History and glitz on Eastern rails
Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead on a muggy night in Bangkok when I realize I'm late for the Eastern & Oriental Express train. I've missed the shuttle from my hotel and my baggage bounces over the unevenly paved streets as I run to the station in a panic.
As I fly down the platform, my dress billows behind me. I feel like a character in an old movie as I sprint for the train, but it's not Paris in the 1920s and I'm not chasing the love of my life. Instead, I plan to be chasing back martinis as I journey through northeast Thailand's picturesque landscapes of rice paddy fields and lush hilltops, en route to Laos on this modern luxury train.
Flustered, I hop on seconds before the green and cream train toot-toots out of the station, and just as I imagined, it's as though I've landed in a bygone era. Cherry-wood-walled corridors inlaid with deep-set maroon carpets pave the way to elm-burr paneled cabins, outfitted with floral-patterned furniture and adorned with veneers of rosewood marquetry and intricate inlays. Flamingo pink and brass lampshades create warm, buttery hues inside cozy cabins. Elegantly suited attendants pepper the corridors, ready to oblige your every need. In the distance, a bar piano tinkles Dixieland jazz.
The Eastern & Oriental is owned by the same company that took over the storied Orient Express, which began running between Paris and Vienna in 1883. That legendary route changed and expanded over time and by the 1930s, the trains also served destinations in central and southern Europe.
Luxurious interiors and service attracted royalty, diplomats, business executives and the bourgeoisie, and the brand including sister trains like the E&O still carries that reputation for luxury. The team that refurbished the modern Venice Simplon-Orient Express train created the interiors for the Eastern & Oriental, which began running in Asia in 1993. Its carriages incorporate Eastern motifs and themes.
The E&O has several routes, including journeys to Singapore and through Malaysia. I picked a four-day, three-night round-trip from Bangkok to Laos. Unfortunately, we lost a day's ride due to flooding that had washed out tracks in the south, so instead of winding through the countryside by day for a stop in Chiang Mai, we listened to a lecture about Thailand's textile culture and history at Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental hotel, followed by a delectable evening spread.
With full bellies, we boarded the train just in time for a night cap, an introduction to our cozy cabins and attendant, and moments later, our bumpy ride into the night began.
At dawn, the smell of percolating coffee wafted through the corridors and the jostling of locomotive travel shook us from slumber. Our cabin attendant greeted us with a continental breakfast, including a selection of scrumptious gluten-free baked goods to accommodate my allergy. And then it was off to Phimai, one of the most prominent Khmer ruins complexes in Thailand, which is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Located in Korat in northeastern Thailand, Phimai was the site of a Khmer city, built between 1579 and 1589 by the Khmer King Suriyavaraman I as part of the Khmer Empire. Here, we were treated to a traditional Khmer dance performance and a lecture about the significance and history of the sprawling ancient city.
We hopped back onto the train for lunch and journeyed through picturesque Khao Yai, where we disembarked for an afternoon tour of the GranMonte Family Vineyard, a unique grape-growing region and winery in the country's north. After sampling several international award-winning selections, we stumbled back onto the train to glam it up for dinner.
The E&O encourages a formal dress code for its night-time noshing as a means to help preserve its glitzy past, and also encourages passengers to get to know each other, so you're seated among other guests for a fancy-shmancy meal and entertaining conversation.
I dined with a couple who had recently lost their home and belongings in the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake, and who were using the tragic incident as a catalyst to begin anew, along with a fellow Canadian who regaled me with fascinating stories about working around the world as an international conflict resolution expert with the United Nations.
The next morning, the train rode over the Mekong River via the Friendship Bridge on newly laid tracks linking Thailand to Laos. We were greeted by another traditional dance, this time Laotian, before setting off to explore the capital city of Vientiane, as well as a textile factory started by a former UN development worker originally from Ethiopia.
The day of touring did not provide enough time to do the city justice, but we headed back to the train for the last evening of cocktailing and conversation. After a delightful, waist-expanding three-course dinner, I snuggled into bed for the last night's journey back to Bangkok.
Before drifting off, it occurred to me that if I had been chasing the love of my life, I might have let him go so I could spend more time chasing adventures on the Eastern & Oriental through Southeast Asia.
If You Go...
EASTERN & ORIENTAL EXPRESS: Luxury train routes in Asia include Bangkok to Singapore, Thailand, Laos. Rates vary by route, length of trip and accommodations. A three-day, two-night Singapore-Bangkok trip with stops in Malaysia departing August 21 starts at US$2440 per person, double occupancy, including some meals and tours.