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All aboard for a historic ride

Travelling on the Orient Express is all about the journey

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2Even the whistle sound is unique, deep and resonating, a trusting, comfy sound like that of a foghorn or a wise grandfather. It called passengers as diverse as Agatha Christie's characters to board the posh Eastern & Oriental Express for a three-night, 1,900-kilometre rail ride from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

Travel by rail has always been my preference, and this trip fulfilled a lifelong dream. We are so used to getting somewhere fast that travel is never considered part of a vacation. Until you board the Orient Express, that is.

Sure, there are faster and more frugal modes of transport, but if you have the time and extra cash, the Orient Express, known as "the train that never hurries," is all about the journey rather than the destination. And it is the epitome of relaxation and refinement.

In A Modern Utopia, written by H.G. Wells in 1904, his prophetic "Utopian" train travel sounds like the Orient Express. "We shall dine and gossip and drink coffee at the pretty little tables ... and decide to sup in the train, and we shall find pleasant rooms with seats and books -- luggage all neatly elsewhere -- and we shall exchange our shoes for slippers there."

Once Chan acquainted me with my wood-panelled cabin, decorated circa 1920s complete with art nouveau reading lamp, and explained how the bathroom doubles as a shower, my biggest decision was whether I wanted to dine at the early or late seating. As the only singleton on board, that wasn't an easy choice. The early seating might pair me with "senior" seniors with whom I might have little in common, but the 9 p.m. crowd might be full of preoccupied newlyweds who wouldn't be interested in chatting with a stranger.

As it turned out, the problem was solved after several of my fellow passengers invited me to join their tables.

The first night, I dined with Yvonne and Peter Mann from Kent, England. We were already acquainted, having sipped Singapore slings together in the observation deck as we pulled out of sprawling Bangkok into the sunset.

"We've both adored trains since we were kids," said Yvonne. "We've been excited since booking this trip a year ago and already it has surpassed our expectations -- the staff is so incredible and genuinely eager to please."

And, as I found out when I arrived at the dining car twinkling with silver and crystal table settings, they all know your name.

The next morning, I woke to a tap on my door. Chan delivered breakfast ensuite: croissants and exotic fruits, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a steaming pot of coffee on a resplendent silver tray. He plumped up my feather pillows and, with a beaming smile, asked if I was interested in attending the fruit tasting later in the bar car.

On the outdoor observation deck, a few bleary-eyed passengers compared notes on how many hours of sleep they got the previous night. Our head steward explained that the narrow track of the old railway, thankfully a short bit, wasn't built for an ample train like the Orient Express, making for a rickety ride.

In general, the OE doesn't offer as smooth a ride as, say, a Japanese bullet train. But that's a small price to pay for its ambience and luxury. And it's slow enough you can actually glimpse emerald green rice paddies and children waving by the train tracks.

"Eat durian and follow with mangosteen to balance your body," says Jep, our fruit tutor.

"This is snake fruit," she says, passing it around for us to sample. "This variety of banana -- the first thing baby eats after mother's milk -- cannot be exported because it bruises easily. And wrap banana skin on mosquito bite."

Good to know. Did you know that pomelos cut in half and left in the house 45 days keep bugs away? "Thais grow guava for a number of reasons: The bark is used for fuel, and kids chew the leaves before going home after drinking alcohol, but I didn't fool my parents," she says with a laugh.

When it debuted in 1883, the Orient Express ran from Paris to Romania, through Munich and Vienna. At that time, it did for dining what George Pullman did for sleeping: The restaurant car was born. Five years later, it ran to Istanbul and it began running as the Simplon-Orient-Express in 1921.

The Second World War stopped the Orient Express in its tracks, but in 1977 an American entrepreneur, James B. Sherwood, resurrected the grande dame. And by 1982, regular service had returned between London and Venice while the Istanbul route was reinstated in 1999.

Our train was built in 1971 for New Zealand Railways, and in 1991 the carriages were transformed to an Orient Express luxury train. Regardless of its origins, this train is still a step back in time to that golden age of railways.

This trip, one of four called the Chronicles of Southeast Asia journeys, was launched in 2011. En route, we travelled along part of the former Thailand-Burma Railway (the narrow bit mentioned earlier) and, particularly fascinating for train and history buffs, we rode over part of the actual bridge on the River Kwai -- built by Second World War prisoners.

At the River Kwai Bridge station, we disembarked for a river cruise that brought us to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, dedicated to the infamous railway's history.

Across the road is the Don-Rak war cemetery with hundreds of graves of Allied prisoners of war. (When I got home, I watched the movie version of The Bridge on the River Kwai again -- it had a helluva lot more impact this time round.)

We rejoined the train for cocktails and dinner. The night steward deftly transformed my cabin from daytime seating to a bedroom and all but tucked me in.

And the food! It's a wonder of French cuisine, interspersed with Asian dishes featuring local ingredients.

The first night we had a foie gras appetizer. The second night's dinner menu began with an amuse bouche of Chinese dumplings that tasted like ethereal pillows, followed by lobster bisque, cheese souffle, duck breast with cauliflower puree, chocolate ganache treats and petits fours.

Or we could choose Asian: Tom Yam Cappuccino, steamed sea bass with shiitake mushrooms and a dessert of Thai coconut cream after a mangosteen panna cotta. Amazingly, all this came out of a cramped railcar.

You are encouraged to dress up, which added even more glamour and romance to the experience. Especially the last supper -- tuxedos and tiaras (well, not quite, but everyone was elegant). By this time, we were all great friends and repaired to the bar car en masse for our last hurrah as the pianist played requests on the baby grand.

"These marvellous Utopians have discovered that it is not necessary to bundle out passengers from a train in the small hours, simply because they have arrived," H.G. Wells wrote. "A Utopian train is just a peculiar kind of hotel corridor that flies about the earth while one sleeps."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 D5

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