On track for a luxurious ride
NST, February 12, 2015
On board the Eastern & Oriental Express from KL to Bangkok, Surycmi Dalip feels a sombre moment when it crosses the historic bridge over River Kwai
IT'S just before 10 on a Friday evening, when the taxi driver pulls into the driveway of the old wing of The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur.
It's still very early as check-in time is only 11.15-11.30pm. But I am very eager to board the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express bound for Bangkok, Thailand.
I am no stranger to overnight train rides. Whenever I balik kampung, I would take Ekspres Wau to my hometown in Pasir Mas, Kelantan and back to Kuala Lumpur.
The one-way journey takes about 12 hours and cuts across several State borders — Pahang, Negri Sembilan, Johor and Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, giving me a chance to feast my eyes on lush greenery, flora and fauna, villages and towns. I even find the rocking motion comforting; it feels like one is in a cradle.
But tonight promises to be the start of a momentous journey. I am about to spend 2D/1N (not counting tonight when we board the train) eating, reading, sleeping and exploring the luxurious train!
Waiting at the door of The Majestic Hotel KL is a doorman, dressed in a white colonial uniform, complete with knee-high socks and a pith helmet. He guides me to the reception desk.
From there, I am shown to The Reading Room next door, which also serves as the waiting room/ lounge for E&O Express passengers.
Since I am so early, I take the opportunity to explore the room and admire the interior before settling down on a leather sofa to read a lifestyle magazine.
Later, checking in is a breeze. All I need to do is to present my passport to the duty personnel and answer some questions pertaining to the journey. Within minutes,! am presented with my boarding pass. I am to stay in State Cabin A4, Coach A.
At 11.45pm, my cabin mate Seri Intan and I, as well as two European couples are sent to the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, located just across the road from the hotel.
Shortly, the E&O Express pulls in to the station. It had departed Singapore's Woodlands Train Checkpoint (formerly Woodlands Railway Station), earlier at 5pm.
My adventure aboard the E&O Express is about to begin. At the far end, cabin steward Prachak is waiting for us at the door of Coach A, ready to lead us to our cabin.
The State Cabin has two single beds at floor level with en-suite show-er and toilet, a closet for clothes and a small closet with a safe deposit box.
I take the first bed, located next to the door while Seri Intan takes the one with the window. Before leaving to let us settle in, Prachak asks what time we would like to have breakfast. Ahh... breakfast in bed.
Shortly after, F&B manager Chany-uth drops in to make reservations for our lunch and dinner the next day and the day after. There are two sessions to choose from, 11.45am and 1.30pm (lunch), and 6.45pm and 8.30pm (dinner).
We choose the first sessions. Lunch and dinner are served at the Saloon and the train's restaurant cars, Rosaline and Adisorn.
Next, train manager Valentin Waldman comes to welcome us aboard the E&O Express. It's well past midnight before we retire for the evening. I have an adventure ahead of me to look forward to.
The train leaves the Kuala Lumpur station at 1.15am.
At 7.30am, Prachak knocks on the door with a tray laden with a Continental spread. While enjoying our breakfast, we hear Waldman's voice coming over the speaker.
After wishing everybody a good morning, he informs us on the itinerary for the day which is an excursion in George Town, Penang, one of two Unesco World Heritage Sites in the country.
The train is scheduled to arrive in Butterworth railway station at 9am, when the passengers will disembark for the excursion.
During check-in last night, passengers were given a choice either to take a bus tour or join a walking tour. I chose the guided walking tour that covers the Heritage Trail or Street of Harmony.
At Butterworth station, I meet the rest of the passengers, besides those who boarded in Kuala Lumpur and two young coach mates, who I caught a glimpse of the evening earlier as they passed our cabin to theirs, next door.
The brothers, aged 23 and 8, look handsome and gentlemanly in their black tuxedo. They are from Shah Alam, Selangor, and had boarded the train in Singapore.
The other passengers are mostly from Europe and Japan, including a family from Myanmar and the US, and a couple from Australia.
According to Waldman, the E&O Express Is especially popular with the British, Americans and Australians. But of late, there have been Chinese and Russians travellers as well as those from the Middle East. The period between October and end of March is peak season for the E&O Express.
At the station, I join 14 other passengers, two Rela officers and our tour guide, Suraya. As the tour buses with 59 passengers leave for George Town, my group heads for Butterworth Ferry Terminal and boards the Pulau Kapas ferry that will take us to the island.
The ferry ride is just IS minutes. We then hop into a bus to take us to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, where the Kap-itan Keling Mosque is located. This is the startingpoint of ourtour which will end at Cenotaph Monument, a World War 1 memorial, at the Esplanade in Jalan Padang Kota Lama.
