Published: February 9th 2010February 3rd 2010
The Eastern and Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore
At precisely 6pm on January 31st, the green and cream carriages of the Eastern and Oriental Express pulled slowly out of Bangkok's Hualamphong station. Monk was on the observation deck at the end of the last carriage watching as the station and, later, the skyscrapers of Bangkok shrank into the distance.
For a few seconds as the train passes by, the arc of the privileged lives of those aboard the train intersects with that of the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the shanty towns running alongside the track. The children though, always happy, shouting and waving as the train goes by, vainly chase after it before giving up and returning to their dangerous playground beside, and on, the main rail line into south east Asia'a biggest city.
Tonight though, one of the children got lucky. A fellow traveller on the observation deck dropped his camera overboard while taking photographs of the train's journey out of Bangkok. Monk just hopes that the camera survived the fall and was in a fit state to be traded for something that would bring a little extra into the life of the lucky family. The train
was halted by a signal a few hundred metres furher along and Monk half expected, and hoped, that a tiny pair of legs would come running along the track reuniting the lost camera with its owner, returning to the family with a generous reward. It was too far a distance though.
Monk stayed in the observation carriage through the twilight and into the darkness watching as life went by through the suburbs and towns surrounding Bangkok. In places, delicious smells of street food vendors under or near the railway track. Night markets ablaze with light. Intimate glimpses into the homes and yards of those living near the tracks. Slowly through stations, sometimes even stopping, railway staff and travellers to who-knows-where all waving. Over level crossings with seemingly hundreds of motor bikes on the starting grid ready to go as the barriers are raised. All the way along, people waving - no barriers here, economic, class or racial - just the general goodwill of one human being to another.
To Monk, this is the essence of this train which sets it apart from others. Not the exquisite dining, nor the level of service from the train staff, nor the
on-board entertainment - but this observation deck. It acts like a magnifying glass giving an intimate view, albeit briefly, of the surroundings through which the train passes. By the other token, it induces a kind of hypnotic state in oneself, allowing the mind to wander in all kinds of directions normally inaccessible; it's like a drug. The train passes through areas which the average traveller would find difficult to access, whether it be the slums of Bangkok or the pristine jungle areas of Malaysia. A journey by any other form of transport would find it hard to reach such places. In a regular train, the journey might take the same route, but being cocooned inside the glass tube of the train filters out so much of the nature and humanity through which the train is passing. The observation deck totally exposes the traveller to the world through which it passes.
During this journey, Monk spent most of the daylight hours hanging over the end of the train as Irene and he had done on a previous trip. This train would be banned in Europe on health and safety grounds. Here, if you want to hang over the side, it's
your choice - no nanny state to stop you.
The compartments are furnished with a Victorian feel as befits the oldie-worldie image of this form of travel. There are four types of compartment. Nellie and Monk's is the smallest and is normally reserved for lone travellers. The next size is the type which Irene and Monk had occupied on their previous trip. During dinner, the sofa which forms the sitting area during the day, is converted by the steward into a bed. In double compartments, an upper and a lower bunk are created. The larger compartments have individual beds rather than bunk beds. Each compartment has its own private bathroom with shower cubicle.
It has to be said that the train is not the smoothest in the world and Flower was laid low by motion sickness for the first day. Train freaks talk about the carriages being too wide for the 1 metre guage track, causing a certain amount of rolling from side to side. One soon acquires the knack of showering while on the move by wedging oneself into the corner of the small shower cubicle. For the chaps, shaving can be a very delicate exercise if
major injury is to be avoided. Monk is uncertain how ladies manage to ensure their make-up ends up in the right place. Sleeping can be somewhat fitful while the train is on the move and the first night in a hotel at the end of the journey really is a welcome treat.
Despite all of this, it's a wonderful experience. The food at both lunch and dinner is excellent and the service from all the train staff is faultless. There are 2 dining cars and 2 bars. After dinner each night, Nellie and friends would retire to the piano bar where Peter the pianist would entertain into the small hours, with a little help from us passengers singing along. Peter is a talented musician able to conjure up just about any tune on request.
From Bangkok, the train headed west and spent most of the night at Wang Po, west of Kanchanaburi. Monk ensured that he rose early next morning at 6:15 to watch the progress of the train inching around the limestone cliffs where the railway track is supported on the original wooden trestle viaduct built into the side of the cliff. Once on solid track again,
the train gathered speed and Monk was beguiled by the waking countryside, watching the sunrise reflected off rice paddies and, beyond, the shadowy silhouettes of mountain against mountain. After an hour and a half, the train reached Kanchanaburi,the town where the railway crosses the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.
