An Exotic Train Links Two Exotic Cities
Singapore to Bangkok on the Eastern & Oriental Express
by Charles N. Barnard
An exotic-looking brochure which describes a new, luxury train
ignites my imagination — "the Eastern & Oriental Express." What an
evocative name! A tourist choo-choo that runs on old narrow-gauge track
between Singapore and Bangkok — up and down the jungly spine of the Malay
Peninsula. Rubber plantations! Tin mines! Tiger country! The ghost of
Somerset Maugham! I must go. I'm a train buff, I admit it. My list of
railroading adventures is longvall kinds of journeys on six continents:
Africa-hot, Zhivago-cold; exciting, dismal, dangerous, plush, boring;
via trains that were never-on-time, or fast-as-bullets; red-velvet-Victorian
or Communist-austere. Steam, diesel, electric, even magnetically levitated.
Moved by steel wheels, cogs, cables and Michelin tires. No matter what
style of train, nothing can be finer, I think, than dinner in the diner.
This 1207-mile intercity trip on the "E&O" would take only
a couple of days, I note — from Singapore north or from Bangkok south.
A single train-set shuttles back and forth once a week.
"But Southeast Asia is a long way to travel just for a 42-hour
train ride," I am reminded by one who knows how I can be carried away
at the call of "En voiture!"
Yeah, right. Singapore is halfway around the globe from Connecticut
after all. I should maybe take a fresh look at that corner of the world
while there. I muse for some theme, some "validation" (excuse) for my
trip. Hmm, how about, "An-exotic-train-links-two-exotic-cities?" That
might make a tale worth telling.
So, I go, but first a pang of doubt: have I lured myself into looking
for something that will not be here? "Exotic" is a dangerous word, I know,
often abused. What does it really mean? Something unreal? Make believe?
Strange? Alien? Something we have never known, only imagined; something
we can never really see or touch, but only dream? Well, never mind dictionary
definitions; I'll know exotic when I find it.
At the end of the taxi ride from the airport, a great white cloud
slides across the sky. It seems to be three stories high and pierced with
many windows. I hear the crunch of a gravel driveway under our wheels.
A towering, turbanned Sikh wearing much gold braid swings open the car
door with a white-gloved hand. Along with inrushing equatorial heat comes
his greeting, "Welcome to Raffles, sir."
Two years and $100 million were invested to make this most-famous
old hotel in Asia more famous — and more exotic — than ever. Raffles is
a travel destination unto itself, one of Singapore's premier attractions,
a place to see and be seen, to stroll around its famed Palm Court, inhale
the sensuous scent of plumeria, buy a drink at the Long Bar and be able
to say, "Yes, I've been there, I know Raffles. . . ."
(As I'm being escorted to my room, I'm sure I identify Maugham
having a Singapore Sling at the Writers' Bar off the lobby. Looking a
bit older, I notice, but surely he.)
Fans turn lazily in the 14-foot ceiling of my four-room suite;
original antique furniture and Oriental carpets on teak and marble floors;
sunlight filtering through the verandah windows; two pairs of silky-soft
Chinese slippers for silky-slipping around in; two handmade, bamboo-and-lacquered-paper
parasols — in the event I and a lady think to go out with the mad dogs
and Englishmen under the noonday sun; a bowl of custard apples, mangosteens
and star fruits; a nostalgic excerpt from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim placed
on the pillow for bedtime reading; cut flowers on the dining table. I
feel as if I have arrived at the very capital of Exotic.
But it is another kind of capital, too, this Singapore, "the Incredible
City State": three million population, five million visitors, burgeoning
financial muscle, 70-story skyscrapers, world's largest container port,
near-zero unemployment, obsessive attention to public health and safety÷a
compact, 200-plus-square-mile island-nation where the conservative work
ethic rules, crime is almost unknown and homelessness would be a disgrace
if it existed, which it doesn't. All wonderful, wonderful, to be sure.
But I'm here to look for Exotic, no?
As in food. Eating is one of Singapore's great multiethnic treats.
Oh yes, there are dim mosques and smoky Buddhist temples to sight-see,
dreamy boat rides, dripping orchid gardens, colorful festivals, historic
museums and tempting shopping — but what is more exotic than twenty thousand
places to order cooked food? (Yes, right: 20,000 — the Singapore Tourist
Promotion Board says so.) Countless permutations of Malay, Indian, Indonesian
and Chinese cuisine, from pushcart street snacks to elegant restaurants.
