The Most Romantic Way to Get From Singapore to Bangkok
Itâs three oâclock at Singaporeâs Woodlands station, and no one is in a hurry. Passengers dressed for the autumn heat trickle onto the platform, where staff in high-collared gray silk uniforms hand people into their carriages. We pull out, and a few of us drift toward the observation car, with its walls lined in teak and tables with brass railings to steady the highballs. As we pass quickly into Malaysia, on a rail laid in the 19th century to transport rubber out of the jungle, someone gets the idea to order pink gins, and weâre sipping these when the track bends into a stand of palm trees and weâre enveloped by a dark rustling.
Most journeys on Belmondâs Eastern & Oriental Expressâ"the forest-green sleeper that runs between Singapore and Bangkokâ"last two or three nights, but in October the train takes a weeklong trip through Malaysia and Thailand. It stops in little- visited rural communities, as well as cities like Kuala Lumpur and George Town. My husband and I signed up for the extended route with this in mind, hoping to see stretches of Southeast Asia that arenât easily accessible to travelers.
The guest compartments, inlaid with cherrywood and hung in Thai fabrics, are like Victorian dollhouses. Unlike the cars on its sister train, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the E&Oâs carriages arenât antiqueâ"they were built in Japan in 1972, and launched on this route in 1993â"but they emulate the same bygone aesthetic, with ample modern comforts. Like at night, when the soft beds and gentle rhythms of the train become a potent soporific.
During the day, passengers put their slippered feet up in the library, a richly upholstered space of purple and gold; in the evenings things shift to the piano bar, where Peter, who favors a red velvet smoking jacket, has been leading crowds through âSweet Carolineâ for over 20 years. The damask-curtained dining cars are more formal than the others, and passengers are mixed for lunch and dinner service to encourage conversation (though you can opt out). Except for a honeymooning Argentine couple, most of the other guests are British, retired, and worldly; they offer us handwritten tips on how to arrange a private Vatican tour, or the best luggage for an African safari. âA travel writer?â asks an elegant woman in a violet suit on the first night. âWell, I could have done that.â
The train stops daily for sightseeing. In Kuala Lumpur we walk though Pudu Market, full of airborne chicken feathers and piles of mackerel, tails still flicking. The E&Oâs longtime head chef, Yannis Martineau, buys crates of black dates and lovage root for bak kut teh, a pork-rib soup. In the Cameron Highlands, known for its raked tea plantations, we tour the black-tea fields planted during the last gasp of British colonial occupation and climb a steep r idge to a tearoom. About 150 miles northwest, we arrive in George Town on the island of Penang, where the late-18th-century city center is a compelling mix of traditional wooden houses alongside ornate pagodas and bright graffiti. We find the capitalâs revered food carts, offering an alloy of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cuisinesâ"ais kacang, or shaved bean ice, is scooped a few steps from bubbling vats of congee and stacks of roti canaiâ"and shops selling single items: incense sticks, rattan baskets, handmade brass seals. After my husband chooses a few of these to bring back to London, the elderly maker records the sale in a tombstone-size ledger and wraps his work in yellow ribbon.
By morning weâre in the fishing village of Baan Huay Yang, Thailand, from where we take an open boat to an uninhabited fleck of an island straight out of Robinson Crusoe. We could spend days in the clear water, but we have no regrets. The next day we roll into Bangkok.Gui deSingaporeBest RestaurantsBest BarsBest Things to DoBest Places to StayRelated Stories, hiddenRelated Stories
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