I am looking forward to lunch in the Saloon Car after the walking tour and the long trek back to Coach A. The train menu is specially designed to represent Southeast Asian flavours, specifically those of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Executive chef Yannis Martineau says there's a different set of menu for the northbound and southbound journeys. He has been working with the E&O Express for seven years now. His kitchen team comprises 20 per cent Malaysians and 70 per cent Thai nationals.
Since the E&O Express serves alcohol and uses non-halal ingredients in its food preparation, passengers are advised to make a special diet request two weeks before the journey. In my case, I ask for vegetarian and seafood.
The lunch menu comprises cauliflower bavarois and a medley of vegetables with smoked duck breast drizzled with curry oil for a starter, aromatic steamed cod fish and fresh leek salad with a side of egg tofu, shitake mushroom and bok choy for the main course and pineapple crumble with sorbet for dessert. I have a choice of either Doi Pracha explaining about the durian to passengers during a Fruit Tasting session.
Chaang Coffee (from northern Thailand) or Boh Tea (Cameron Highlands) to wash down the meal.
After the sumptuous meal, I head back to my cabin to rest my tired feet. It is a 10-minute walk to my cabin. By then the cabin has been converted for the night, looking more like a daybed, with twoplush pillows on it. The sight is very inviting.
The train arrives at Padang Besar Railway Station at 3pm for the Immigration check and to change the locomotive. Passengers are told to remain on board as the immigration check is taken care of by cabin stewards.
Forty-five minutes later, the train should have crossed the Thailand border but we have to wait an extra 30 minutes. It seems that the replacement locomotive has broken down and we have to wait for another to be brought in from Hatyaai, the nearest railway station which is 30 minutes away. Meanwhile, it starts rain, the first drops as the journey has been sunny so far.
The E&O Express finally departs Padang Besar after 4pm (3pm Thai time). Not long after, there's an announcement for passengers to adjourn to the Piano Bar for a fruit tasting and presentation conducted by Pracha and Sapa who will introduce various Asian fruit.
Later on, in the comfort of my cabin, I sip Doi Chang coffee and nibble on the sumptuous selection of pastries during afternoon tea. I look out the window at the passing views of rubber plantations and vast fields. It is an effort though, to keep my coffee from spilling as the ride is Four's company
Like everyone else, Seri Intan and I dress up for dinner at Rosaline restaurant. Prior to the meal, passengers converge at The Piano Bar once again, this time to watch a Thai traditional dance performance.
That evening, Australian couple Jane and Mark, who are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, join us.
Dinner starts with a medley of seafood with oyster mushroom, red pepper, curry oil and crispy ginger followed by fish curry with long beans served with rice (except for Mark who opts for rack of lamb with Asian jus served on a bed of mustard-mashed potato with brussel sprouts and mushroom) for the main course, and ends with dessert and coffee.
Good food, good company. That can only mean a lovely dinner. We have a great time, talking about various topics, from personal issues to politics and world affairs. Strangers aboard the E&O Express have become fast friends.
After bidding Jane and Mark goodnight, we make our way back to the cabin. Upon entering, we immediately notice that Prachak has made our beds and placed beautiful flower wreaths on top.
What are they for? I wonder. Hmm. a welcome gift perhaps?
Kanchanaburi and River Kwai
Due to the delay the previous day at Padang Besar station, we only arrive at Kanchanaburi Railway Station at noon, more than an hour behind the scheduled 10.45am.
Earlier, the train made a stop at Nong Pladuk Junction to change the train direction in order to turn into Kanchanaburi station for an excursion. The station is situated before the infamous River Kwai Bridge Station.
Enroute, the train passes HuaHin Railway Station, one of the oldest in Thailand. The main feature here is The Royal Waiting Room which is used by the Thai King and his court when they visit the town.
Upon approaching Kanchanaburi station, passengers are told to gather at The Piano Bar as the station platform is short and we have to alight from the bar coach. We are also told to bring along the flower wreath left on our beds.
Ah, the mystery is unravelled today. We are told that the wreath will be placed on the tombs of prisoners of war who died while being forced to construct the Death Railway and related structures between 1942 and 1945. These prisoners were laid to rest at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the main POWs cemetery located across from the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre a.k.a. Death Railway Museum and Research.
At the station, we see stalls selling souvenirs and books titled The True Story Of The Death Railway and The Bridge On The River Kwai.
We are then ushered to aboat which will take us on the 30-minute cruise along KwaeYai River or River Kwai. During the cruise, Thailand-Burma Railway Centre representative Matthew tells us the history of The Thailand-Burma Railway.
