Luxury Train in Thailand
Arrived at the small station of Kanchanburi, we are surprised to discover there a not very common train, in the sense that we can say that it has a mouth and that it is really... very long therefore imposing, the station as for it seems even more tiny!
We find ourselves facing the Eastern & Oriental Express, a luxury train that stops in this charming little station.
The « Eastern Oriental Express »
Stopping in Kanchanaburi, this impressive luxury train captures the attention of tourists on the platform. I have to say, this train looks good.
I obviously let myself be taken in by the game and I take the opportunity to "click" a few photos. I would have liked to take some pictures from the inside, but I quickly understood that this was not possible and then, to tell you the truth, I didn't really have the time, our own train had to leave soon...
Train de Luxe...
On board.... French cuisine !
I see on the platform, the Chef in discussion with a manager making him taste a local product. Seeing the acquiescence I quickly understand that the product in question suits the Chef which means that this local product will be part of the components of one of the next dishes that passengers will be able to enjoy on board this magnificent train.
A few seconds later, I meet the Chief on a bench at the station and get to know him.
I'm not even really surprised to discover that the Chef is French... Yannis Martineau has been working on this train for a few years after passing through a large hotel in Phuket (among others) and looks very happy in his current job.
This Eastern Oriental Express line connects Bangkok to Singapore via Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Three days and three nights with all the luxury and refinement of this kind of establishment for about 2500€.
Brief but nice meeting, I wish Yannis good road!
« RECIT »
I travelled in the Eastern & Oriental Express between Singapore and Bangkok
This mythical luxury train connects the island state to the Thai capital, swallowing more than 2,000 kilometers in 3 days. An unforgettable trip through the jungle and rice fields.
It's the end of the journey. It's 5:45. With a good hour's delay, the Eastern & Oriental Express majestically penetrates into the clammy hubbub of Hua Lamphong, Bangkok's station with the false air of Turin's. In the last few kilometres, the train has crossed miserable suburbs, skirted the shacks with their tin roofs, slowed down when children in rags passed by. On the one hand, the carefree luxury of a rolling palace that perpetuates the railway tradition of the Orient-Express, on the other hand, the poverty of migrants attracted by metropolises....
It all started two days earlier in Singapore. Le Raffles, this mythical hotel "synonymous with all the fables of the exotic Orient", as written in 1959 by a local regular, the writer Somerset Maugham, who, every day, had his writing table installed under a frangipani tree in the garden. Another atmosphere, at the end of the morning. Over a drink at the Long Bar Steack House, passengers receive boarding documents.
Most of them have booked for weeks for what will remain an unforgettable trip. This time, there are only 84 of them, but the train can take up to 132. Many Anglo-Saxons, rare French people, many retired people, even in wheelchairs, old ladies with impeccable haircuts, business leaders, real estate developers, antique dealers... The minibuses transfer this disparate colony to Woodlands Railway Station, Singapore's station.
Cars that date back to 1972
The Eastern & Oriental Express is there, laid along the quayside. The powerful machine is already roaring, ready to jump north for an adventure of more than 2,000 kilometres. It tows 22 cars in green and cream liveries, including two dining cars and a bar car. Built in 1972 in Japan for the New Zealand Railway, these cars were bought twenty years later by Orient-Express. And luxuriously transformed in Singapore: marquetry of the cabins assembled by local craftsmen, floor of the Burmese teak observation platform, upholstered armchairs, carpets and curtains redone.
In a colourful vest, smiling, Fanun, the Thai steward, greets his passengers, at the foot of the E car, in six cabins. The luggage is already on board. We discover the premises: 5.8 square metres for two people, including a pocket bathroom with shower and toilet. A small table, a sofa - which turns into a single bed at night, the other being bunk bed -, a pouffe on which to place the tea or breakfast tray complete the set. A space certainly reduced but largely sufficient on condition that you do not travel with a trunk cabin, because the storage is modest. Comfortable? Rather luxurious with its precious wood, polished brass, immaculate E&O towels, purple orchids in a small vase. Almost identical to this "closed, varnished and padded box" described by Joseph Kessel in 1932 when he took the Orient-Express.
The train is shaking. Little by little, Singapore's buildings and highways are moving away. In less than an hour, we're in Malaysia. From urban, the landscape becomes bucolic. Exotic too: palm trees, coconut trees, traveller's trees, oil palms renowned for their fast growth, line the railway line. Sometimes, the forest is punctuated by a dark river in which children swim. Through and through, as darkness sets in, there are glimmers of light heralding a village.
