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On Different Tracks : TALES FROM TWO TRAINS THROUGH SOUTHEAST ASIA : From Bangkok to Singapore, Luxuriating Amid the Well-Heeled on the New Eastern & Oriental Express

May 08, 1994|Clayton Jones | Christian Science Monitor

BANGKOK — Passengers must maintain an exotic fiction aboard the new Eastern & Oriental Express train between Bangkok and Singapore.

During the two-night, 1,200-mile journey of pampered luxury, they must learn to live in the past, back in the colonial days when Europeans and Americans could scold the "natives" for not polishing the silver or remain aloof from Asian villages just outside their windows.

The fiction on the E&O starts with gracious greetings from the carriage stewards. They are all Thais, whose inbred humility goes over well with the wealthy Western traveler who seems to want to be treated like a monarch, or to act like one.

"I am your steward during this trip," says a young Thai man dressed in a faux-silk uniform, as he stows my bags in a well-appointed compartment that includes a hot-water shower stall.

"If you need anything--more caviar . . . your shoes polished . . . your bed turned down--please push this button," Weera Ounpak says softly.

He offers to unpack my dress suit. "You will need it for dining in the restaurant car," he says, "The first sitting is at 7:30."

The E&O, which is an improved clone of Europe's Orient Express, comes packed with many myths. For one, no such luxury train ever existed in colonized East Asia.

But the man who revived the Orient Express in 1982, James Sherwood, launched the E&O last fall hoping to create a legend from the start. He has put on rails all the comforts, charm and history of the old Oriental Hotel in Bangkok or the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Sherwood, an American shipping and hotel entrepreneur, bought 24 railway carriages from the defunct Silver Star line in New Zealand and, with the help of designer Gerard Gallet, remodeled them into the stunning opulence of a five-star train, if ever there was such a rating for trains.

Except for the lotus-flower bouquets and small lacquered Chinese panels that adorn each carriage, however, the E&O lacks Oriental flavor. Instead, the exterior is painted British racing green, while the interiors glow with beveled-glass doors, brass lamps, granite sinks, rouge-colored textiles and wood marquetry handcrafted in crisscross patterns.

In the lounge car, passengers can listen to a pianist play Noel Coward and other prewar tunes. An observation car offers a lofty view of the passing landscape from on high.

Outside the train, the wet, hot air of the tropics hangs "as heavy as remembered sin," as one colonist put it. (The Malaysian peninsula lies just two degrees north of the Equator.) Inside, however, an air-conditioner provides a scrubbed flow of cool air through decorative Victorian-style vents.

The windows are triple-sealed to keep out train noise and smells such as the smoke of burning rice husks, the mossy dampness of bamboo forests or the stench of a ditch outside thatched huts.

The train's chef, Kevin Cape, complains that passengers are reluctant to eat the spicy food of Malaysia or Thailand. At best, he uses small amounts of lemon grass, coriander, cumin or soy sauce.

"Some people want a neo-colonial experience," he says, "but they prefer food from the old country." As it is, he puts on a movable feast of the highest European culinary standards.

Passengers can choose three types of cabins--standard, state or presidential--with the last offering hotel-size rooms, floor beds instead of bunks, the most elegant decor and separate quarters for a personal servant.

In contrast, the local train that plies the same track offers three types of seats: upholstered, padded leather or cushioned plastic. Most people in this part of the world consider trains today dirty and perilous, suitable only for peasants. A train, states detective M. Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie, "is as dangerous as a sea voyage."

Weera, my steward, seems to enjoy pointing out the dangers, the few there might be. He tells of previous trains that have hit tigers, water buffalo, elephants and other jungle creatures still found in this part of Asia.

For 19th-Century English explorers, this journey would have required a month riding on an elephant, dodging snakes in trees, panthers in the dark, or Sumatran rhinos on the prowl.

"Look! Look!" Weera yells as the train waits at the Malaysia-Thailand border. "The police are taking that man away in handcuffs!" Another smuggler, like pirates of ancient times, has been nabbed.

Much of Malaysia's landscape consists of bright-green rice paddies, endless plantations of rubber, coconut or palm trees, and the occasional limestone karst--spires that resemble those is Guilin, China. Women wearing sarongs add splashes of color to the passing scenes. The few patches of jungle are thick with tropical trees, air ferns, creepers and hundreds of birds.

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