Life In The Slow Lane Aboard Belmond’s E&O Express
Old meets new on this iconic rail journey between Singapore and Bangkok.
It’s amazing how fast the slow movement has caught on. From food to travel, taking it slow has become a modern mantra, a way to balance the speed at which other things transpire.
If you’re the kind of traveller with a bucket list bursting at the seams, slow travel may seem counterintuitive when the goal is to see and experience more. Most would agree, however, that a trip on Belmond’s Eastern and Oriental Express (E&O) is an exception. This iconic rail journey allows you to traverse three countries—Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—aboard a stylish, retro-fitted train clad in warm teak wood, lacquered panels and floral motifs, and equipped with every comfort imaginable.
Launched in 1993, the three-day, two-night trip stops at Kuala Kangsar, a royal town in Perak, Malaysia, as well as at the well-known River Kwai in Thailand. While the train and the itinerary itself is steeped in nostalgia, the E&O is not content to dwell on the past. Belmond recently introduced key improvements that meld the old with the new—bringing exciting and necessary changes without ruffling the romantic experience that draw people to it in the first place.
The most noticeable change is the façade, which transforms the train into a “moving exhibition” with two central carriages foregoing the classic design and embracing the vibrant palette chosen by Singapore-based street artist Rajesh Kumar. The Goldsmiths University of London graduate chose a base of cobalt blue, and highlighted it with a medley of bright hues following his dynamic design called The Koi Pond. The commissioned artwork took months to complete and will grace carriages G and H until April 28, 2017.
A Toast To Nostalgia
You could soak in the scenery or get a foot spa (or both!) to pass the time but one activity is guaranteed on the 51-hour journey: a whole lot of feasting and drinking. While mealtimes are set—you’ll be amazed at how such a small kitchen can churn out myriad freshly-made local and Western dishes—you could get a drink anytime. Enjoy the new concoctions from the Cocktail Professor menu at the Piano Bar or Observation Car at the rear of the train. The creative tipples are more than just social lubricants for the conversations with “future friends” on board, they’re also another way of taking it slow. Savour The Royal Nightcap (pictured), a potent potion that’s the perfect ending to a memorable day; it's also a personal favourite of E&O's general manager Nicolas Pillet.
Apart from the sound of the train rumbling on the tracks and the wind whizzing by, the main entertainment is centred at the Piano Bar. For 11 years and counting, in-house pianist (and resident charmer) Pietro has been dazzling guests with his expansive repertoire. Those who aren’t keen to sing a capella, however, can enjoy a different musical experience on the Bar Car. Belmond has worked with Singapore-based producer and DJ Mr Has on a soundtrack that takes its cues from live jazz recordings to create a contemporary accompaniment to the journey.
The interior is a setting rife with cinematic references; in fact, you’re half expecting James Bond or Marlene Dietrich to walk your way. While the sophisticated, silver screen-worthy ambience just calls for dressing up, Belmond has toned down its black-tie dress code and asks guests to adopt a “tropical elegance” attire. This marked shift was made in response to the climes, and in turn, creates a more relaxed but no less elegant atmosphere on board.
Think about it for a second: Sleeper trains were once like the Airbus A380, a modern marvel, and feat of engineering. Today, it trades in nostalgia. Indeed, the most compelling part of the E&O is its ability to take you back in time—think writing long-form on postcards instead of posting Instagram stories (Tip: write as many postcards as they mail them for free) or burying yourself in a book instead of a device. Somehow, the environment encourages a more considered pace, with plenty of time for daydreaming. Perhaps it's for the best that wi-fi was only introduced in 2016 on presidential cabins and on the Observation Deck.
Given that it’s a sleeper train, many people wonder about the actual sleep one gets. It wholly depends on whether gentle sways and noises rock you to sleep or keep you awake. What I’ve learned is that the E&O is the kind of journey where you’d like to keep your eyes peeled—it’s a rare chance to live the golden age of travel and suspend reality for a few days (I relished not having to check the news, for example). Like all good things, the journey that seemed long at the start comes to an end all too soon. But my coterie of new friends and the hundreds of pictures on my iPhone are always there to remind me of this unforgettable rail journey.