Eastern & Oriental Express train, Bangkok to Singapore review: A level beyond luxury

It didn't take long for Sinatra to show up.

I may be sitting in the beautifully appointed piano bar aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express, a luxury train rattling along the rails of Thailand, but New York, New York is being crooned by the Singaporean pianist.

Seated near him is a cluster of passengers, still in suits and finery from dinner, singing self-consciously under our breath while clutching drinks.

I'll have to give that song a more determined effort later. For the moment, however, there is plenty to explore.

Within the 16 carriages on this service are our cabins, three dining cars, a small lounge, a piano bar, and an open-sided observation car with its own bar.

I came to Asia and realised I had something to learn.

Yannis Martineau

They are, frankly, magnificent. I've travelled comfortably in first class on long-distance trains in Australia and Canada, but this is clearly the level beyond.

The carriages, which once ran on New Zealand's railways, have been beautifully refurbished and redecorated.  Inlaid wood is everywhere, along with traditional Chinese decor, Malaysian embroidery, and hand-tufted carpets from Thailand. 

My cabin is compact but comfortable – though there is an inevitable amount of jostling as we move along the rails. The  en suite bathroom is small but practical, the timber-lined interior and fold-down table are attractive, and the wall lamp's design has a hint of art nouveau.  

The crew are mostly Thai, so it seems fitting to have started this journey from Bangkok through Malaysia to Singapore. 

Check-in at a side platform of Bangkok's main station lent just the air of commotion and colour that a long-distance rail trip requires, as did the initial crawl out of the Thai capital past its busy residential neighbourhoods.

We're stationary overnight at Kanchanaburi, in Thailand's west, then leave the train early in the morning to visit the bridge on the River Kwai and learn about the fate of the World War II soldiers who built the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

We do this aboard a covered barge slowly towed beneath the bridge while Rod Beattie, the Australian director of research at the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, speaks about the lead-up to war and the building of the railway itself. His well organised briefing is reinforced by a visit to the centre's museum and the adjacent military cemetery.

There is a lot of text on the museum's walls, but a more visceral impact is delivered by a looped documentary of survivors talking about their experiences. This is reinforced by a large statue based on a prisoner's sketch, depicting three stumbling, gaunt soldiers, the central figure supported by his comrades.

The contrast between the wartime soldiers' plight and our luxurious circumstances should seem jarring. Somehow, however, it seems apt that we learn about this dark episode, remember the suffering of those involved in it, and feel thankful for the plenty that we're enjoying today.

There's another excursion the next day, an afternoon visit by coach to Georgetown, Penang, to see historical buildings and have a drink at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, our train's namesake.

It's an enjoyable jaunt, but it's become clear that the highlight of our three-night journey is the train itself. Aside from the beautiful interiors and views of the passing tropical landscape, a key part of the experience is the social interaction.  

Before I left I had bridled at the necessity of dressing up for dinner, but now I can see the point. At dinner times, with men in suits and women in lavish evening wear, there is a great air of conviviality over the crisp white linen and upmarket glassware on our gently rocking tables. 

My fellow passengers are diverse: a smattering of wealthy retirees are joined by younger couples and the occasional small group, all from various parts of Australia, Europe, North America and Asia.

The food is a major part of the journey. Each three-course lunch and dinner (breakfast and afternoon tea  are served in one's cabin)  are exceptionally prepared and presented, a harmonious blend of European and Asian influences; and all produced from two narrow galleys.

Executive chef Yannis Martineau worked for some of France's best chefs before joining the crew of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. A later move east stretched his culinary talents beyond his comfort zone.

"I came to Asia and realised I had something to learn," he says. "I didn't know how to make a curry, I didn't know how to make tom yum, there were all these spices I didn't know at all. I worked on the Road to Mandalay first, a river cruise in Myanmar. Then they proposed to me the train, and now I've been seven years onboard."

