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Eastern and Oriental Express Travelogue  
1 Answers
Aug 19 2011 (23:46)

Entry# 645     
Eastern and Oriental Express Travelogue

Aug 19 2011 (23:46)
News Entry# 34782  Eastern & Oriental Express Singapore to Bangkok train trip review  
Posted by: rdb*^   Added by: rdb*^  Aug 19 2011 (23:46)
A white envelope is waiting at reception when my wife and I check in to Raffles Hotel in Singapore. It is not good news. A freight train has been derailed in northern Thailand, trapping the southbound Eastern & Oriental Express until they can clear the damaged wagons.Introduced in 1993 as Asia's answer to Europe's glamorous Venice Simplon Orient Express (and run by the same people), the E&O is now on its way to Singapore 24 hours late. At the earliest, tomorrow's northbound train to Bangkok will not leave until late afternoonStill, we have more time to enjoy Raffles, an oasis of old-world colonial charm and not just a five-star place to stay. "That's where they shot the tiger, hiding beneath the billiard table, in 1902," the hotel's resident historian, Leslie Danker, says as he shows us around. A Singapore Sling at the Long Bar completes our Raffles experience, an affordable indulgence...
even if you can't afford a room. At least the peanuts are free.The following afternoon we present ourselves at Singapore's classic, art deco railway station on Keppel Road. The station's impressive sculptures and murals representing Malayan industry date from 1932, and the facade still sports the initials "FMSR", the former Federated Malay States Railways.
E&O's general manager, Leesa Lovelace, is at the station. "Normally, our train runs pretty well," she says. "But once a year, we have to deal with something like this." For all its luxury and fine dining, the E&O is still subject to the vagaries of the Malaysian and Thai railways, and a journey remains something of an adventure.
After a short delay while an incoming intercity from Kuala Lumpur clears the single track, the brakes hiss off and the E&O Express sets out on its 2000-kilometre, two-night journey to Bangkok. In the open-air observation car at the back, a steward keeps us topped up with tea and coffee as the train gathers speed along the narrow-gauge track, the railway forming a rural, green corridor through urban and suburban Singapore.
After passport control at Woodlands, we cross the famous causeway that carries the road, railway and much of Singapore's drinking water across the Johor Strait. Now in Malaysia, the train proceeds up the Malay Peninsula, through endless, shady palm plantations and patches of thick jungle.
Dinner is a four-course affair in one of two elegant dining cars. The food is excellent in spite of the cramped kitchens, and many of the male passengers wear dinner jackets, attire made bearable by the airconditioning.
This is a sociable train and, as table reservations change with each meal, we meet a cross-section of our fellow travellers. A few are celebrating a birthday or anniversary but most are using the E&O as part of a longer, independent tour of south-east Asia, a luxury link between Singapore and Bangkok before an onward hop to Laos or Vietnam.
Had we been running to time, we could have stretched our legs after dinner during an hour-long halt at Kuala Lumpur's historic railway station, opened in 1910. Part-time insomniac that I am, I do stroll along the deserted platform, but as I gaze at the Moorish-style towers of Arthur Hubback's beautiful station building, my watch says 4am.
After a hot shower and leisurely breakfast in our twin-bed stateroom as the train winds its way up through jungle-covered hills, the E&O rolls in to Butterworth, the ferry terminal for George Town on Penang Island, once capital of British Malaya. A pair of road coaches shuttles us across on the ferry and we climb aboard a fleet of cycle trishaws for a pedal-powered tour of historic George Town.
Back at Butterworth, the E&O loses another crucial hour waiting for a train to clear the line ahead. Many passengers have onward arrangements and it is announced that we will make directly for Bangkok next day, dropping the scheduled detour to Kanchanaburi and the bridge on the Kwai.
Pre-dinner cocktails are distributed as we near the Thai border at Padang Besar, and day trips to Kanchanaburi are arranged for those spending time in Bangkok. But I'm determined to reach the Kwai by train.
Consoled by another excellent dinner washed down with a quantity of now complimentary E&O wine, I spend a second convivial evening in the piano-bar car listening to my wife sing Cole Porter songs accompanied by the ever-cheerful Pete, the train's resident Singaporean pianist.
The third day brings a scenic ride through southern Thailand passing villages, hilltop temples and strange rocky outcrops. Finally, late at night and many hours behind schedule, the Eastern & Oriental Express arrives at Bangkok's grand and airy Hualamphong station of 1916, designed by an Italian architect brought from Europe by the Europhile king of Siam.
I'm still determined to reach the Kwai, and so at 5.30 next morning we are back in a taxi to Hualamphong. The E&O's train manager has phoned ahead and made arrangements for us to occupy the seats reserved for train staff on the 6.30am weekend excursion railcar to the Kwai bridge.
The little third-class train could not be a greater contrast to the E&O. Perched on leatherette bench seats, we bump along, stopping at wayside stations, a warm breeze blowing through the open window, turning off the main line at Nong Pladuk on to the undulating, weed-strewn branch line to Kanchanaburi.
This is the so-called "Death Railway", built by the Japanese in 1942-43 to link Bangkok with Burma to supply their war effort. From Nong Pladuk to Kanchanaburi, Asian slave labour built the line. From Kanchanaburi onwards, Allied prisoners of war built the railway and the bridge across the river near Kanchanaburi made famous by David Lean's film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Not only does the bridge exist, it still carries three daily passenger trains plus the weekend excursion railcar, although these only go as far as Nam Tok, 210 kilometres from Bangkok and well short of the border with Burma. However, one thing the bridge doesn't do is cross the Kwai. It never did.
The author of the original book, Pierre Boulle, knew the line followed the Kwai and assumed it crossed the Kwai near Kanchanaburi. He was wrong. It crosses the Mae Klong.
With the release of Lean's epic in 1957, visitors flocked to Thailand seeking a bridge on the River Kwai, but all the Thais could show them was a bridge on the Mae Klong. So with admirable lateral thinking, they renamed the river. Since 1960, the Mae Klong has been known as the Kwai Yai or "Big Kwai" for some miles either side of the bridge.
Our little silver railcar stops briefly at the well-kept country station at Kanchanaburi, about 250 kilometres from Bangkok, then rumbles on behind the town, rounds a sharp left-hand curve hooting wildly and finally expires in the morning sun at River Kwai Bridge station, surrounded by busy souvenir stalls and crowds of Sunday visitors, a hundred metres short of the infamous bridge.
We've made it all the way from Singapore. Not, perhaps, on the fine Eastern & Oriental Express, but made it none the less, on the Slow Train to the River Kwai.
Editor's note: Singapore's historic station, Tanjong Pagar, closed last month. The colonial-era building is being preserved but all trains to Malaysia, including the Eastern & Oriental Express, now start at Woodlands, south of the causeway onto Singapore island and about 21 kilometres north of central Singapore.
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