of the train and not because of the nightcap(s), back to the now converted compartment for a night of sound sleep as the train trundles on until 3am where it too rests for the night.