As we draw into Johore Baru, I realise that everyone is staring at us.
The passengers in the train on the opposite platform. The people waiting for the next train on our side. The guards. The cleaners. The vendors. Phones are pulled out to take photos. Parents are pointing us out to their children. Their gazes vary from surprise, to delight to open-mouthed gaping. It’s only the elderly, who perhaps remember seeing something like us before, who display equanimity - albeit nostalgia-tinted.
I can’t say I blame them. We must be a sight. Close to a kilometre of sleek carriages, painted in cream and green livery, rich damask curtains at the widows, dining cars with crystal ware, silver settings, linen tablecloths and embroidered red tabletop lamps and open-walled observation car, with its teak benches bringing up the rear.
We are, quite literally, a vision from another age, a time when rail travel was less democratic but more romantic, when the journey was half the fun. Stretched out in my cabin, wrapped in a linen bathrobe, silk slippered feet resting on the chair, taking afternoon tea, I’ve already slipped into the sepia coloured past and I’ve only been on board for 30 minutes. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Eastern and Oriental Express.
Our journey on this, the younger sister of the Orient Express, kicked off an hour earlier at Raffles, possibly the world’s quintessential colonial hotel and now a part of the Oriental Express’ global holdings. Sitting at the Long Bar, Singapore Slings in hand, I take in the crowd. Older, wealthier and better travelled than your average group, they’re also (slightly) dressier. As we’re just 1.3 degrees shy of the Equator, there’s an abundance of floral dresses and high-heels as well as linen suits and panama hats. One dapper chap, a boldly bearded Sixtysomething from Germany stands out in particular. Dressed in a medley of turquoise (jacket) and coral (trousers), with a robin’s egg blue linen shirt, white Panama, chocolate brown belt and jazzy green loafers, he’s Technicolor elegance incarnate.
“Gentlemen,” the pre-departure Welcome Kit informed us, “will feel comfortable in a minimum of a jacket and a tie.” It’s an exhortation repeated by Valentin, our smartly suited train manager, shortly after we board. Admittedly, not everyone has taken the gentle command to heart. One couple, in their mid-fifties, shamble in wearing shorts, she in a polo shirt, he in a Hawaiian. Another younger couple appear in jeans. On the Orient Express, company lips would, I imagine, have pursed but here, in tropically-relaxed Singapore, any dismay is hidden. Nothing is said but both, I notice, are considerably more sartorial when we sit down for supper.
The journey between Singapore and Bangkok is relatively short, just two nights in all. As such, it’s one of the shorter trips the Eastern & Oriental makes in southeast Asia, so we all settle in quickly, to make the very most of the train. The carriages are all period originals and originally ran on lines in Australia and New Zealand. They’ve been extensively refurbished – while maintaining their Evelyn Waugh appeal – and so now come with contemporary amenities like air-conditioning and private toilets with showers, which you definitely don’t get on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, for example.
With butlers on 24-hour call, it would be easy enough never to leave the cabin but one of the pleasures of such a journey is the chance to mingle, whether this is one of three dining cars, in the open-air observation car, the library/salon, or else in the piano bar, after dark.
As we roll out of Johore, the view from my window becomes lush and green. Along the line, the panoramas are expansive but their drama is generally of the domesticated kind. Over the course of the next 1,920 kilometres, we roll through plantations and deep jungle, across rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see, through scrubby grasslands, where water buffalo and milk cows roam. We snake between curious limestone eruptions, fantastical shapes festooned in creepers and trees, that tower above the otherwise pancake-flat plains, land-locked brethren of the towering limestone pillars of Phang Nga, here adrift in a sea of green and past plastic bags used as scarecrows, as they flap in the breeze.
We pass through timeless scenes of rural life; harvesters plucking, farmers ploughing, chickens clucking, inland fish farms and whether on foot, bicycle or motorbike, we pass people laden with all kinds of things, many of then stopping to wave. There are forests of coconut palms and banana trees, soaring Neem and vast flowerless Flamboyants, canopies large enough to shelter entire houses.