Kanchanaburi is the historical focal point of this entire journey. The very track we have passed over since starting out this morning, until reaching Nong Pladook this afternoon, was built upon the lives 16,000 allied prisoners of war, mostly British, Dutch and Australian, and the lives of an estimated 100,000 Malay and Singaporean volunteer workers who were treated as badly, if not worse, than the POWs. In fact, the entire journey we'll be taking, from Wang Po all the way down to Singapore has a poignancy which is highlighted by our stop at Kanchanaburi this morning. In 1942, many of the POWs and workers on the Death Railway travelled over the self-same single track line from Singapore which we'll be following over the next 3 days. Unlike the privileged passengers on the Eastern and Oriental Express, they travelled in appalling conditions in airless, sweltering freight cars, for four whole
days, from Singapore to Nong Pladook, the eastern end of the Death Railway. After their arrival, the conditions and inhumane treatment they received from their Japanese guards have been the subject of many books and films. In 2010, we pampered passengers, in our air-conditioned luxury, worry about getting to the dining car in one piece or spilling our gin and tonics!
The Eastern and Oriental Express journey is something of a mix of rail journey and guided tour. There are two stops en route where passenegers leave the train for a few hours of local sightseeing.
At Kanchanburi, we make our way down onto what seems to be a floating dock, a hundred metres downstream from the bridge over the Kwai. The bridge is part original and part reconstruction. The original bridge was bombed by the RAF just before the end of the war.
The 'floating dock' turns out to be a huge raft which is detached from the river bank and is towed under the bridge and then, for photo opportunties, turns about as the Eastern and Oriental Express slowly crosses the bridge. The barge is then towed slowly downstream to the centre of Kanchanburi, a
couple of kilometers from the bridge. On the way, we are treated to an exteremely interesting presentation from the founder of the Death Railway Museum on the history and politics leading up to Japan's invasion of south east Asia and, of course, on the history of the Death Railway itself.
At Kanchanaburi, the Death Railway Museum holds some very moving exhibits and descriptions of life, and death, in the camps along the course of the railway construction as well as exhibits giving some historial perspective. If one's emotional threshold has not been breached so far, a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery opposite the Museum is guaranteed to bring tears to one's eyes. The train staff provide flowers for each passenger to place upon one of the thousands of graves of obscenely young men, with all too familiar-sounding names, whose lives were cruelly cut short during the building of the Death Railway. After the war, first the British and then the Thais ripped up the tracks from Wang Po to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese border, and since then, part of the track bed has been flooded by the Khao Laem dam, leaving only the section
from Nam Tok to Nong Pladook as a memorial to the lives lost.
Back on board, the train speeds eastward, retracing its route of the previous evening, before leaving the track of the Death Railway at Nong Pladook and heading south toward the southern Thai provinces, the Malaysian border and ultimately Singapore.
With the train running late, darkness starts to envelop the landscape shortly after a brief stop at Hua Hin, to where the Thai royal family retire when they need to escape Bangkok - a bit like a Thai Balmoral or a Camp David. It's a very atrractive station with an ornate waiting room reserved for the royal family. Irene and Monk spent some memorable days at Hua Hin.
On the train's journey from Bangkok to Singapore, the part of the trip down the isthmus of Thailand is unfortunately undertaken at night with just a couple of hours of daylight next morning to admire the Thai countryside before reaching the Malaysian border town of Pedang Besa. If undertaking this journey in reverse, from Singapore to Bangkok, this section gives more daylight hours to view the beautiful countryside of southern Thailand. Monk remembers his feelings at the
sight of bright, almost luminous, green paddy fields set in a backdrop of limestone karsts jutting from the landscape as though placed there as pieces on some giants' chess game.
Monk had been warned by the train steward that he would have to be up and ready by 8pm next morning to meet with the Thai immigration people at Pedang Besa. Monk's visa had expired and it meant a possible fine (Monk discusses this visa issue in a separate blog). As everybody else stayed onboard, Monk and the French chef tramped ignominiously down the platform and into the immigration office. Monk felt that he could see the curtains twitching on the train as inquisitive passengers wondered whether some Agatha Christie-like event had occured on the train overnight. After some light-hearted banter, Monk handed over 1000 baht (£20) and was free to leave the country with his souvenir of Thailand - a receipt for the fine; the French chef had to pay 2000 baht for a longer overstay.
After leaving the border town behind, the Malaysian countryside is beautiful in a different way to Thailand. There are some stretches of natural jungle but fewer and fewer, year by year
as they are replaced by agricultural plantations. There are a lot of rubber plantations with their black cups hanging from the trunks to catch the liquid latex as it drips from the bark. By far the most prolific though are the palm tree plantations producing the palm oil which has become an important part of the Malaysian economy.
