An ode to the golden age of travel, where the speed of passage was secondary to the style and manner of transport, this wonderful adventure starts the moment guests arrive to check in. With Singapore’s iconic Tanjong Pagar railway station now consigned to history, the E&O experience begins at the city’s most historic old dame, the inimitable Raffles Hotel. It’s a fitting location for the experience to follow. The moment you step into the hotel grounds, your luggage whisked away by the waiting check-in staff, the noisy modern world and its distractions fall dreamingly out of focus. Over tea and sandwiches at The Raffles Grill, boarding passes are handed out and on-board meal times organised before it’s time to hop onto the shuttle to the awaiting train.
With Singapore’s historic tracks uprooted to make way for the excellent green corridor wildlife sanctuary, the train now begins its journey at Woodlands on the Singapore/Malaysia border.
First impressions matter, and boarding the train is certainly no disappointment. Beautifully preserved and presented, the interior of the carriages is elegant and sophisticated, a blend of polished woods, brass and soft fabrics. Private cabins are comfortable and spacious, with a remarkable ensuite bathroom with separate shower compartment – something not available on the Venice Simplon route in Europe. Each carriage has a dedicated attendant, available on call 24 hours a day via an in-cabin bell.
I was shown to my cabin by the charming Weenus Khomloy, an E&O veteran who has worked on board for over 20 years. Under his care, breakfast and high tea were served daily and the cabin seamlessly prepared for day or night travel.
Within minutes I was settled into my cabin, with reading matter at hand and tea and scones on the way. As we set off, it was impossible not to just sit back and enjoy the view – pulling away from the station, the futuristic skyline of the citystate was soon replaced by a sea of green as we entered the palm and rubber plantations of southern Malaysia on our way up to Kuala Lumpur.
For those wanting to experience a closer commune with nature, the train features an open-air observation carriage, located at the tail. From here, guests have a breezy view of the surrounding countryside, best enjoyed with a stiff drink from the neighbouring bar carriage.
This communal space, and the centrally-located piano bar, provide ideal places to meet fellow travellers over a cocktail or two. There’s also a library on board, with a selection of magazines and games for those who forgot to bring along suitable reading matter.
As the sun sank into the horizon, it was time to prepare for the day’s main event – dinner. During the day, guests are encouraged to be dressed in smart casual attire. Come the evenings though and it’s time to dress up in a manner more suitable for the occasion – think your James Bond best for gentlemen and high glamour for the ladies. Drinks are served in the bar cars before diners are called to dining carriages for their sitting.
In the kitchen, Chef Yannis Martineau offers a daily changing three-course menu complete with amuse bouches and petit fours. Having worked on the train for seven years, he is no stranger to the challenges involved in cooking in a confined space. He started his career with the company on the Venice Simplon Orient Express before moving to Myanmar to work on The Road to Mandalay, the company’s luxury cruiser which sails up the Irrawaddy River between Bagan and Mandalay. “The main challenge I face is logistics but it’s not unlike working in any kitchen except of course the slight movement which took a little getting used to. I have a team of eight in the kitchen who work two shifts organising the meals for the whole day.”
As you would expect, the quality of the food on board is very high with an impressive variety of dishes – during my three days on the train 12 different types of fresh bread were served with meals, just one example of the attention to detail involved. “I try to not repeat any of the bread during each trip, including some local varieties as well like naan or roti.”
Asian influences from the region are also evident in his menu – the first dish I sampled on board was a delicious Tom Yam Cappuccino, followed by the choice between a Medallion of Beef with Foie Gras Croquette and Asian Vegetables, Vindaloo Sauce and Mustard Foam or an Ayam Rendang Biryani, served with Long-Grain Rice and Asian Pickles. “I try to adjust the menu to the country we are travelling through, so we have dishes like satay, laksa and nasi as courses depending on where we are on the route.”
When guests are not busy feasting in the dining cars, entertainment on board includes traditional dance performances and live music in the piano bar. On my first evening, the pianist’s impressive repertoire of popular sing-along hits was an effective ice-breaker and he had some of his high-spirited audience, some quite an advanced age, breaking into a impromptu jolly jig.
With two nights spent on the train on the way up to Bangkok, the journey features two historical excursions, the first in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar in Malaysia and the second at Kanchanaburi, near to the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ in Thailand.
Kuala Kangsar is a charming sleepy town in the state of Perak, punctuated by period bungalows, a collection of grand buildings and the first boarding school in Malaysia. The seat of the Sultan, the town is home to the impressive Ubudiah Mosque, the Royal Museum and the Sultan Shah Gallery. These constituted stops on a whirlwind bus tour of the town given by our cheerful guide, who delighted his audience with a repertoire that included corny jokes and breaking into multilingual song.
The visit to the Thailand Burma Railway Museum the following day was an equally fascinating window into the history of the region under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. With their eyes on invading India, the Japanese built the railway connecting Thailand and Burma as a vital supply route for their army, forcing thousands of prisoners of war to construct the tracks in terrible conditions, resulting in the loss of around 130,000 lives. Their struggle is well documented in the museum, and the adjacent cemetery, one of many that lines the tracks, is a poignant reminder of the area’s tragic history.
As interesting as the side trips were, it was always good to get out of the heat and back into the cool comfort of the journey’s main attraction. Not only did it signify the completion of another leg of the journey, but also the chance to sample more of Chef Martineau’s excellent cuisine in the timeless splendor of the dining car. With its successful combination of luxurious travel and historical interest, available on board a romantic icon, travelling with the Eastern and Oriental Express is an experience not to be missed.
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On a road like Keong Saik, you could pick a