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Orient-Express: Romancing The Rails

Apr 1, 2011
2011 / April 2011

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. on a brisk October evening in 1882, the Orient-Express pulled out of Paris Gare de Strasbourg bound for Vienna for the very first time. The train was packed with giddy passengers suited up in silk tuxedos for a decadent, pampering ride of their lives across Europe. When the route was expanded a few years later to take in Constantinople, further indulging the colonialist imagination, celebrities, kings, courtesans and spies all joined in the party, cavorting around the cabins and toasting with crystal stemware to celebrate the promise of a great future as the world zoomed past.

Now, the Orient-Express mythology is back, and it’s actually set in the present-day Orient. In January, I joined the inaugural journey of Fables of the Hills, one of four new luxury train routes operated by the Eastern & Oriental Express through Southeast Asia.

The week-long trip from Singapore to Bangkok begins where all self-indulgent trips should: at the dinner table. Once our locomotive pulled out of Singapore’s Keppel Road Station and crossed the straits into peninsular Malaysia, we were summoned to the train’s teak-floored dining car, where tables were set with Italian linen tablecloths, Speiglau crystal and Ginori fine bone china. Wait staff flashed courteous smiles as they greeted us and, dressed to the nines, we took our places in velvety black chairs.

And then came the dishes — haute European with subtle flavors of Southeast Asia. Wonton of goose liver in truffle bouillon. Fresh, crisp fennel salad. Rolled masala chicken on lemongrass risotto. Fragrant Siamese yellow curry. Medallion of beef with fricassée of vegetables. Gnocchi in a fragrant vindaloo sauce. Not a single lunch or dinner on the train would have been out of place in a 5-star, white-tablecloth restaurant in New York or London. How Parisian chef du train Yannis Martineau conjures up haute cuisine worthy of Michelin stardom from a kitchen the size of a broom closet —travelling at 60 mph, no less — is anyone’s guess.

That night, after a long, hot shower in my private cabin, the train’s soporific rocking motion sent me off to slumber in a few minutes. By midday the next day, we were among the strawberry fields and quiet tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, a one-time British hill station with gorgeous vistas and temperatures that rarely rise above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. I had forgotten how hot Asia can be; walking among rolling hills at 4,750 feet was the perfect respite from the muggy lowlands.

The 1,249-mile rail journey between Singapore and Bangkok can be accomplished in a straight shot of just under 48 hours, but why rush and miss everything in between? A journey aboard the E&O is as much about romance as it is about transport; spending as much time on the train as off, we found plenty to tempt us on the ground.

In Kuala Kangsar, the first foothold of the British Empire in Malaysia in the late 19th century, I strolled the golden-domed Ubudiah Mosque — considered Malaysia’s most stunning — and the nearby royal mausoleum, the final resting place of sultans and rajas. In Thailand, I crossed the bridge over the River Kwai and watched as monkeys were trained to pluck coconuts from trees. And at a hawker center on Penang, I got my fingers greasy under the tutelage of our chef, who took a break to help us taste some local color. Yannis introduced me to the island’s spicy Peranakan, or Chinese-Malay, cuisine through scrumptious plates of stingray, squid, horseshoe crab and my favorite, cheese-stuffed king prawns cooked in coconut juice. “There’s only one word for all this food in English,” I told him, my mouth nearly full. “Yum!” A local woman sitting at our table chuckled, then leaned over to us. “Sounds like a Chinese word.”

While the exotic landscapes of Southeast Asia have their allure, the real star of the journey is no secret. With its polished cream and green livery and fine rosewood paneling, the E&O feels more like a vintage Aston Martin than a rail transport vehicle. The interior features immaculate Art Deco lamps, decoratively carved lacquered panels and private en-suite cabins that are effectively bungalows on wheels. With such trappings, it is little surprise that romantic and eco-friendly luxury rail travel is the “new black.” I’m now an avid proponent of modes of travel that help preserve the planet — especially ones that afford the opportunity to look dashing at the always-open bar while you’re at it.

And so each day, after our time out on terra firma, we made our way back to the observation car to share stories or play charades until the wee hours. By the end of our journey, strangers who had first passed awkwardly in the carriages’ slender wooden corridors became close friends. I think we bonded so strongly because we had all jumped into the same time machine for a week, suspending reality to savor a unique mode of travel all too forgotten these days. We should all heed the words of that master of rail travel intrigue, Agatha Christie, who wrote, “To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns, churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”

It was pure magic standing in the observation car night after night. On our last evening, I shared a cigar with an editor from Le Figaro, a Peranakan princess and a Canadian man who makes his living in gold trading. As we zoomed past the paddy fields of Asia, the air heavy with palm oil and jasmine and the wind rushing through my hair, I closed my eyes. I heard the train clattering along the tracks, the soft laughter of passengers and the clinking of ice in glasses. I imagined, for a moment, I was someone else, living in another time. And, in an experience so rare in adulthood, the Orient-Express made it possible to pretend.


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