Travel writer, Sam Grobart, detailed his recent retro adventure aboard Southeast Asia’s Orient Express, along with his wife Hilary, for Bloomberg. The couple boarded the luxury liner for a very civilized, four-day, three-night excursion from Bangkok to Singapore, chronicling the rest, relaxation and scenic views along the way.
While the trip would take a mere two hours via plane, the couple opted instead to try out the 1255-mile journey via the the Eastern & Oriental Express, a 22-car train built in 1972 featuring three dining cars, two bars and a 100-volume library.
They spent most of their time relaxing, imbibing topnotch food and drink and being pampered. Grobart poetically explains, “I’m sipping the best Thai iced tea I’ve ever had, and she’s sitting on a daybed, reading Half of a Yellow Sun. Behind her, the cherry and elm walls catch the late afternoon sun through our oversize windows. Outside, the limestone summits of the Tenasserim Hills, part of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, rise more than 1,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. They’re so sudden, so sheer, it’s like they jumped out of the shore.”
They opted for a mid-sized sleeping suite, aboard the vehicle which houses 132 passengers and 46 staff members. Each car is equipped with 12 private compartments managed by a steward who brings them breakfast, afternoon tea and well-timed aperitifs. Their bedroom was quite comfortably furnished with Malaysian embroidered window treatments and “hand-tufted carpets are sourced from local Thai rugmakers.” Grobart cheekily adds, “A table, unfolded from the wall, can be used for writing. More often, it’s a place to put down a gin and tonic.”
Notably there is no Wifi on the train, but instead of it being a detriment, it seems a welcome perk. Grobart explains it is his favorite part of the trip and a financial planner from Texas, he meets aboard agrees. “You really can just relax and focus on where you are. It’s a three-night reprieve from devices and electronics, and that makes it feel like a step back in time.”
And who needs Wifi when they can have their own on-train foot reflexologist doling out massages in the library and a pianist to entertain guest with rousing renditions of Frank Sinatra standards and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.
While the kitchen is small in size, its elaborate culinary creations are reportedly huge on taste. The black-tie-clad (dinner jackets are optional) guests feast on hoisin-glazed roasted saba mackerel, a foie gras terrine on gingerbread toast with sake jelly, and a tandoori-spiced rack of lamb.
With such extravagances, it is no wonder luxury train travel is on the rise with many fleets expanding in the next few years.
“We see it as a thriving market,” says Gary Franklin, Belmond’s managing director of trains and cruises. “More people are looking for something that lets you slow down and relax—something that lets you enjoy a territory and experience it as opposed to just fly above it.”
The Eastern & Oriental’s excursion features a few stops along the way where passengers can learn about the history of the areas they are passing through, culminating with a local guide leading travelers “around on foot for a quick stop at the Kuan Yin Taoist temple and a drink at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.”
By the time his trip has come to an end, Grobart laments having to disembark.
“I would prefer to stay on the train, in the stillness and quiet of our room, looking out at the rubber trees and taking in a part of the world I’d never see at 30,000 feet.”
The four-day, three-night train from Bangkok to Singapore starts at $2,690 per person, including meals, nonalcoholic drinks, day excursions, and lodging.