24 Hours on the Orient Express

Well into the 20th century, trains were the choice of travellers, from royalty and financiers to spies and celebrities. Vivian Vassos treks from Singapore on the eastern branch of the storied train, the Orient Express… and is almost derailed by a murder.

The station is steamy, hot from the intense humidity. Ceiling fans spin lazily, as if defying the heat is simply out of the question. The air is close, the clothes stick, yet the porters at Singapore’s Keppel Station don’t break a sweat. The luggage is stacked and carted, labelled with our route: Singapore to Bangkok on the Eastern & Oriental Express. The tiger, long a symbol of majesty and virility, embellishes our tickets and crowns the E&O logo. A pair of elephants’ elegant trunks curl gently round the corners of the illustrated route map.

But, suddenly, Bangkok is not to be: our three-day journey would have taken us up through Malaysia and into the Thai rice paddy fields, over the River Kwai and into one of the world’s most beloved cities. But Bangkok is under siege; the rebel general, Khattiya Sawatdiphol, shot — in the head. The E&O will not cross into Thailand. The train will return to Singapore after its scheduled stop at Butterworth, where guests can take a ferry to the island of Penang for a tour.

 

Just before 11 a.m., we’re escorted to our cabin and given our invitations to lunch in the Malaya room and to dinner in the dining car, The Adisorn (Table No. 4, it says on our cream-coloured stationery cards, seating at 20:00). All very civilized, like travel should be. We cross the Johor Causeway from Singapore into Malaysia, and lunch is served. There’s a Western and Eastern choice on the menu — both delicious. The car’s occupants are very social, happy to be on board and interested in meeting new people. There’s a boomer couple from Australia with their early 20-something children in tow; a pair who only have eyes for each other (honeymooners, perhaps?); and a group of tourists who have already travelled the continent by train and are finishing off with a bit of high-end luxury.

“Trains are wonderful,” wrote author and train lover Agatha Christie, “… To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”

Christie, who set her 1934 book Murder on the Orient Express on the famed train, was not the only one who had a romance with the rails. George Pullman was the American railway innovator who built the first “luxury” train in 1864. Belgian Georges Nagelmackers took Pullman’s idea of luxury a step further when, in 1883, he inaugurated the first Orient Express train, and it was all aboard from Paris to the banks of the Danube in Romania.

Well into the 20th century, trains were the choice of travellers, from royalty and financiers to spies and celebrities. Alfred Hitchcock made the train his backdrop — Cary Grant’s chance meeting place with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest — while in Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon made their first acquaintance with Marilyn Monroe in the sleeper car. 007, in the form of Daniel Craig, met his match, Vesper Lynd, on the high-speed rail to Montenegro and the Casino Royale; nearly three-quarters of a century earlier, Marlene Dietrich reignited an old flame in Shanghai Express.

To evoke a sense of history, the owners of the E&O spent years searching for vintage rail cars to create this express and painstakingly restored many of the antique fixtures and wood veneer marquetry to its original rich beauty.

After lunch, a fortune teller has believers enthralled, a reflexologist is ready to work on weary feet and the bar-car attendants are holding an exotic fruit seminar. In a testament to “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the electric fuchsia of the thorned dragon fruit, the hoary hirsuteness of the rambutan and the dark aubergine-toned mangosteen (said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria) all belie the sweet flesh hidden inside their fascinating jackets.

I take afternoon tea privately in my Pullman car, served in full silver service with traditional sandwiches and a few regional pastries to give the taster a sense of place, all while the passing scenery plays through the picture window.

Dinner’s at 8 p.m., so there’s still plenty of time to wander the train. At the caboose, there’s a lovely lounge equipped for a quick tipple or a quiet tête-à-tête; just outside the sliding door is the open-air observation deck. As we traverse road crossings, motorists and a bevy of motor bikers (a mode of transport that, in Malaysia, is so popular and practical it does not discriminate by age or gender) wait patiently and offer friendly waves. But when we’re in the rough, the wind cuts out all sound; there’s a quiet sort of remoteness, a silent swath of green that only a fleeting stand of towering palms can evoke. It may be a jungle out there but from my upper-crust perch, it’s also my idea of the middle of nowhere: not savage, simply untouched.

Dinner is a fairly formal affair, with cocktail dresses and a few tuxedos in the group. Pre-meal cocktails are a requisite and a great way to get to know other passengers. The bar car is packed and the conversation spirited: travellers’ tales of other journeys; the news out of Bangkok; what’s on tap for tomorrow. We’re called to our seats and between courses, we make the scheduled stop at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital and home to the sky-scaling Petronas Twin Towers, visible from the train. The break gives us a few minutes to stretch our legs and get a look-see at the city’s architecturally significant station, while the train’s water tanks are replenished. Completed in 1910, the station is a mix of Anglo and Asian design that still stands as impressive: the Moorish Revival/Indo-Gothic blend was popular during the 19th century, and it is evidence of Colonial/Asian fusion at its best.

Back on board, we head to bed. The E&O Express prides itself on authenticity, but as I lie awake, rocking and rolling and listening to clacking of the rails, I wish that, in this case, the suspension system was of this century. Never mind, I think, tomorrow morning, we’ll arrive in Penang. I’m on the Orient Express. Why sleep? Champagne is still flowing in the bar car, the night owls are engaging and there’s a pianist playing, by request, “As Time Goes By.”

 

Book End Your Trip: Urban to Resort

Spend a day or two upon arrival or before your departure to really get to know the locals. We checked into the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore. President Barack Obama was a recent visitor to the exclusive Valley Wing, where guests can enjoy breakfast in the Summit Room, afternoon tea and bubbly in the lobby’s Champagne Bar. The hotel is centrally located to Orchard Road, where all the top shops have locations, and it’s an easy cab drive to some of the city’s ethnically diverse, safe and strollable enclaves, such as China Town, Haji Lane (Malay), Little India and Kampong Glam (Arab Street).

In Penang, we opted for the Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa on Batu Ferringhi Beach. Although the destination may seem remote, it features the Shangri-La’s award-winning spa, Chi, and its serene nature spills over into the use of traditional textures and soothing tones of the Malay culture in its rooms. Built around ancient “rain trees” that tower over the lush gardens and swimming pools, the resort is also home to the Spice Market Café, which celebrates the complex diversity of the region’s fame as a foodie draw (Malay, Thai, Indian, Chinese), and an aromatically heady spice boutique, where guests can purchase a wealth of fresh and dried spices, vacuum sealed to take home. It’s also convenient, by car, to the capital, George Town.