I don’t know if it was Agatha Christie or the 1970s TV series Supertrain that did it for me, but I had always wanted to experience luxury rail travel. When I finally reached the point where I could afford it, the only question that remained was: Do we take the European route or the Asian one? Having recently visited both Venice and the train’s terminus city, Istanbul, we chose Asia.
So off we went to Thailand, where our journey aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express would take us from Bangkok to Singapore over three days and two nights.
The trip began on what seemed to be an inauspicious note, but actually turned out to be a stroke of good fortune. We booked accommodations in Bangkok a few days prior to our departure, figuring this would be a great opportunity to see one of the world’s truly great cities. Due to fluctuations in currency and the Thai economy, tremendous deals could be had on luxury accommodations in Thailand (a country where high service standards and a strong dollar come together like nowhere else). Joanne and I snared a junior suite at the Peninsula for, if I recall correctly, about $160 a night. You’d pay ten times that in Paris or New York.
Those of you who have traveled to the Orient know that most itineraries from the U.S. have you arriving late in the evening, and so it was that we pulled up to the hotel at around 11 P.M., dead tired and cranky. It turned out that the Pensinula had lost our reservation and didn’t have a room for us. Fortunately, I had confirmation of the booking. Mortified, the manager upgraded us to accommodations unlike any I had ever experienced – a dual-level terraced suite thirtysomething floors above the Chao Phraya River. I don’t know what impressed me more: the his-and-hers bathrooms, the outdoor hot tub, or the 16 telephones I counted in our suite of rooms.
At one point, Joanne turned to me and said, “The train is going to have a tough act to follow.”
The wonders of Bangkok demand a blog post of their own, so I’ll skip forward to our check-in for the train. I’d watched plenty of PBS dramas about British colonials in that part of the world, but nothing prepared me for the sublimely indulgent pleasure of getting dropped off at Bangkok’s steaming, odorous central train station, and immediately being ushered through the throngs of humanity including street vendors and train-side barbers to the Orient Express’s drawing room-quiet reception lounge, where we were seated in silk-upholstered armchairs, offered refreshments and taken through the details of our trip.
Ironically, before we even left the station, things went off the rails when the concierge asked me and Joanne about our preferred seating for meals. “I don’t really care when we eat, but there’s no goddamn way I’m sharing a table with [gesturing toward the other passengers] these jerks.”
“But sir,” he said, “it’s a wonderful opportunity to make new friends –“
“I have enough friends,” I told him (as Joanne mouthed the words, “He doesn’t have any friends. You can see why.”)
Fortunately for me (and horrifying for Joanne), a number of the passengers overheard me, and for the rest of the trip, we were shunned by everyone but the staff. I wore it as a badge.
Check-in complete, a sharply-dressed porter escorted us to our jewel box of a cabin. Refreshments were offered once again, and before we knew it, the train pulled out and our adventure began.
After lunch in the dining car (at the train’s one table for two) the train reached the RIVER KWAI. That was followed by a little downtime, then it was cocktail hour, and then came dinner.
The food was superb – as good as any fine dining restaurant I’ve ever been to in Asia (and that includes you, Jean Georges in Shanghai).
The next day included a 3-4 hour stop in Penang, an island state in Malaysia and home to what many people consider to be the best street food in Asia. We were driven all around town by rickshaw drivers who quickly discovered our fondness for the city’s ubiquitous food stalls.
Back on the train for more cocktails, a long and leisurely dinner, and our overnight ride to Singapore.
At about 5 AM, we pulled into the station at Kuala Lumpur. I lifted the shade of my bed and peered into the darkness only to be stunned that I was looking directly up at the twin towers of the world’s tallest building – the Petronas Towers, designed by Cesar Pelli.
Not long after we left Kuala Lumpur, the train reached Singapore, completing our trip on the Orient Express, but by no means concluding our culinary adventure.
Singapore felt big and vital, much more so than Kuala Lumpur. It also felt sanitized. Spit on the sidewalk? You’ll be arrested. Possess drugs? You’ll be executed.
Unlike Bangkok, street food is relegated to stalls in dining halls that dot the city. The scene isn’t gritty like Bangkok – indeed, it’s very carefully regulated – but there’s no doubting its authenticity, incredible variety and sheer quantity. Oodles of noodles.
As a business center of Southeast Asia, Singapore offers up all the usual retail suspects – Gucci, Prada, Cartier, abutting one another on Orchard Street, Singapore’s answer to 5th Avenue. The town also boasts some outstanding hotels, most notably The Raffles, home of the iconic cocktail, The Singapore Sling. Getting one is a “must do,” right? WRONG. We made a beeline for the bar and to our great disappointment saw a hundred of them lined up at the bar, pre-made, flat and watered down. And needless to say, way over-priced.
By this point in our trip, I’d had my fill of Asian food. All I wanted was a steak. Fortunately, Raffles does beef better than booze, as we discovered in its on-premises steakhouse called THE LONG BAR. Here, you’ll enjoy decent cuts of meat, improved by a wide variety of chutneys, condiments and sauces presented along with them. And as the French say, “With the right sauce, you can eat your father.”
WTF……back to Minneapolis.