Aside from sourcing the ingredients and getting them aboard before departure, there are many other challenges. In addition to satisfying dietary requirements, the train's chefs must satisfy different tastes.

"This is quite complicated,"  Martineau says. "We have more Chinese passengers now and they look for Asian food; but at the same time because I'm a French chef they are looking for Western food. 

"So I start with my own European experience, then introduce spices to it. I'm always trying to produce one Western plate and one Asian plate, so if you feel like Asian food or not, you have the choice."

The results are impressive. For one dinner, for example, the choice of main is between roast duck breast on a fricassee of Asian vegetables, or green curry with fish. Desserts are similarly creative, with the likes of a lychee mousse roll or mango parfait with papaya jelly on the menu.

The only criticism I could make of the food and beverage service is the price of alcoholic drinks, which are not included. With cocktails about the $20 mark and even a Tiger beer at $15, I'm being cautious with my bar orders.

On the final night before we arrive in Singapore, however, I'm back in the piano bar, singing loudly as the pianist reprises Sinatra's homage to the Big Apple.

I feel quite pleased with my efforts. Then, as I bid goodnight to my fellow passengers, a well-dressed American woman gives me some advice: "Don't give up your day job."

It's a fair call.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

belmond.com

GETTING THERE 

Qantas flies from Sydney or Melbourne to Bangkok from $850 return; see qantas.com.au.

TOURING THERE 

The Bangkok to Singapore journey of the Eastern & Oriental Express starts at $3000 a  person; phone 1800 000 395, see belmond.com.

STAYING THERE 

Vie Hotel, 117/39 Phaya Thai Road, Ratchathewi, Bangkok, from $165 a  night; see viehotelbangkok.com. Raffles Singapore, 1 Beach Road, Singapore, from $750 a night; see raffles.com.

The writer  was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board and Belmond.

Five more things to see and do

CITY SIGHTS

Start or finish your luxury train trip with these Bangkok and Singapore highlights

EXPLORE CHINATOWN 

Bangkok locals refer to Chinatown as a dragon, with its body stretching along its main road, Thanon Yaowarat. The district has been home to ethnic Chinese traders for more than two centuries, and there is plenty of shopping and eating to be done within its maze of tiny streets and narrow laneways. See bangkok.com.

MEET JIM THOMPSON 

On the edge of one of Bangkok's canals is the Jim Thompson House, once the residence of an American trader who made his fortune in silk. In 1959 he created this unusual home by linking together several traditional Thai timber houses, some centuries old. Thompson mysteriously vanished in Malaysia in 1967, but his home still welcomes visitors who are impressed by its beautiful interiors, dotted with antiques. See jimthompsonhouse.com

DRINK A TIGER

Singapore's most famous luxury hotel is the Raffles, a harmonious collection of upmarket suites. The most entertaining part of the hotel open to the general public is the Long Bar, where you can down the century-old Singapore Sling. For a change of pace, sample one of the hotel's recently devised Timeline series of cocktails, each representing a decade in the hotel's eventful history – you'll need a drink after discovering the tale behind The Stray Tiger. See raffles.com (Read Traveller's review of Raffles)

MARCH TO ART

In 2012, a "contemporary art cluster" opened within Singapore's colonial-era Gillman Barracks. The low white buildings in which British soldiers once marched and their officers sipped gin and tonics are now filled with art galleries, scattered across a gently hilly green landscape.  After you've been stimulated by the art, drop into Masons, a bistro with good food and a well-stocked bar. See gillmanbarracks.com

GO GLAM

For a change of pace, explore the Kampong Glam district of Singapore by strolling along Haji Lane, an attractive street of low-rise shophouses containing fashion boutiques and restaurants serving Middle Eastern food. Then walk to the Malay Heritage Centre to learn more about the original rulers of the island. Housed within the former sultan's palace, an elegant 19th-century structure, it tells the story of Malay culture.  See malayheritage.org.sg

See also: On board 'the world's most luxurious train'
See also: Riding the rails in Myanmar

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