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'Land Cruising' in Style

Down Asia's Malay Peninsula

May 16, 1999|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell is a New York City-based freelance writer

SINGAPORE — Traveling by luxury train down the Malay Peninsula, I discover yet another of humanity's great divides: Some of us are rocked to sleep like innocent babes, while other poor souls suffer through nights of adult insomnia, feeling the jolt of every rail tie. I count myself among the fortunate first group.

Only the steward's very insistent knocking on my compartment door rouses me from deep slumber. "Yeah, I remember now," I mumble as I struggle to my feet and let him in. The evening before, I had ordered breakfast at dawn, thinking that after my usual six hours in bed, I would surely be bathed and alert by then. But I have slept for almost eight hours, and it still takes freshly squeezed juice, hot croissants, sliced tropical fruit and a few cups of steaming, rich coffee to truly revive me.

I make my way through the swaying train to the observation car at the very back. In Southeast Asia, this is the finest moment of the day. The cool, moist air rushing through the open-sided caboose leaves a tingle on my face and bare arms. The rising sun evaporates the morning mist, gently unveiling rice paddies, palm and bamboo jungles and jagged mountains. Translucent birds with names like pale-faced bulbul and fire-tufted barbet explode into panicked flight as our train rumbles by.

We pass multicolored temples and candy-striped minarets, water buffalo sunk to their hocks in lotus ponds, and peasant homes perched on stilts. Through windows illuminated by flickering bulbs, I witness a lantern-slide show of farm families on the brink of work--splashing their faces, buttoning on shirts and sipping tea.

Every minute of daylight reminds me why I've decided to travel through this stretch of Asia the old-fashioned--albeit upscale--way. Having once lived in this part of the world and having visited frequently over the last three decades, I realized that I had spent almost all my time here in cities and on airplanes. But despite its dash to modernization, the region has remained largely rural and traditional. It was time, I decided, to rediscover a bit of unchanging Asia at ground level.

I'm on board the Eastern & Oriental Express on a 1,200-mile journey that begins in Bangkok, plunges through southern Thailand and then Malaysia, and ends in Singapore. This is no ordinary train. Operating like a cruise ship, it takes two full days to complete the trip, making "port" stops at the River Kwai and at the island of Penang, dubbed the "Pearl of the Orient," just off the Malaysian mainland. Passengers board for the duration and are assigned their own compartments, some large enough to be called suites, and all with private bathrooms. The food--Eurasian for the most part--merits a one-star Michelin rating. There is even after-dinner entertainment: traditional Thai and Malay dancing, a pianist belting out Cole Porter tunes in a 1920s-style bar car, and a palm reader in the library.

The passenger list reflects the hard times that have befallen Asia. There are only 50 travelers--far fewer than the 132-passenger capacity. Absent are younger Western investment bankers, many of whom lost their stock bets and then their jobs. Missing also are the Japanese, who traveled with abandon throughout the region before their economy fell into crisis. Perhaps a score of my fellow passengers are middle-aged Americans, European and Asian businesspeople and their spouses. The rest are old Asia hands, now retired but drawn back by nostalgia to the geography of an adventurous youth.

The E&O Express--operated by the same British company that runs the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train, which travels between Paris and Venice--began service six years ago and is decorated to evoke a colonial nostalgia of Asia between world wars. The exteriors of the carriages are painted in British racing green with a beige stripe, gold lettering and a crest. The passenger compartments combine inlaid woods with antique brass. One restaurant car has light-wood panels that are Thai-inspired; the other uses lacquered walls to convey a Chinese theme.

On the first day, we pull out of Bangkok's Hualampong Station at midmorning. The terminal and the railway lines are overrun by vendors hawking food, toys and clothing. We accelerate past platforms where saffron-robed monks and whole families of Thais squat while patiently awaiting the arrival of ordinary trains connecting with the hinterland. We leave behind traffic-clogged streets, polluted air, the spider web of canals with their motorized dugouts laden with produce, the Buddhist statues and spectacular temples of the Grand Palace compound, and the mirrored skyscrapers that make the Thai capital look like a tropical Emerald City.

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