With a loud hiss, we lurch into motion. A stout Thai man with deep smile lines enters our cherry wood-panelled state cabin. “Hello, I’m Thanasin, your cabin steward. Something to drink?” he asks, setting down two lemongrass concoctions.
“This is awesome!” my younger brother, AJ, gushes as we take our drinks. Placing his palms together, Thanasin bows into them and ducks out. The emerald-and-cream train rushes through a rural corridor of southern Malaysia, where patches of thick jungle and palm oil plantations carpet the landscape in dense green.
AJ has taken time off from his job in New York as a mechanic to join me on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok. He’s also bought a whole new wardrobe especially for the occasion, including his first ever suit.
We head to the open-air, Burmese teak-floored observation car. After the air-conditioned cool of our cabin, the humidity makes it feels like we’ve walked into a big wet mouth. AJ forgoes his usual bottle of Heineken and orders us Champagne.
Chock-a-block houses with corrugated iron roofs line the single track like a chain of dominos. The train gathers speed, but life seems to slow the further north we travel: old men sink into fugs of smoke, chickens stretch their wings and clusters of families on motorbikes wave as we pass by.
A peeling Buddhist shrine greets us near Renggam, before the line gives way to domed mosques, jungle-clad hills and dense clusters of deep-violet palm fruit. A shrill call to prayer pierces the still morning air. Further on, a companionless trainspotter eagerly takes shots as we crawl through a lonely station.
We inch toward Segamat and the flora becomes prolific — leaves scatter across the observation deck, smelling of freshly cut grass; and palms with broad fronds like outstretched fingers shimmer in the sun. Just before the township of Salak Selatan, the sky suddenly darkens and blustery bursts of wind rattle the windows. Townsfolk retreat beneath porch roofs as rain sinks into fertile earth and lightening splashes across an inky sky.
We also withdraw inside, to slip on eveningwear and pass through narrow corridors to the Piano Bar, where Imagination’s Leee John is belting out ’80s tunes. I’ve joined a special ‘Tiger Express’ journey on this popular itinerary by Belmond, where artists, actors, musicians and stylists have boarded to raise funds for UK-based global tiger conservation charity Save Wild Tigers.
I squeeze past Leee and head to the bar. Nearby, I hear AJ saying, “Great to meet ya, man — I’m Aaron.” It’s a surreal sight; he’s shaking hands with Gok Wan, who’s wearing a snappy blue suit with a silky red pocket square. I suddenly feel self-conscious in my £40 dress, but grab our drinks anyway and make my way towards them through the crowd.
After a late night of wine-drinking and sing-a-longs, unwelcome light filtering through gaps in the curtains blinds me. It’s 7.45am and Thanasin is promptly knocking with breakfast.
AJ and I rub sleep out of our heavy eyes as a tray overflowing with fluffy croissants, coffee, cereal and fresh fruit comes into view. Pulling up the blinds, I spot a man cycling under a green umbrella. It’s still raining.
I sip my coffee as the train pitches past jungled limestone outcrops. Reaching Butterworth, the E&O expires in the mid-morning sun, and we disembark for an excursion to George Town, on Penang Island. Founded in 1786 by the East India Company as a trading post, its central Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A coach shuttles us across the harbour, past temples, mosques and churches (Malaysia’s population is a multiracial patchwork). We head to the market in Old Town. Motorbikes bounce down the street, carrying eggs piled in crates, stands steam with vats of char kway teow (fried noodles with chilli, prawns, bean sprouts, cockles and eggs), and locals slurp laksa (noodle soup with fish, tamarind, lemongrass, pineapple and prawn paste). AJ jumps out of the way as a motorcycle vendor dings to let potential customers know he’s selling bread with kaya, a sweet, creamy coconut egg jam.
With a whetted appetite, we re-board the train for lunch in the rosewood-panelled Rosaline restaurant car. I’m impressed at the quality of the lemongrass risotto with roast vegetables and Siamese yellow curry bouillon — all the more so considering the cramped kitchens the chefs have to work in.
In a thick French accent, the train’s executive head chef, Yannis Martineau, tells me, “My kitchens don’t seem small to me any more.” I know he’s accustomed to them, but at 12sq metres each, the train’s two kitchens must be some of the smallest in the world.
Even more surprisingly, just 12 staff members are responsible for 500 covers per journey, and all the dishwashing is done by hand, as Yannis laughingly informs me. When he joined the E&O in 2007, he was already accustomed to creating haute cuisine in a confined space, from his experience on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Road to Mandalay trains.
