Not a Murmur On the Oriental Express

The silent splendor of a Southeast Asian rail line re-creates travel in Asia the way it never was

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 this 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. Mr. 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 criss-cross 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 all the memorable smells of Asia, such as the smoke of burning rice husks, the mossy dampness of bamboo forests, or the fetid 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 Asians today consider trains 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 China's Guilin. 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.

Along with Muslim mosques and Hindu and Chinese temples, many of the buildings en route reveal an English colonial heritage. The most compelling is Kuala Lumpur's railway station. It mixes the Indian Mogul style of onion domes and arches with Gothic elements, all painted white. Its main restaurant is an A&W Root Beer stand.

The purpose of the E&O's poshness is to offer a leisurely tour, in place of hopping from airport to airport. And a train's pace allows for a different social atmosphere.

The Orient Express, writes Dame Agatha in her mystery novel, ``lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, ... never, perhaps, to see each together again.''

ON the E&O, passengers love to be autocrats for three days, complaining about this and that. Like colonialists, they want to bring order to Asia's apparent chaos. The Thai stewards, whose country was never colonized by the West, play their role well.

In the restaurant car, amid the clinking of crystal glasses, the passengers let their barriers down. A group of wealthy Italians, dressed in the latest Milanese fashion, eats with gusto. Across from them, two English couples with an expressionless air of disapproval seem ready to snap at the waiters. At the end of the carriage, an American man in a loud blue jacket sits with his wife, who wears an an equally loud print dress and fake pearls.

Only occasionally do the travelers watch the scenery flowing by. It's a pity, because if you look closely in the homes of the rice farmers and plantation workers, you can sometimes see them watching such popular TV shows as ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.''

Sir Hugh Clifford, a 19th-century British official in the the Malay states, may have been the first to describe the impact of the West here: ``In these days the boot of the ubiquitous white man leaves its marks on all fair places of the earth ... reducing all things to that dead kind of conventionality which we call civilization.''

Weera comes to my compartment to bring me afternoon tea and cakes. He looks out the window and smiles at the monsoon rain on the muddy rice paddies.

``The rain is good for growing rice,'' he says. To the passengers, the rain is a view spoiler.

``We will be passing my village soon,'' he smiles, covering up a sadness. He then reveals that he left his village at age 19, learned English in Bangkok, and eventually got his current job. He pulls a necklace from under his shirt and shows me an image of Buddha, whom he credits with providing him a job and girlfriend.

``There are many things to see in these villages,'' he says, ``but we are rushing by.'' He then tells me all the steps in growing rice.

``I now feel homesick when we pass by my home,'' he says. His father is so poor that he plows his field with a cow. Weera, the first in his large family to get a good job, is trying to save about three months' wages to buy his father a tractor, which costs about $2,000. I tell him that many of the passengers paid about that much money for a one-way ticket on this two-day trip. He laughs in disbelief.

Yes, I say, foreigners pay big money to lightly sample your homeland. He slowly backs out into the hallway. ``That is very ... exotic,'' he says.


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