The Eastern & Oriental Express crossing the bridge over the River Kwai, Thailand. Photographer: Ian Lloyd

Romance On The Orient Express

24th September 2010

The Orient Express has a mythical quality that has haunted Rowena Carr-Allinson ever since she can remember. Tales of eccentric travellers and voyages to exotic destinations have lurked at the back of her mind since childhood.

Bewitched (who wouldn’t be?) by her first journey on this glamorous train seven years ago, she jumped at the chance to do it again on her honeymoon. After all, what better way to travel from Bangkok to Singapore, as newlyweds, than on the Oriental and Eastern Express?

There’s something so special about slow train journeys, and, to me, the Orient Express in Asia is synonymous with opulence and indulgent travel – the old-fashioned way.

We arrive at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station on a hot, muggy afternoon, full of anticipation. Entering the Orient Express lounge is the start of a journey in a parallel universe. Outside, baggage handlers in their pristine uniforms scurry around while passengers meet the maître d’ and discuss arrangements. We opt for the romantic option: a table for two, rather than sharing with others. There will be plenty of opportunities to socialise.

As we step aboard the elegant dark green and cream wagon, we’re transported back in time. I fully expect to see a couple of English spinsters, an Austrian baroness and Hercule Poirot having tea in the Library Car, while, in the corner, a glamorous blonde puffs seductively from a cigarette holder, as she flirts with an elderly gentleman. In fact, we soon discover that both the spinsters and the blonde are on board, together with the English honeymooners, the Southern Belle and the retired footballer…

A Presidential compartment. Photo: Willy Tang

We rush to our cabin and find a bottle of champagne on ice, with a lovely welcome note. A great start! Our Pullman cabin is teeny tiny, but beautiful. The bunk is upholstered in a deep red Chinese-inspired pattern; fancy pink curtains and lamps give it a European edge, and beautiful brass adds the finishing touch. The en-suite bathroom is microscopic but comes with deliciously scented Bulgari Thé Vert products. Once in, we remember (too late) the recommendation to bring only one bag on board – floor space is at a premium and since our suitcases are a little large, we come up with an ingenious balancing solution.

Never mind its bijou size, we love our cosy, intimate cabin. Its decadent charm and honey-toned cherry wood panelling have us falling in love, all over again.

The Bangkok-Singapore route has only been operational since 1993, but the Eastern & Oriental Express team have ensured that the cars all ooze traditional colonial luxury mixed with Thai style and Malaysian grace. The train itself was actually modelled on the one in the 1932 Marlene Dietrich movie Shanghai Express.

TVs, radios and imobile ring tones are, happily, conspicuously absent. A luxury and a rarity these days. Yet there is no time to be bored. From Bangkok, and its tin-roofed shacks, houses on stilts and diligent communities on the railside, to rice paddies and the bright, lush jungle, it's simply impossible to stop looking out and taking in the diversity of life.

The first day’s excursion is at the Bridge over the River Kwai with a boat trip and museum tour. Although we’ve all seen the film, with its legendary uplifting whistled tune, the brand new ‘Death Railway’ museum, which tells the gruesome story of the POWs forced to build the railway, leaves us feeling subdued. The mood doesn’t improve as we stop by a graveyard and I place some flowers on a random tomb. Each plate is dedicated to a young life lost. I’m awed by these men’s young ages. Killed by disease, abuse and malnutrition in this hot, humid place, which must have been hell. I’m glad though, that this stop is making us remember these Dutch, English, Australians and Americans, many of whom were just boys.

Over the border in Malaysia the train stops in Butterworth so that we can visit the spice island of Penang. A chequered history of British, Malaysian and Chinese influences makes its capital, Georgetown, both colourful and diverse; from the people to the architecture: a real melting pot of cultures. The first stop is at the beautiful Chinese Khoo clan house, impressive with its ornate, colourful and intricate carvings, statues and ancient wall drawings. We then hop into a tiny (and very cosy!) rickshaw, which takes us past Little India’s traffic jams, across town and to the legendary Eastern and Oriental hotel for a much needed cool drink. The ride affords a great opportunity to see plenty without walking in the knock-out heat.