When Monk first made this journey just 2 years ago, the entire stretch of line from the Thai border down to Singapore was single track and the panorama was unspoiled from either side of the train and looking backwards. Now, almost all the way to Ipoh, just north of Kuala Lumpur, the vegetation has been cut back and a new double track is being laid alongside the existing track. The original track had a bygone, remote and rustic air and one felt that one could have been back in any time since the line was first laid in the early part of the last century. The new track is bounded by cast concrete walls destroying much of the charm of this stretch of line.
In the south of Thailand, and more so now we're in Malaysia, one notices fewer and
fewer Buddhist temples and more and more mosques, signalling our arrival in predominatey Muslim Malaysia. Thailand has a political and terrorist problem in its 3 southern provinces which is not given the coverage it maybe should be in the western press. These provinces lean more toward Malaysia than to Thailand. There have been several thousand deaths from terrrorist activity over the past few years. However, the Eastern & Oriental Express has passed through the area unscathed.
The train makes a detour from the main line to head to Butterworth, the jumping off point for the short ferry ride to the islands of Penang and Langkawi. Penang is the destination for the second guided tour for the train's passengers. Aboard buses, we head for the ferry and, within 20 minutes we're strolling around the streets of the island's historic capital of Georgetown taking in the mix of Chinese and Indian cultures and Georgetown's British colonial architecture. The visit is rounded off by a tri-shaw ride around town ending up at the renowned Eastern & Oriental Hotel where we partake of Pimm's before returning on the ferry to the waiting train to continue our southward journey through Malaysia.
reached Kuala Lumpur at around 2am in the morning and despite Monk's determination to stay awake and to take a stroll in KL during the short half-hour stop-over, the atmosphere of the piano bar got the better of him and it wasn't until 8 next morning that Monk awoke, quickly showered and decamped to the observation deck for the final part of the journey into Johor Bahru, the last town in Malaysia before the train crosses the causeway to Singapore island. The train stops at Woodlands station for Singapore immigration control which is a very serious business. All the bags have to be unloaded from the train, thankfully by the train staff. Each bag must be claimed by its owner and then taken through airport style security and passport and immigration checks before emerging on the Singapore side of the border post. The train staff then have to reload the bags onto the train before we depart for the 25 minute run into Singapore's Keppel Road station.
At Keppel Road, the staff all line up in front of the train to say goodbye to their charges of the past 3 days. In Monk's opinion, the train crew are a
truly genuine bunch who enjoy their unusual line of work. Earlier at Woodlands, Monk had exchanged email addresses with Peter the pianist and had promised that, next time he came on the train, he would bring his guitar along with him. Peter is based in Singapore and was seriously put out that, because he was travelling back the next day to Bangkok, we would be unable to take us to the jazz club he plays in in Singapore. Floss and Peter had got on very well together after their late-night duets.
The three-day odyssey had come to an end. Floss had taken the journey Irene had wished her to and Monk had confronted his tender memories of Irene and had survived without becoming a total emotional wreck.
Irene and Monk made this journey in February 2008 in the opposite direction, from Singapore to Bangkok, during the final trip they took together in south east Asia. On leaving the train, they stayed in Bangkok for a couple of nights before taking the normal train back down to Hua Hin where they stayed for a wonderful few days.
The trip this time has evoked beautiful memories
for Monk amid some tearful emotions, but he's glad he's made the journey. The memories of the fun time they had on the train and afterwards at Hua Hin were special to Irene and to Monk.
In June 2008, Irene and Monk went 'middle-aged' island-hopping in Greece - instead of lugging their backpacks around, they threw them into the back of a rented car at Athens airport and loaded the car onto so many ferries that Monk became an expert at reversing the car up the ramps into the black void of ferry car decks.
The locals on the island of Skyros had formed a cooperative to buy their own boat which they imaginatively called Skyros, and which Irene and Monk plus backpacks caught to get them to the island. They found a wonderful room where they stayed for a few days overlooking the quiet harbour of Linaria. Quiet, that is, until the Skyros arrived back home each evening at 6pm. For some unknown reason, as the ship rounded into the harbour, the captain would play, at full volume over the ship's external speakers, The Ride of the Valkyries to announce that the ship was back home safely.
It sounded absolutely bizarre and Irene and Monk experienced this for 4 evenings.
On the Eastern and Oriental Express on February 1st 2010, at around 6pm, Monk was sitting in the bar of the observation carriage, having a beer after a hard day hanging over the back of the train. There was no music playing - Monk doesn't recall canned music ever playing in the bar. As the train neared Hua Hin, Monk was transported back to that room in Linaria Bay where he and Irene had spent those happy days - over the speakers in the bar of the Eastern and Oriental Express, 200 kms from Bangkok, 8000 kms from Skyros, came the sound of The Ride of the Valkyries!
There are more photos below