Asia Inc Nov 93

TRAVEL: E&O Express train journey

November 1993

Fit For A King
Asia's newest express trains offers patrons luxuries only the wealthy can afford

Lazily stretching out my arms and legs, I lay back in my plush Edwardian chair and glance at my watch: another 43 hours in this $1,130 air-conditioned cabin lies ahead of me. The wood-paneled compartment, the Burmese motifs, and the complimentary basket of fresh fruit try their best to distract me as the concrete jungle of Singapore -- with its manicured greenery -- gives way to the Straits of Johor.

At times the view outside the Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) train is splendid, but the luxurious delights inside this mansion on tracks are superlatively grand. Officially launched in September on the Singapore to Bangkok route, the E&O brings to Asia an experience of high-living once enjoyed only by the aristocrats of Europe.

For the choosy traveler who enjoys being served hand and foot, the E&O is not to be missed. As I rest comfortably, only one thought drifts repeatedly into my consciousness: Dinner isn't too far off -- about three hours and two compartments away. In between stands a bar where a pianist pounds the keys, belting out numbers that went out of fashion in the 1930s and 1940s. The prospects of Cuba Libre, Gin Tonics and Bloody Marys dance before my eyes.

Tobacco -- forbidden virtually everywhere just an hour ago in Singapore -- wafts through the air. At the bar, doe-eyed hostesses float around in pink sarong-kebaya, while a tall, statuesque German woman in a black skirt, jacket and striking black stockings tips the ash from her cigarette and munches fresh peanuts, while not blowing smoke.

We discreetly make our way to the dining car, where menus stand erect, offering us table d'hote meals of the likes of salad of sea scallops and caviar in a delicate orange sauce, refreshing sorbet and breast of crispy duck with ginger sauce on a bed of softly cooked cabbage. The accompanying wine list is splendid -- Moet et Chandon Cuvee Dom Perignon at $180 per bottle, Domaine Guyon Corton Charlemagne at $88, or Les Forts de Latour at $95. And for the budget-conscious, there are excellent Californian, Australian, New Zealand and Italian wines for $35 to $50 per bottle.

The choice of wines and food reveals that the train is clearly aimed at delicate European stomachs, which might collapse at the slightest touch of curry powder, soy sauce or ginger and garlic. Each plate is garnished like a work of art, in pristine nouvelle cuisine condition; quite unlike the riotous Malaysian fried noodles mee goreng, the slurpy, sour noodles mee siam, or the greasy fish head curry with rice that much of the Southeast Asia outside the misty windows calls food.

For most of the landscape outside the window remains unremittingly green foliage -- not the patchwork quilt patterns that give the disparate farmlands of Europe some character. Nor the billiard-top-like smoothness that golf courses acquire. This is the greenness of vegetation that stubbornly refuses to be disciplined, clinging to telegraph poles, climbing little hills, floating in still dark streams that circle the slums that presage town after town: Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Engor, Kuala Kangsar, Padang Rengas.

Accounts of many rail journeys through Asia are littered with references to the absence of privacy: how the man seated opposite you wants to know about your job, age and marital status. Or how shysters hang around each station looking for damsels-in-distress -- especially those dressed in skimpy shorts, lugging mammoth backpacks -- helping them hold their cameras, find a taxi, translate questions and following up with the local version of "Are-you-free-for-dinner-tonight?"

In contrast, the E&O offers you an exclusive room. It is tiny, and for a price beginning at $1,130 you may want to reconsider settling for climbing up the little ladder and getting into the top bunk in a meter gauge train. But the seclusion of this train guarantees the privacy denied by five-star hotel lobbies and business class lounges, where everyone seems to know everyone else, or at least pretends to.

It's not hard to see that the E&O is great for dangerous liaisons, extramarital affairs, and, of course, amorous honeymooners. Other possibilities include couples enjoying a private anniversary, tycoons celebrating a son's wedding, or two wealthy friends deciding to catch up with each other after a long separation -- though it would be far cheaper to make a long-distance call.

Unlike the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which the same company runs, the E&O has private showers. But it's not easy. Try holding onto the handle in your shower with one hand and soap in the other as the hot shower descends on you mercilessly. And the train shakes and rattles at 50 kilometers per hour. (It might seem like 50 miles per hour, but that's because they refurbished only the train, not the tracks.)

The few discomforts of the E&O are quickly made up for by almost instant companionships among the passengers. Over lunch on the second day, buoyed by a spicy Bloody Mary, my new friends decide the future of the British monarchy and the Bosnian anarchy -- as the Malaysian plantations make way for Thailand's flatter terrain, and houses on stilts flanked by paddy fields.

Late that evening pianist Martin Palmer-Brown pays a boisterous tribute to Noel Coward, inspiring all the old Raj hands to join in the singing. Bliss it is on that night. (Existential question: In the absence of karaoke, subtitles, sake and sushi, would Japanese tourists bite?)

Who cares? They lost the war. If you were a colonel in the British Indian army, did time in the Malayan plantations, want to see how the natives are faring after 40 years and have a bit of money to spare, the E&O provides that ideal nostalgic get-away. On the E&O at least, nothing has changed: Not the music, not the songs, nor the Asians who serve in all humility as the sahibs and memsahibs sing.