As Agatha Christie knew, the stately carriages of a luxury train make an excellent backdrop for a murderous tale. And if looks could kill there would be carnage on the observation deck of Southeast Asia’s equivalent of the Orient Express as it pulls out of Singapore and gathers steam for its 2000km journey to Bangkok. Peak-time traffic has slowed the queue on the causeway that links the city-state with Johor Bahru in Malaysia to an interminable crawl, and so more than a few daggers are being shot in our direction as we sail past the throng, welcome drink in hand and the tropical breeze gently ruffling our hair.
To be fair, you’d be envious of travel on the Eastern and Oriental Express even if you weren’t stuck in gridlock somewhere just shy of the equator. One of the world’s great rail adventures, the journey is a classic Southeast Asian tale of sweeping palms, sleepy paddies, and the odd wandering elephant. The route traverses some of the region’s most stunning landscapes — spearing through peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand before making its final stop in the Thai capital. If you have some time to spare, there’s no finer way to span the ground between the two great hubs.
I certainly view it as a unique privilege to be transiting in this way. On the previous occasion, I traveled overland between the two cities I did it by bus as a budget-conscious backpacker, and the only covering I had was a layer of grime that was the natural consequence of 55 hours on the road.
This time I have come equipped with a blazer — required evening wear for gentlemen according to the train’s dress code — and the shower in my Pullman cabin is kitted out with gold-plated taps and a basket of Bulgari toiletries. It is quite the upgrade.
Check-in takes place at Raffles Hotel, an oasis of Old World colonial charm amid the fast-evolving cityscape of the island nation. However, the closure of the grand Art Deco railway station at Keppel Road in 2011 means the first leg of the journey is under- taken instead by minibus in the company of a noticeably cynical Indian-Singaporean guide. ‘Singapore is a fine city,’ he tells us. ‘You can get fined for just about anything.’
The journey proper begins after we have passed through Singaporean and Malaysian customs at the Woodlands checkpoint in the far north of the island. The train, which was introduced in 1993 as Asia’s answer to Europe’s glamorous Venice Simplon Orient-Express (and is run by the same company), is idling at the platform and I am guided to the compact and bijou cabin where I will spend much of the next three days.
My first objective is to reach the observation car and claim my sundowner. I lurch along the narrow corridor. Mastery of walking on a moving train is not as easy as it sounds. I pass the doors of other Pullman sleepers, and the more spacious staterooms. Finally I move through the piano bar and the three dining cars, before finally making it to the secondary bar and its outdoor deck.
After pulling away from the homicidal glances of the stalled motorists, the train soon escapes the urban sprawl and continues its journey northwards through more appealing landscapes. The Malaysian state of Johor is known for its profusion of oil and rubber plantations, and these dominate the outlook. Still, the odd patch of virgin jungle and a multi-hued stunner of a tropical sunset make generously pro- portioned early evening G&Ts even more palatable.
As I am penciled in for the later dinner seating, I have plenty of time to stumble back to my cabin to freshen up and make myself look passable. Even with the addition of a jacket and some new brogues, hastily purchased in Singapore before departure, I feel like a scruff compared to my fellow travelers. Indeed, the array of tuxedos and ball-gowns on show suggests a raiding of Orchard Road’s finest shopping emporiums.
The food is worth dressing up for. Having observed the cramped conditions in the tiny galley-like kitchens and experienced the disorienting feeling of trying to function on a moving train, I am amazed by the creations presented by the executive chef and his team. Throughout two four-course dinners and two equally epically proportioned lunches, I sample a selection of dishes that wouldn’t shame Parisian palates.
The companionship is equally convivial. This is a sociable train, and with table reservations changing for every meal, I meet a broad cross-section of travelers. A few are celebrating a birthday or anniversary but most are using the E&O as part of a longer, independent tour of South-East Asia, a luxury link between Singapore and Bangkok before an onward hop to Laos or Vietnam. As Teemu, a Finnish veteran of other great train journeys such as the Trans-Siberian Express in Russia and the Ghan in Australia, tells me: “Travel today is all about rushing from point to point, airport to airport. Something like this allows you to take things slower and ease into the journey.”
It is a mantra I grow to appreciate in the days ahead.
The train stops for two excursions. There’s a trishaw tour of historic Georgetown, the capital of Penang in northern Malaysia. Meanwhile at Kanchanaburi in Thailand, one of the key stops on the so-called ‘Death Railway’ built by the Japanese in 1942-43 to link Bangkok with Burma to supply their war effort, guests are ferried down the River Kwai and make a stop at the town’s harrowing Thailand- Burma Railway Museum.
For me, however, the rhythm of the ride exerts the most appeal. I spend my days in my cabin either catching up on some reading or dozing off as if lulled into slumber by the swaying coconut palms and sleepy villages the train passes through as Malaysia merges into southern Thailand.
As the curtain comes down on the final night on the train, I end up at the main bar, where the resident pianist is mugging away on everything from Cole Porter standards to a lounge version of Radiohead’s Creep. The atmosphere in the car is rambunctious but tinged with slight melancholia. At this time tomorrow, we all will have dispersed our separate ways into the Bangkok night. For now, this is travel at its most harmonious.
NB: Eastern and Oriental Express journeys have not been running during 2022, but are expected to recommence next year.