I stretched my arms and legs lazily, as if at an English aristocrat’s country estate, letting the comfort of the Edwardian chair embrace me. Forty-three hours lay ahead. My compartment was wood-panelled, polished and exuded wealth that speaks softly, like an English nanny. We left the disciplined, manicured greenery of Singapore. I was in the Eastern and Oriental Express (E&O), the train which derives its name from the old style hotel in Penang, Malaysia.
We left in the evening, chugging along the countryside which the Japanese had ravaged in 1942, and this being the tropics, the sun set quickly, casting a pall of darkness outside hiding the rubber plantations even as the lights inside the train came on, gleaming golden yellow.
I went on the E&O during its trial runs, over a decade ago, the time when the staff tries its best to pamper passengers. They probably still do. I remember fresh fruit arriving early in my cabin, and before I could make my way to the dining car, I passed through a well-stocked and well-appointed bar, where a real pianist pounded the keys, singing songs—taking me to the 1930s. With rattan chairs and frangipani, this might have been the bar and billiards room at the Raffles. There was Cuba Libre, Gin and Tonic, Bloody Marys, and, of course, Singapore Sling.
Doe-eyed hostesses floated around in pink sarong-kebaya, and I remember a tall, statuesque German woman in a black skirt, jacket and striking black stockings munching peanuts and, while not blowing smoke, tipping the ash from her cigarette the moment we left Singapore’s stern anti-tobacco environment.
In the dining car, the menu stood erect, like a butler in a stiff suit, offering us salad of sea scallops and caviar in a delicate orange sauce, refreshing sorbet between courses and the breast of crispy duck with ginger sauce on a bed of softly cooked cabbage. With such a mouth-melting menu, you felt you’d had a feast, even though the portions were small. The accompanying wine list included Domaine Guyon Corton Charlemagne and Les Forts de Latour. For those of us who don’t live in the stratosphere, there were budget-conscious wines from California, Australia, New Zealand and Italy.
Photograph courtesy Eastern and Oriental Express
Each plate was garnished like a work of art, the food looking desirable and delectable. It was unlike what the rice farmers toiling in Malaysian plains outside our misty windows would be eating that night—they’d have the riotous fried noodles, mee goring, or the slurpy, sour noodles, mee siam, or the greasy fish head curry with rice. For a moment, I felt like the Indian army officer in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, who leaves the officers’ mess and its bland roast chicken and apple crumble for some simple dal and rice with the soldiers camped outside. Of such steps are revolutions made.
The landscape outside our train resonated with romance and history—where cultures mingled, battles were fought and identities mutated. This is where Chinese miners arrived, often marrying local Malay women, creating the uniquely blended Peranakan culture; where Indian plantation workers struggled under the harsh sun while colonial administrators lay under fans, soaked in Gin and Tonic, Anthony Burgess and Somerset Maugham capturing their travails.
In the morning, the view outside my window was of unremittingly green foliage—not the patchwork-quilt patterns of European farms, not the billiard-top-like smoothness of golf courses. This was the raw and stubborn green, which refuses to be disciplined, clinging to telegraph poles, climbing little hills, floating in still dark streams circling the slums that presaged town after town: Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Engor, Kuala Kangsar, Padang Rengas.
Stories of great railway journeys across Asia often refer to the absence of privacy: How the man opposite you wants to know about your job, age and marital status; women travelling alone are often warned to be on the lookout for the loutish youth with a rakish smile who promises to help carry the backpack, find her a cab, translate questions and be her guide. And more.
The E&O kept us away from the hoi polloi. The exclusive room is not large, and will set you back by a mere £1,160 (around Rs86,000) for the one-way journey to Bangkok from Singapore. But for that price, you get seclusion you no longer get in a five star hotel lobby or even a business class lounge.
E&O, I surmised, would be great for dangerous liaisons, for those affairs of the heart, or for meeting business rivals away from the prying eyes of regulators (in the novel about Singapore I am writing, one such encounter requiring privacy occurs on a train journey).
The train also offered private showers, but it is an art to try to hold on to the handle in the shower with one hand and soap in the other as the hot shower that can scald you descends without remorse. The only thing more dangerous is confronting a screaming Norman Bates.
Over lunch on the second day, buoyed by a spicy Bloody Mary, my new friends deliberated over the British monarchy and global anarchy, as Malaysian plantations made way for Thailand’s flatter terrain and houses emerged on stilts. Later that evening, our pianist paid a boisterous tribute to Noel Coward, inspiring many to join in the singing. Normal for those living in the past; for me, this was most certainly a detour.
For, later that night at least, on that train, nothing had changed: Not the music, not the songs, nor the Asians who bowed as they served as the sahibs and memsahibs sang.
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org