After filling up, I stagger down the seesawing carriages to one of the regular lectures held on E&O trains, taking in everything from the environment to arts and culture. This afternoon, Debbie Banks, head of tiger campaigns at the UK’s Environmental Investigation Agency, is here to highlight the ongoing problem of organised poaching and tiger farms.
She reveals that between 1,200 and 1,500 tigers are known to have been illegally traded since 2000. But Debbie adds that these numbers — based on animals seized from poachers — are thought to represent just 10% of the true figure. She adds that the growth in tiger farms is another cause for concern, with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 animals in captivity in China alone. Saving the tiger, Debbie believes, calls for a more sophisticated response to wildlife crime, with stricter government enforcement and consumer campaigns to help reduce demand.
“In 1900, we probably had 150,000 wild tigers across the world,” Simon Clinton, founder of Save Wild Tigers, tell us during his speech. “Now we’ve probably got 3,000 in 13 countries.” According to the charity, wild tigers have declined by 97% in over a century, and Simon believes there’s only a decade left to save the endangered species.
Later that night, AJ and I join actress Jaime Winstone out on the observation car as the train cuts through the Malayan tiger’s historical habitat. Jamie shows off her gold, tasselled dress with a twirl. For a moment, it glints against the receding track, and I think I spot the eye of a tiger — although it could be my mind playing tricks on me.
At Padang Besar, Malaysia gives way to Thailand, where portraits of the royal family are omnipresent on roadsides, and the countryside is scattered with rice paddies, temples and steep-sided limestone crags.
Much of the south is covered by rubber plantations, and mosques still outnumber temples. Further north, near Khao Chaison, gardens are adorned with Buddhist shrines decorated with offerings of incense and flowers, and glassy paddy fields reflect swollen clouds.
At Kanchanaburi, the train creaks to a halt. Outside the station, crowds of Sunday visitors buzz around souvenir stalls. We’re here to see the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, made famous by David Lean’s 1957 film. This infamous bridge, carrying the Thailand-Burma Railway, actually crossed the Mae Khlung, but the river was renamed in 1960 to cash in on rising interest from tourists.
AJ gawps at long-tailed speedboats as they barrel beneath the bridge in the balmy heat. My group climbs onto a large wooden-floored boat for a cruise beneath the bridge and a presentation about the railway, while dragonflies flit ahead.
During WWII, the Japanese considered a rail link between Burma and Thailand a strategic necessity, and between 1942 and 43, nearly 69,000 POWs and 200,000 Asian labourers built it. Conditions were terrible and once the line was finished, around 130,000 had died of disease and starvation, giving it the moniker ‘Death Railway’. It’s estimated that a life was lost for each sleeper laid along the track.
The iron bridge looks old and weathered, with two mismatched angular sections that were erected due to damage from Allied aerial bombings in 1945. We glide between bulky, concrete abutments, discoloured by age. The water is murky, but the banks brim with lush jungle foliage.
We pass a circular Chinese-style pagoda, with colourful walls and intricate bas-relief panels. Encircled by temples and jungle, it’s difficult to imagine the scale of the wartime undertaking that occurred here, and the tragedy it entailed.
As AJ and I sombrely re-board the E&O, I glimpse the train’s golden tiger logo emblazoned on the side of a carriage. Although it’s the only big cat I’ve seen on this trip, a Malaysian government initiative aims to double tiger numbers by 2022.
The bridge recedes behind us, and fields growing papayas, coconuts and bananas take its place. Swathes of rainforest, peppered with paddy fields, give way to populous suburbs as we approach Thailand’s capital. After 1,262 miles, the E&O terminates at Bangkok’s airy Hua Lamphong Station, where I follow AJ in his new suit off the train and along the platform towards the thrum of the city.
When to go
Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have a tropical climate, with temperatures around 30C. Although the E&O operates year-round, there are fewer trips during the July-September hot season.
Need to know
Currency: Singapore dollar (SGD); Malaysian ringgit (MYR); Thai baht (THB). £1 = 2 SGD/5.6 MYR/52 THB.
Time difference: Singapore, Malaysia: GMT +8; Thailand: GMT +7.
International dial code: 00 65 (Singapore); 00 60 (Malaysia); 00 66 (Thailand).
How to do it
Belmond offers three nights’ B&B at Raffles Hotel, two nights aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express in a Pullman cabin from Bangkok to Singapore (or vice versa) including all meals and off-train excursions. From £3,060 per person, and also includes three nights at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok on a B&B basis, half day sight-seeing tour in Bangkok and transfers.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)