The kitchens are runby a frenchman
It's time to get dressed for dinner. Tradition dictates that the dress code is strict, at least if we believe the commitment that every candidate for the trip must sign: elegant, short or long dresses for women, dark suit and tie for men. A rather well respected duty of elegance at dinner, much less at lunch. The tables of the two dining cars, named after Malaya and Adisorn, are covered in white. The crystal of the glasses, the silverware and the fine porcelain of the plates await the guests of the first service.
French chef Yannis Martineau, the second in twenty years, has concocted his specialities, "beef medallion with foie gras croquette" or "duck breast with black pepper sauce and a tian of vegetables". "My cuisine combines Western recipes and Asian flavours," he says. In fact, it offers a gastronomy worthy of a 3-star, a successful performance despite the 12 square meters in which six cooks work. "It's all about organization and logistics," he admits. If supplies are made from the train, Martineau has found six bakeries on the route and taught them some bread recipes.
The last night owls linger at the bar. Here they are singing old songs, accompanied by the pianist. Oman and Pracha, the waiters, are used to dealing with the bumps of the train to serve Pimms and gin and tonics. This is Kuala Lumpur. Barely time to walk along the platform of the historic Anglo-Islamic style station, and the machine whistles with impatience. From Malaysia's capital, we won't even see the Petronas towers, long the highest in the world before they were dethroned. This time it's time for bed. And to try to sleep, despite the noise and jolts, as the train continues its journey at an average speed of 60 kilometres per hour.
We never get tired of the landscape
Along the Malaysian peninsula, it crosses this "immense jungle that extended to the horizon like a stormy ocean, crushed to the north by the dark mass of mountains," according to Henri Fauconnier in Malaysia (1939). At that time, pioneers had paved the way with machetes. An essential route to transport rubber from plantations belonging to adventurous Europeans. In the distance, it is the Cameron Highlands, the hills where the American Jim Thompson, a former secret agent who became famous for resurrecting Thai silk, disappeared forever in 1967. His body was never found. The most far-fetched hypotheses have been made about his death.
In the early morning, it's Thailand. "Be careful, it's less stable," warns the conductor. The tracks are more irregular." It is better to hold on, especially when the bellows pass between the cars, to access the panoramic platform at the end of the train. But the show is worth a look. Hair in the wind, we remain fascinated by the single track that extends over long straight lines. Sometimes the train stops in a station, where two tracks allow the crossing, just long enough to let a convoy pass in the opposite direction.
Time is stretching. As a distraction, we walk around the stations: Sam Roi Yod, Hua Hin, Phetchaburi... We admire the panorama, especially when the speed is reduced because workers repair the tracks: a few buffaloes, soft green rice paddies, lined rubber trees - they developed thanks to the rubber so necessary at the beginning of the 20th century after Dunlo's invention -, cane fields that swing softly in the wind. Here and there, houses on stilts, essential to protect against floods and wild animals.
Every day, in Malaysia, as in Thailand, excursions are made to the mainland. In Butterworth, a long stop is planned to George Town, the capital of the Malaysian island of Penang. In the old days, you had to take a ferry. Now, a bridge - "the second longest in all of Southeast Asia," says Clement Liang, our guide - has been built. This statement is not entirely true, but it does not matter. Here, in the memories of the East India Company, live 1.5 million inhabitants with a Chinese majority. One of the richest clans, the Khoo Kongsi, had one of the major temples built in 1906, richly decorated.
The railway of death, a distant memory
Last day. Last day. In the morning, the train reached the junction to the Kwai River Bridge, 128 kilometres west of Bangkok. A celebrity since, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, he was immortalized by a British-American film by director David Lean in 1957. Disappointment: the one we see, in iron, is not the one, in wood, of the film, which was shot in Sri Lanka... Failing that, the museum recalls the history of the Second World War and the hegemony that the Japanese were then trying to deploy throughout South-East Asia.
Under a blazing sun, we gather in the nearby cemetery which perpetuates the memory of the thousands of British and Dutch dead, these prisoners of war who fell while building with their bare hands or with rudimentary tools the railway between Thailand and Burma. It was "the railway of death". A distant memory. Which hardly affects the passengers of the Eastern & Oriental Express, already concerned, after these two enchanting days, about their arrival in Bangkok.