Meanwhile, the train continues its journey, crossing the river below the steel bridge to River Kwai Bridge Station before turning back to Kanchanaburi station.
Standing along the bridge as well as on the observation decks are locals and tourists, waiting to capture moments of the E&O Express crossing the bridge over the River Kwai. What a sight!
We alight at the Vietnamese Temple, where a bus is already waiting for us. Our next destination is the railway centre. It's devastating to learn that 40,000 out of 42,000 Malay prisoners died in the construction of the railway. In total, over 105,000 POWs were involved the construction.
Final destination - Bangkok
Back at Kanchanaburi station, we make our way to Adisorn restaurant for a late lunch. It is already past 2pm. All 74 passengers are to dine together.
Seri Intan and I are seated at a table for four.
To our delight, we are joined by the brothers. As good looking as he is well-mannered, the 8-year-old is popular with both the E&O Express employees and the passengers.
Wearing a dark green E&O Express T-shirt and ball cap, he looks fit to be a young E&O Express ambassador. Not only that but he also has a deep interest in trains and their technology, and hopes to work in the industry someday.
The train is now on its way to our final destination, Bangkok Railway Station (popularly known as Hua Lam-phong Station) in Pathum Wan District. It is scheduled to arrive between 5.30pm and 6pm.
As the train enters Bangkok, the view outside the windows changes to an urban view of the vibrant capital city of Thailand. The greenery, vast fields and rural villages are replaced by the concrete jungle.
I am charmed by the views, activities and dramas that unfold before me, sights that are only visible to train passengers as the train passes through the backyards of local homes.
Our arrival at Bangkok Railway Station marks the end of our journey on the E&O Express. In his parting message, Waldman advises passengers to choose metered taxis, to avoid being scammed or conned by unscrupulous taxi drivers. With a heavy heart, I disembark and take my time retrieving my checked-in luggage.
Adieu, Eastern & Oriental Express and thank you for the wonderful journey and memorable experience. But then the charms of HuaLamphong station are calling to me.
Hello HuaLamphong! Bangkok, here I come.
Note: Next week, the writer completes her momentous journey with a free-and-easy Bangkok tour.
LIFE ABOARD THE TRAIN
THE luxury rail service of the Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O Express) was launched on Sept 19,1993. It follows the tradition of its sister train, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which runs between London, Paris and Venice.
The stainless steel carriages of E&O Express were originally built in 1971 by Nippon Sharyo & Hitachi of Japan for the New Zealand Railways, where it operated as the Silver Star train.
In 1991, the carriages were brought to the Eastern & Oriental Express workshops in Singapore where they were totally transformed and the interiors remodelled and rebuilt.
The panelled inner walls were decorated in elm, cherry, teak and rosewood and the diamond-shaped marquetry was handcut by local craftsmen.
E&O Express made history as the first train to transport passengers seamlessly from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, following an agreement signed in 1991 with the Malaysian railway authority, Keretapi Tanah Melayu and Thailand railway authority, State Railway of Thailand.
The train journeys through landscapes and bustling towns of Malaysia and Thailand. Cocktails, fine dining, convivial company and spectacular views are what life on board the Eastern & Oriental Express is all about.
Observation Car: Located at the rear of the train, the colonial-style, the Burmese teakwood car is the perfect site for sightseeing by day and cocktails and entertainment after dark.
Saloon Car: Traditionally Chinese in feel, it is decorated in dark rosewood and richly coloured upholstery. Passengers can relax with a book or magazine in the library or choose from the selection of games. There is also a boutique selling delightful mementos of the train journey.
Bar Car: Open from early morning until late at night, it is a convivial hub at any time of day. In the evening, take a seat for an aperitif or cock-tail while the resident pianist entertains. After dinner, settle back and enjoy the local entertainment.
There are four categories: Pullman Single, Pullman, State Cabin and Presidential Cabin. Most offer twin-sharing accommodation and all are fully air-conditioned with en-suite shower and toilet.
Cherry-wood and elm burr panelling provide the backdrop for decorative marquetry friezes and intricate design inlays that enhance the fine fabrics and carpets. The embroidery for the window pelmets were done in Malaysia while the carpets were hand-tufted in Thailand.
The Pullman Cabins have upper and lower berths, while State Cabins and the Presidential Cabin offer two single beds at floor level. All Pullman Singles offer one single bed at floor level.
During the day, berths and single beds are converted into comfortable seating, so guests can relax and enjoy the magnificent landscapes.
Train manager Valentin Waldman says the train can accommodate up to + a maximum of 22 coaches (each one has four cabins) or 50m long, with 120 passengers. It has between 60 and 70 employees on board and most cabin stewards have 20 years of experience.
Details at www.belmond.com/ eastern-and-oriental-express