The Eastern & Oriental Express tends to elicit visions of times gone by — of black-tie dinners and nightcaps at the piano bar, or sitting outside on the observation deck, drinking gin & tonics whilst watching farmers ply rice paddies framed by limestone cliffs and coconut palms.
As one slowly rolls through rural Thailand, the golden age of train travel really does feel alive again. As the forest-green carriages depart Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station, city life soon gives way to the measured rhythm of the country, and the scenery becomes majestic.
But the Eastern & Oriental Express is younger than most people realise, and the journey is constantly being enhanced with fresh, new opportunities for discovery.
On Board the Eastern & Oriental Express
The Eastern & Oriental Express has connected Bangkok, Malaysia, and Singapore for the last 25 years, leisurely wheeling its way across the length of the Malay Peninsula. The train was built by Japan’s Seven Stars in 1972, and then it was used in New Zealand as part of a luxury tour. When Belmond bought the train in 1990, all the cars were refurbished to capture the spirit of the Orient.
Now, thanks to a subtle refresh, the Eastern & Oriental Express is bringing the old joys of luxury train travel across Southeast Asia into the modern day. From teakwood trimming to a stocked library to suites filled out with five-star-quality linens and bath products supplied by Bulgari, the train is nothing less than a luxury hotel on wheels.
The journey becomes even more attractive when factoring in the entertainment options: the emerald green paddies and karst viewed from your window, or Singapore Pete, the resident jazz pianist who serenades guests in the bar car. That’s it: sweet, tech-free tranquility. There’s spotty Wi-Fi in the rear observation car, but people aren’t suddenly returning to the regal indulgences of luxury train travel because of the Eastern & Oriental Express’ Internet package.
The Eastern & Oriental Express Ups Its Game
Last year, Singapore-based artist Rajesh Kumar turned two of the cars into mobile works of art. His spray-painted scenes of koi fish from above added a splash of colour to the Eastern & Oriental Express’ green and gold palette, while also suggesting the pleasure of movement (they also evidently offered excellent photo-ops, having appeared on thousands of Instagram pages).
This year, Belmond introduced a new culinary perk. In November, chef Ian Kittichai, owner of Issaya Siamese Club, which consistently ranks on San Pellegrino’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, joined a four-day journey from Bangkok to Singapore.
The Thai celebrity chef prepared a special dinner; joined off-board excursions, including a fresh market tour in Kanchanaburi and a two-hour trip through Kuala Kangsar, a remarkably well-preserved royal town in central Malaysia; and generally mingled with other guests. To top it off, every guest was gifted a copy of his award-winning cookbook to bring home.
According to Belmond reps, a different chef will join the journey each season (the journeys are only available outside of peak monsoon season, roughly from September through April). Following chef Kittichai, Australian Luke Mangan will helm the kitchen next.
Next season, says General Manager Valentin Waldman, expect an all-inclusive package for food and drinks, too — one journey, one price, and plenty of gin & tonics in your cabin.
On the Eastern & Oriental Express, the journey isn’t so much the destination. Rather, the destination is simply being onboard the train. For four days and three nights, you re-enter a world that time would have passed by if we had allowed it. The appeal is undeniable.
When the celebrity chefs aren’t in the kitchen, Executive Chef Yannis Martineau is, and he’s certainly no slouch. His food generally follows the same route as the train, picking up Malay, Baba Nyonya, or Thai influences depending on the Eastern & Oriental Express’ present locale.
And Singapore Pete, one of the longest-serving staff members still working in the bar car, knows all the classics. Dressed in black tie or evening gown, listening to Pete play and sipping on a Hills of Perlis — a signature cocktail made with Bulleit Rye, Hendrick’s gin, dry vermouth, and thyme-flavoured foam — you just might want to stay in this world forever.