ABOARD THE EASTERN & ORIENTAL EXPRESS — Standing on the open-air observation platform as the train lumbered noisily along the tracks, I nursed one of those tropical drinks noted for its jade green color and pyramid of fruit perched precariously on the rim of the glass.
Lazily stirring its contents with the elephant-shaped swizzle stick, I watched as the jungles and highlands of peninsular Malaysia gave way to the lowlands of Thailand. Ever since I had taken a memorable overnight excursion from London to Venice, Italy, on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express some years back, I had wanted to take a similar jaunt on its sister train.
Many passengers choose to board the train in Singapore, on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, for the full three-night trip to Bangkok, but I had gotten on farther north in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My first glimpse of the train took me back to my earlier E&O adventure: The sleek blue cars emblazoned with gold crests were identical to those on the European train. This is where the resemblance ended.
Instead of France's lush valleys, Austria's Alps and Italy's Dolomites, we would be traveling through Malaysia's rubber plantations and Thailand's rice paddies. Instead of Romeo and Juliet's town of Verona, we would be making a stop at the historic Bridge on the River Kwai. Instead of images of Agatha Christie characters plotting their dastardly murder, what we would get on this train would be pure Somerset Maugham.
Never miss a local story.
Clickety-clacking along the rails, the E&O takes passengers on a ride into history: to when Singapore was a far-flung outpost of the British Empire; Malaysia was still Malaya and the Brits' principal source of rubber, and an English schoolteacher named Anna was summoned to Siam to tutor the children of the king. You can't help but get nostalgic thinking about the colorful history that unfolded outside the window of your cozy compartment.
However, you can't spend all your time waxing nostalgic; the train has too much to offer. The outdoor observation deck and its adjoining bar car are perfect venues for enjoying the scenery.
Each evening the main bar car resounds with laughter and the tinkle of a piano as passengers congregate to enjoy an aperitif and talk. Dinner is served in one of three lavish dining cars decorated with lacquered Chinese panels. The E&O is not as formal as its European counterpart, but a tuxedo or evening gown would not be out of place. After-dinner entertainment can range from classic piano music to a traditional Thai dance troupe.
Stops on the E&O route
As I mentioned earlier, you can sign on for the entire trip from Singapore to Bangkok or join it en route as I did. The portion of the journey I was on included three stops.
Kuala Lumpur: This bustling metropolis in the Malaysian province of Selangor is as gleaming and high-tech as Singapore yet lacking that city-state's often criticized Big Brother-like presence, which has visitors constantly checking to make sure their chewing gum is still in their mouths.
The city's skyline is postcard-perfect, with its backdrop of gentle mountains, colonial structures and minarets (it is predominantly Muslim) side by side with modern buildings such as the Petronas Twin Towers and wide swaths of green parks.
The E&O's stop in Kuala Lumpur allows those who boarded in Singapore a chance to get off and see the famous Railway Station whose fantastic Moorish architecture and fanciful domes conjure up images from Arabian Nights.
Penang: This beautiful island off the coast of Malaysia is justifiably known as "the pearl of the Orient." Boasting all the requisite trappings of paradise (palm trees, pristine beaches and coral reefs) without the blights of some modern-day paradises, Penang makes a great stopover.
Among the sights in the charming main village of Georgetown are relics of British colonialism such as the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis and the memorial clock tower built in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The latter's slightly tilted appearance is the result of a World War II bombing.
Save time for a jinriksha ride into the town center with a stop at Khoo Kongsi. A magnificent clan temple designed in late Ch'ng dynasty baroque style, it has frescoed walls, an ornament-encrusted roof, massive carved columns, fine metalwork, gold trimmings and ancient inscriptions.
For those who don't have a fear of reptiles, a visit to the Snake Temple provides an opportunity to see poisonous serpents entwined about the elaborate carvings.
Bangkok: This is the journey's end, and you'll probably want to tack on a few days for exploring. Like that other canal-laced city, Venice, Bangkok's slightly seedy appearance adds to its allure. If Venice has the Grand Canal, Bangkok has the many-turreted Grand Palace and its primary treasure, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (carved not from emerald but from jade).
An interesting footnote: The Emerald Buddha has three changes of clothes — a costume each for summer, winter and the rainy season that can be changed only by the king or his eldest son in a solemn ceremony.
Stop for lunch at one of the world's great hotels, the Oriental. With a premier location overlooking the Chao Phraya River, a world-class spa and a branch of Jim Thompson's famed Thai silk emporium on the premises, the Oriental is a destination in itself. Ask if you might have a look at one of the hotel's four Authors' Suites, dedicated to Maugham, Joseph Conrad, James Michener and Noel Coward.
But if you really want the essence of Bangkok, you must cruise along its winding canals known as klongs, where grand mansions and ramshackle wood houses line the banks. At one time Bangkok's waterways wound around the entire city; however, 20th-century expansion led to most of them being filled in.
Only a few klongs with their floating markets remain, but they are worth a visit. You can buy a pineapple or mango from a fruit vendor who will pull his canoe next to your boat, and you can moor at the Royal Barge Museum for a quick peek at the elaborately decorated ceremonial barges.
A glide along the canals will give you a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's most fascinating cities, and a journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express will show you one of the world's most fascinating regions.
IF YOU GO
Eastern and Oriental Express
What: The train, which can accommodate 126 passengers, has three types of cabins: Pullman and state cabins and two presidential suites. Each has large picture windows for excellent viewing. Public carriages feature three restaurant cars, a bar car, saloon car with a small library/lounge and an observation car.
About the excursions: Note that the only two included excursions are the visit to Penang Island and a visit to Thailand's Kwai Yai River to see the famous bridge immortalized in film. On board, a local historian provides passengers with an overview of the bridge's importance and that of the Thailand-Burma railway.
Itineraries: Two-, three- and six-night journeys between Singapore and Bangkok; three-night return journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai; three-night itinerary from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos; and six-night journey throughout Thailand
Rates: $2,560 to $11,800
Learn more: Easternandorientalexpress.com
Travel requirements: Note that travel to Asia requires that passports be valid for at least six months before they expire. Visas are not currently required for U.S. citizens.