The rail thing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am

It is the wig that blows his hirsute cover. There is something too effusive about that rocker's quiff; something not quite right about Elvis.

Then again, he is playing the piano: unusual for The King. Any amateur Hercule Poirot among the bejewelled dining set would spot that clue.

For passengers indulging fevered Agatha Christie fantasies, Elvis - topped out with more of a beehive than a quiff, plus sideburns on steroids and a shirt collar that is bang up to date for 1975 - is going to be the most likely suspect in any shenanigans.

But there is to be no murder on this cousin of the Orient-Express; not tonight, at least. As the professional Elvis impostor enthusiastically evokes lonesome nights and hard-headed women for a bar-car audience that includes at least one genteel lady with a hired gentleman escort, victuals disappear in the next carriage to the resonant clunk of heavy-duty crystal wine glasses.

This being the Eastern & Oriental Express, running 2,837km from Singapore to Chiang Mai on a three-night journey, style and finesse are to the fore. For gentlemen, a jacket and tie - perhaps even a tuxedo and bow tie - prove novelty throwbacks in the tropical heat. For ladies, this is an opportunity to polish those heirloom pearl necklaces. And so a gourmet dinner is served, between elm and rosewood panels and beneath muted, antique lamps; outside, rice paddy, golden temple, perspiring jungle and colonial outpost slip by.

Elvis croons about his friend's latest flame taking a mystery train to Vegas.

THE EASTERN & Oriental Express grandly bills itself 'the most exotic train journey in the world'. Consider the Asian offshoot together with the celebrated parent, that icon of rail travel, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and the claim might not be so outrageous.

On its inaugural run in September 1993, the E&O became the first train to spirit passengers directly from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok (and later as far north as Chiang Mai). Usually, a change of train is required at Butterworth as the Malaysian network gives way to the Thai but an agreement reached in 1991 to allow a single luxury train to operate uninterrupted on the Singapore-Bangkok route resulted in this service.

Railway 'anoraks' might also care to know that the E&O rolling stock was built in Japan in 1972 and ran as the Silver Star in New Zealand. Acquired by Orient-Express Hotels, Trains and Cruises, it was remodelled by the same design team that worked on the modern Venice Simplon carriages.

Aesthetically, the train interior is eastern right down to the wooden marquetry of the carriage walls. Thai and Chinese lacquer work sets the tone in the bar and restaurant cars, further enhanced by Malaysian motifs and Thai wall carvings. The open deck of the observation car at the rear of the train is attired in wood panelling and brass suggestive of tea dances, linens and creaking fans on the verandah.

Each of the three styles of en-suite compartments, from the single/double Pullman to the state and presidential suite, ups the colonial ante. Carpets hand-tufted in Thailand, inlaid wood and engraved glass abound to such an extent that it is tempting to break out the pith helmet and pretend you're a Victorian explorer venturing upcountry in the style to which he is accustomed.

So stout are the silver-service breakfast and afternoon-tea trays delivered to the compartments that possession of a reasonable pair of biceps must be a prerequisite for the job of steward. Said steward, like a Potter-esque house elf, is perennially on call and steals into his charges' compartments while the occupants are at dinner, transforming living rooms into bedrooms. Cosseting is the name of this travel game.

'But what is there to do?' It's a familiar refrain when anyone announces their intention to travel by train in the jet-plane age. Why take three days when you can put in a three-hour sprint? Literate travellers might wheel out Gandhi at this juncture and proclaim: 'There is more to life than increasing its speed.' Another answer unfolds throughout the journey - there is as much or as little to do as you like.

When a passenger steps jauntily aboard between the E&O's cream and British racing green carriages, humility is sometimes left behind on the platform. It is difficult not to experience a sense of 'lording it' over the less privileged (and the economy-class Boeing 747) set as you recline, cocktail in hand, before the picture windows of your compartment or in the convivial bar section of the potted-plant-peppered observation car.

Leaving Bangkok station, the train cuts through trackside shanty towns built so close to the rails that occupants could shake hands with passengers without rising from their disintegrating plastic stools. Shaking hands is not on the agenda of the six- or seven-year-old slum dweller who defiantly gives us an anachronistic arm-in-the-crooked-elbow, up-yours salute as we bisect his home. All we can manage in reply is an effete wave of which the queen might have been enamoured.

The numerous route and branch itineraries offered on the E&O mean there's potential for side trips for passengers on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai circular route. Lampang; the Unesco World Heritage site of Si Satchanalai, part of the ancient Khmer empire; Vientiane, the capital of Laos; colonial George Town, Penang; and other assorted zones of cultural curiosity are possibilities.

However, for most of the passengers (132 in 66 compartments, assuming a full complement) riding the rails aboard a five-star hotel on wheels through luxuriant country and into the hills of Chiang Mai, the fleeting scenery quickly takes on a mesmeric quality that induces only the desire for one more Singapore sling on the rear deck.

But should they be in need of additional entertainment, an enchanting traditional Thai dance is performed each evening in the forward bar car on the northward journey. Similarly symbolic is the Malay dance staged on the southbound trip.

A foot reflexologist remains aboard to ensure pandered-to passengers really do take the weight off their feet. And for a little intellectual or competitive stimulation, the reading room - which is Chinese in style with embellishments that incorporate dark rosewood and rich upholstery - is a repository of board games, newspapers and magazines.

The reading room is also the headquarters of the Asian geomancer, the fortune teller unveiling the future for curious passengers eager to see a little farther down the track. With his inscrutable face, air of respectability, grey goatee beard and drooping moustache, he could be a casting executive's dream choice for the next James Bond villain.

Move over, Elvis: you just ain't bad enough.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies from Hong Kong to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. The Eastern & Oriental Express offers sundry itineraries throughout the year. See for details and prices.