The Orient Express operates a subsidiary operation in Asia, and the rail trip is called the Eastern and Oriental Express. Is it up to Orient Express standards? I took a trip on the Orient Express from Venice a few years ago, and the quality of its Asian subsidiary, is on par with its big European brother, if not better. The train is predominantly staffed by Thais. They are so gracious, gentle and engaging. My cabin steward, Woody, had worked on the train for 12 years. It was home to him, and like the rest of the staff, they clearly felt proud to be working on-board such a legendary train. And I think it is that golden Thai hospitality, that adds so much charm and mystique to the 2000km-long trip. A very quirky piece of trivia – the stainless steel carriages of this train were actually purchased from New Zealand in 1991. Previously they were the carriages of New Zealand Rail’s Silver Star service, which some listeners will recall from the North Island.
So setting off from Singapore, let’s look at the main sights. Pulling out of Singapore, you travel across the causeway that links the island with Malaysia at Johor Baru. Then the landscape is dominated by palm oil and rubber tree plantations, interspersed with tiny villages and lots of waving kids.
You have an evening stop in Kuala Lumpur? Late at night, the train stops over for an hour at KL, principally to top up the water tanks and take on provisions. But there’s time to catch a glimpse of the city centre, and sample some of the street food from the kerbside stalls.
The next stop is in Penang and the colonial magnificence of Georgtown? Yes, the following morning after breakfast, you can take a two hour excursion to Penang Island, which of course was a major trading post for the British two hundred years ago. Georgetown, which is now a bustling city, has safeguarded its colonial roots, and the old town is protected with UNESCO World Heritage status. I went on a walking tour, sampled some of the tasty morsels from the street stalls and marvelled at the awesome collection of old buildings, bazaars, temples, churches and mosques. A true melting pot of intermingling cultures and very colourful.
As you cross from Malaysia into Thailand, do you notice any changes to the landscape? I was quite surprised at how stark the change is. Unlike Malaysia, Thailand hasn’t surrended its countryside to high-density palm oil plantations, so its great swathes of rice paddies that dominate the scenery. Every single village and town we passed seemed to have a gold-coated Buddhist temple. And the other great feature are the towering limestone rock stacks that are sprinkled across the Thai peninsula. So it’s a very photogenic affair.
The final stop before Bangkok is at the bridge over the River Kwai. What did you do there? Just south of Bangkok, the second excursion takes you to the sight of the old Burma-Thailand Railway, built by POWS and labourers during the Japanese invasion in World War Two. Over 30 thousand Allied POWs died, in the process of the construction of the railway, and you’ll see the war graves, the famous Bridge over the River Kwai which was bombed by the Allies, and a raft ride on the river. A sobering but rewarding experience.
Are the excursions complimentary? Yes, unlike cruise ships, the train’s sightseeing excursions are offered at no extra charge, which I thought was a very nice touch.
What’s the food and accommodation like? Incredibly good, flavourful food,that very much celebrates the tastes of Malaysia and Thaialand. Lots of lovely spiced seafood and coconut curries. And just like the Orient Express, the elaborately designed interiors of the restuarants and cabins, pays homage to the golden age of rail. So think brass lamps, inlaid wood panelling, silverware, chinaware, all very timeless and evocative.
Who does it appeal to? Is it expensive? Well, it’s not cheap, it’s a special treat. The 3 day trip will set you back about a thousand dollars a night, so Kiwis and Aussies tend to splash out and experience it, to mark a special occasion. A honeymoon or wedding anniversary, in particular. But on my train this week, I was surprised at the diverse range of age groups. From twenty-somethings to ninety year olds, from all over the world. Lots of lovely young Russians to very droll wrinkly old farmers from New South Wales. So it’s a very broad church, and very very sociable. I highly recommend it.
For further information go to orient-express.com
( As discussed on Mike’s weekly travel slot on Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.)