In Thailand, Nostalgia on Wheels

Riding across Thailand's idyllic villages, Belmond's Eastern & Oriental Express recalls a bygone era of stylish train travel.  
Nostalgia on Wheels
Eastern & Oriental Express’s observation car is the best place to catch the panoramic landscape passing by. Photo By: Supriya Kantak

As soon as a long, gleaming dark green train carriage, emblazoned with ‘Eastern & Oriental Express’ in engraved gold lettering slides into Hua Hin station, I feel a tinge of self-consciousness. Neither I nor my co-passengers from India are dressed for something this imperial. For the last hour, we have been milling about Hua Hin, Thailand’s oldest railway station—a quirky but fading royal artefact—in our baggy tees, jeans and dusty shoes, lugging backpacks and satchels. Once I hop aboard the train though, the air is less intimidating. While this is a majestic luxury locomotive boasting every accoutrement of refined sophistication, I see open, friendly faces in casual wear and summer hats.

To be clear, our group is not actually travelling on the E&O Express, presently journeying between Singapore and Bangkok. We are only passing through, being shown around for a brief period by a senior manager in an impeccable grey suit. Launched in the 1990s, the Express’s carriages originally belonged to another train called the Silver Star, but they have now been refitted to reflect Indochina’s fine artistry and its Western past. We are in the train’s bar area, where both style elements compete for attention: the walls and flooring appear to evoke a colonial-era, upper-class gentlemen’s club with tanned teak wood panels. And then, there are more decorative finishes, which nod to Asian designs, from the train’s silken upholstery to its intricate marquetry on furnishings. Outside, Hua Hin’s landscape scrolls by, framed by windows, like a scene from a TV screen. The comfortable sofa-style seating is separated in the middle by a compact side table with an antique lamp. Reclining in one of the seats, I sense the appeal of spending a few hours catching a snooze with a half-read paperback resting on my lap.

Nostalgia on Wheels 1

At local Thai train stations, the Eastern & Oriental Express attracts onlookers often hoping for that perfect selfie (top); The train’s jazzy bar (right), where cocktails have such names as Mist on the Rice Paddies, also hosts live music; Wood interiors inside the cabins (bottom) add to its throwback vibe. Photos By: Supriya Kantak

 

Behind the bar counter, a spiffily attired bartender in a vest whips out a signature cocktail, presenting it with a smoke-filled grand finish for the cameras. The drink is there for our taking but there isn’t any time for tasting and we hurry on to the dining car for a meal cooked by the train’s chef Yannis Martineau. I dig into some duck that’s spiced in dark local sauces but retains the classic delicacy of French cooking; even dessert, usually a rich amalgam of milk, fruit and coconut in Thai meals, has a lightness to it.

When passengers want to come up for air, they head to the Express’s observation car at its far end. En route, we pass a hallway of closed doors, our guide identifying them as sleeper cabins. For fans of Agatha Christie, the stuffy passage should jog a memory. After all, the Express was a backdrop for one of her most famous mysteries, finally unlocked by Hercule Poirot and his moustache twirl. Christie’s iconic work cemented the train as a world of slinky glamour, full of fashionable cloche-hatted beauties, imposing English dames and debonair playboys.

The observation car is a beautiful wooden cabin with yellow lights on the ceiling. As we enter, it is busy. A well-heeled Chinese brood—grandparents, aunts, uncles and their young ones—has lined up against the main window to capture that elusive perfect family shot. Some guests are here for their post-lunch reverie. Some folks immediately can’t resist bringing out their cameras but most people appear glad to do nothing except watch the Express move through an unspoiled Thai countryside.

It’s a prized view, all right, but is it worth a few thousand dollars? Aren’t there mountains to scale or planes to skydive out of for that kind of cash? I recall observing a tall blond American in the dining car on a table across the aisle, gently chatting with his grandfather, all shaky jowls and quivering fingers. The chef had stopped by their table to enquire, “Are you liking the food?” The old man, for whom speech had become an impediment, beamed a toothless smile that could light up the whole compartment. For his delighted grandson, that was a timeless payoff.

 

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Essentials

Eastern & Oriental Express offers different itineraries between Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. (www.belmond.com/trains/asia/eastern-and-oriental-express; tickets $7,600/Rs5,38,384 onwards including meals minus drinks, tours, lodging.)

  • Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

  • Supriya Kantak poses as a photographer so she can travel. She is happiest at altitudes of 1,000 metres above sea level. She posts on Instagram as @routes_and_shoots.

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