Our rattling and rolling startles flocks of birds and sends herons skipping across flooded fields. We pass intricate bird nests and improbably huge bee-hives, both dangling precariously from branches. We drift past muddy green waterways, through level crossings, where traffic waits patiently, heads turning as we pass and gradually, the wooden homes on stilts of Malaysia, the older ones embellished with beautiful carvings, give way to the sturdier, red roofed, dragon-horn finials of Thailand, the mosques and temples, Indian and Chinese, of Malaysia give way to the misty outline of pagodas and Thai temples. Slowly, the headscarves give way to flowing locks, the beards to clean-shaven cheeks, religion and ethnicity changes, ebbing backwards and forwards on either side of the culturally amorphous Thai-Malay border, before national identity fully asserts itself.
The rhythms of the journey are equally languid. Breakfast in cabin, a shower (we each have our own), a bit of reading, a bit of writing, maybe a postcard or a letter, a stroll along the gently swaying corridors, lunch, an excursion, a nap, dressing for dinner, then maybe cocktails and finally, bed – the banquette in your cabin now miraculously transformed, is swathed in crisp sheets, nightlight casting a benevolent golden glow.
Each morning, the sun burns off the morning mist and each evening, the dusk turns the fields into a smudgy charcoal chiaroscuro. One night, the heavens open and the rain floods down the windows in sheets, twisting and blurring the reed beds outside, as the palms whip about violently, fronds singing in the wind. It is all so impossibly romantic.
It isn’t unreservedly idyllic. Tracks, in places, are a little irregular and while the gentle roll of the train is soporific – the first day on board, I am rocked to sleep shortly after being served afternoon tea in my cabin – the abrupt judder caused by the odd, slightly mismatching sleepers, means that twice that first night, I am jolted awake. The bed, though, is so comfortable that falling back to sleep isn’t a problem, but I do notice that it’s a topic of conversation the following morning, as we get ready to embark on a walking tour of colonial Georgetown, on the island of Penang.
A delightfully dilapidated mix of cultures – which inevitably brings to mind Malaysia’s sententious but ineluctable refrain that it is, indeed, ‘truly Asia’ – Georgetown is a quiet delight, a place where the flicker of oil lamps and clouds of incense meet the muezzin’s call and hot, crumbly, fist-sized samosas can be had alongside bowls of richly-spiced rendang and strips of crispy duck. The sights are equally low-key, Chinese and Indian temples, a couple of street markets, the cream and white grandeur of the Eastern & Oriental, opened by the Brothers Sarkies - Armenians from Isfhan - back in 1885 as well as other architectural reminders of Malaysia’s colonial heritage.
Nothing stands out in particular, it’s all quietly but equally interesting. Georgetown’s juxtapositions, colours and textures are a photographer’s dream but what is most noticeable about the place is that, like the train trip, it is redolent of ages past.
Wander past the Peranakan Mansion on Church Street and you can’t help imagine that the elderly blonde you glimpse out of the corner of your eye is Agatha perhaps in the middle of writing her latest Poirot. Similarly, saunter past the E&O’s piano bar after dinner and you may imagine that the man in the smoking jacket, coaxing a jaunty rendition of Mad About the Boy isn’t, in fact, old Noël himself. The surroundings, then, are colourful but the feeling of having slipped for a few days, into a black and white film, is ever-present. It’s also delightful.
We rock up the Peninsula and cross the border and head towards our final excursion at Kanchanaburi. Deep in western Thailand, it’s been designated, purely for tourist purposes, as the site of that famous bridge over the River Kwai. I say ‘designated’ because the actual Kwai is deep in neighbouring Myanmar (and until recently, fairly inaccessible, hence this clever ruse) and that famous bridge was never actually built. Either way, it’s where the train makes use of an old iron bridge over the Mae Klong River to turn around towards Bangkok and once again, we draw a wondering crowd. As I watch the tourists taking photos of us from the comfort of my cabin, briefly reflecting on the irony of having become the spectacle of that day, I can’t help feeling that on this lovely, liveried train, we have been, are and for a few hours longer, still will be travelling not just through space but also through time.
Originally Published in Bespoke
Photo © Eastern & Oriental