Northern exposure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am

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SIX O' CLOCK is cocktail hour on the Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O). Most nights, guests gather in the elegant bar car, where a pianist trots out the tunes while the uniformed staff serve G&Ts. Tonight, however, something different is planned.

As the sun sinks towards the horizon, the train pulls up at a small rural station. Two buses are waiting to take us the short drive to the venue for tonight's drinks: a small but elaborate 12th-century Khmer temple.

On the open lawn in front of the temple, Thai delicacies are available, along with all our favourite waiters bearing all our favourite drinks. As night begins to fall, the dancers arrive. Watching graceful Thai dancers performing on the worn stones of a centuries-old temple is an unforgettable experience. But then, that's what a trip on the E&O is all about.

For train buffs, the E&O has long offered an alternative way to travel around South-East Asia - a slower, more leisurely voyage that recreates a time when travel was a more elegant experience.

The six-night Epic Thailand itinerary allows guests to discover parts of Thailand that lie beyond the usual Bangkok-and-beaches tourist itinerary. The route, which starts and finishes in Bangkok, arcs across much of northern Thailand, taking in landscapes ranging from forests to open plains, high mountains to valleys richly carpeted with rice paddies.

The daily excursions feature some of the country's little-known cultural and historical highlights. During a village visit in the north-eastern province of Isan, we engage in a bai sii (sacred thread) ceremony, before village elders demonstrate the traditional crafts, including silk weaving and basket making, traditional skills through which they earn their living.

South of Chiang Mai, we visit the town of Lampang, one of the few towns in Thailand to have preserved much of its original architecture. From sprawling wooden villas supported by massive teak columns, to narrow shophouses lined up in rows, it's a lovely town to explore, particularly from the city's most unusual form of public transport: the horse-drawn carriage.

Interesting as the excursions are, for many passengers, the real highlight of the trip is the chance to relax into life onboard. For these longer journeys, guest numbers are limited to 60, all of whom are accommodated in spacious 84 square feet cabins, with walls of cherry wood and elm burr, an ensuite bathroom, and large picture windows. Breakfast is served in your cabin, giving you the chance to ease into the day at your own pace.

As on a cruise, part of the delight is letting the days unfold slowly. Life on the train is easy. Meals, drinks and excursions are all included in the fare, so money doesn't enter the equation. The most gruelling decision you have to make may be whether you can fit in afternoon tea.

Occasionally, there are a number of excursions to choose from. We spend a full day at the northern capital of Chiang Mai, where the options range from taking a tour of one of Thailand's most magnificent temples, Doi Suthep, or learning more about Buddhism, to visiting an elephant camp or spending an afternoon shopping for local crafts.

The observation car - an open-air carriage at the end of the train - is the best spot for taking in the views. We climb slowly up steep mountains, and glide smoothly through endless verdant rice paddies.

One essential thing you need for the journey is a healthy appetite. The tasty meals are major events: three courses at lunch, four at dinner. From baked salmon and papaya salad served with aubergine caviar, to rack of lamb with pistachio and pine-nut crust, served with red wine sauce, the restaurant-quality meals are a highlight.

Other highlights are often unexpected. On the journey's final day a palm reader is on board, offering passengers an insight into the future. She tells me I'll have many more opportunities for travel. Sounds good to me.

At a glance

WHAT: Epic Thailand is a 7-day/6-night luxury train journey through Thailand, starting and ending in Bangkok and exploring northern parts of the country.

WHEN: The next Epic Thailand journey departs on October 30. Prices start at US$9,600. Journeys in 2012 leave on February 26 and October 30.

DON'T MISS: The bai sii (sacred thread) ceremony performed by the village elders in Isan on day two. They are tied around the wrist to offer protection for a journey in a moving ritual symbolising friendship.

UNWIND: With an exotic cocktail. The Shanghai Express - a mix of Bourbon, Amaretto, Southern Comfort, orange and lime juice and Grenadine Syrup - should hit the spot.

WOW: To celebrate the launch of the Chronicles of South East Asia (four new O&E journeys exploring the region) passengers will receive a complimentary one-night stay at the 5-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok before and after their journey.