Back in our cabin on board the train, tea is served on a beautiful silver service tray, with apple tartlets, carrot cake and quiches. Heaven.

Dinner is a highlight of the journey, too, served in one of three restaurant cars, each with a different décor, all set up with the finest linens and silverware. The staff are adorable and attentive and very, very smiley. Typically Thai; not for nothing is the country dubbed ‘the land of smiles.’

The evening meal is a formal affair where men are expected to wear jackets and ties, and the ladies can dress in their finest garb. I’m glad we invested in my husband’s ‘Tiger-hunting’ suit – a pale linen affair that looks very appropriate, although not his usual style. I try to fit in with a bronze, Chinese-style dress. Wearing my hair in a bun, and with heavy makeup, I’m trying to match the colonial cool look favoured by most. We both feel rather dressed up, but it’s all part of the Orient Express experience. I’m like Miss Scarlett, in the drawing room, with my very own Professor Plum.

Before dinner, we stroll along to indulge in an aperitif in the Observation Cart. Hair flickering around your face in the wind, you can embrace the heat, the sights, the sounds and the fragrances of the sultry Malay peninsula. It’s also the place to catch the sunset, and mingle while soaking up the atmosphere (and the Cosmopolitans).

The food is fantastic. Our taste-buds are in for a feast of flavours with a set four course menu every night. I love the rich Goose Liver on Gingerbread, the Poached Eggs in Hollandaise sauce with Asparagus tips and Brioche, and the Pan-fried Scallops in Chilli with Papaya salad. And that's just the starters!

A steward prepares cocktails. Photo: Ron Bambridge

Watching the landscape at night, while enjoying Seabass in Soy sauce, Chicken Massala (so mild and creamy I mistake it for butter sauce) or Duck Confit with Cauliflower Puree, is a unique, even surreal, experience. The desserts, too, are works of art: the Panacotta and Raspberry Coulis, the Watermelon ice cream with candyfloss, the wafer-thin Almond Biscuits, the brownies... After coffee, which comes with gorgeous sweet treats, it's time to head to the Bar for a nightcap and a sing-along to Jimmy the pianist’s lively tunes.

The journey requires only three nights on board, and just as it feels that your 'train feet' have finally found the right motion it's back to solid earth. All too soon. After crossing the Straits of Johor, the train pulls into Singapore and – unfortunately – it’s back to the real world.

We all but float off the Orient Express, waving goodbye to the crew, and feeling slightly dazed. There’s no doubt that this railway legend deserves its glamorous reputation. A journey to remember, a perfect honeymoon voyage, the stuff of great stories…

One night in Bangkok…

Stay at The Metropolitan in Bangkok, one of the hippest addresses in town, perfectly located in the Saton road area. The zen-style rooms, sleek service and gorgeous spa make it a perfect urban hideaway, while the new Nahm restaurant (sister to the one in London) will give you a real taste of Thai food, the extra spicy way! In a chaotic city like Bangkok, The Metropolitan is an oasis of calm and plush luxury.
Find out more at www.metropolitan.bangkok.como.bz

So Singapore

Stay in keeping with the style you've become accustomed to at The Fullerton. The snazziest address in town, the one-time post office, with its Palladian style columns overlooking Marina Bay is the place to stay in Singapore. Book a suite for fantastic views, enjoy the outdoor pool on the 3rd floor overlooking Boat Quay and don’t miss dinner at The Lighthouse, their fantastic rooftop restaurant.
Find out more www.fullertonhotel.com

How to Get There

Return flights with Emirates from London Gatwick to Bangkok (outbound) and Singapore to London Gatwick (return) are available from £657 with expedia.co.uk.
For reservations, visit www.expedia.co.uk or call 0871 226 0808.

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