First, a proper colonial breakfast at Raffle's — a choice: pears
in red wine, chicken porridge, lamb sausage, Dauphinoise potatoes, spinach
quiche with smoked salmon — and something creamy and mysterious called
Quark; what in the world is that?
(And, by the way, at the table by the window, could that be Noel
Coward with the gorgeous Eurasian woman?)
Later, dining on the street, in the tropic night, choosing spicy,
unfathomable dishes from the flaming, gyrating woks of pushcart vendors;
sitting on rickety chairs, in the glare of dangling bare bulbs, hearing
squeaky, sing-song music from the hawkers' radios; hailing a lad to fetch
another fat, 650-ml bottle of Tiger beer; observing the Chinese gentleman
at the next table as he withdraws his own personal ivory-and-gold chopsticks
from their brocaded case — and, when the wind shifts, I can smell the sea.
. . .
Or lunch at an herbal restaurant where patrons order not so much
a meal as a prescription for their ailments. My eye runs down a long,
sometimes puzzling Chinese menu. I am attended by a pretty paramedic waitress
who explains the herbal/pharmaceutical efficacy of each dish I ask about.
That one? She smiles with slant-eye beauty. "Chestnut good for
kidney," she advises. Or the fish, I ask . . . what is that good for?
"This fish is very good for appetite," she declares. Shark's fin soup
— I think I know what that's for. "Yes," she smiles, "manhood." And what
are those green vegetables that look like seaweed on a beach? "Oh, that
very good for eyes in the dark."
It was a wonderful and, I guess, exotic lunch — and my liver felt
much better afterward!
One may also dine along the embankment of the Singapore river where
Boat Quai is a "restaurant row" of 20 or more old godowns (warehouses)
now converted to chic establishments that offer an international menu.
I opt for Catalan and am impressed how precisely a young Chinese waiter
describes today's tapas. (Reflections of city lights spill, like liquid
neon, onto the black river. Now here is a place where one might expect
to find Lord Jim!)
In the Little India district, a menu on the wall: "Try our new
specials! Maharaja Dosai . . . Maharani Uttappam, Tomato Uttappam . .
. Almond Dosai now available from Friday to Sundays . . . Cholae Battera,
also Iddiyappam, V.I.P. Thali, Gulab Jamus . . . ."
I try vadai first, a sort of doughnut on which one drizzles various
sauces after creatively intermixing them on a banana-leaf palette. No
spoons or forks. Wailing, percussive Indian music in the background. Then
masala thosai arrives, a large pancake folded over, spicy vegetables inside.
It is Festival of Lights season. Tiny electric bulbs gleam and
blink like a string of colored beads racing around a framed picture of
the Hindu god, Vishnu . . . .
One can also have breakfast (or afternoon tea) with one of the
orangutans at the Singapore zoo. ("You've never eaten with an orangutan?"
I was asked, straight-faced. How does one respond to being put on? By
accepting the invitation, of course.)
Singapore has a zoo to make zoo-haters think again. It is noted
for its Komodo dragons and snow leopards — and a long-successful breeding
program for the endangered orangutans. Hundreds of people show up every
morning for the breakfast. Human guests are provided an American buffet:
baked beans, fried eggs, frankfurters, toast. The beast-of-honor — this
morning it is Missy — is seated at a massive table made from logs. She
hugs an infant offspring with one long arm, eats bananas, rambutans, hunks
of smelly durian, over-ripe papayas and other garbagy-looking stuff with
her free hand. A zoo attendant stands by.
Visitors come to Missy's table one at a time to sit close to the
ape and have a photograph made. We are encouraged to put an arm around
the creature — and are rewarded when the handler picks up the ape's long
left arm and places it across our shoulders. (This photo-op is a little
like a group of first-term Congressmen having pictures made with the President
at the White House.)
Missy has big, hairy breasts that definitely need a bra. Her fur
is a sort of reddish brown and quite bristly in texture, like the hair-stuffing
from an old couch. I hugged her all the same, but she didn't hug me back,
didn't even look at me with affection. Besides, she had smelly durian
breath. So much for exotic romance! I decide to leave town! Time to catch
The Eastern & Oriental Express is backed into Singapore's old
Keppel Road terminal with its gleaming, brass-trimmed observation car
arriving first. It is what train buffs might call a fancy string of varnish,
all 19 modern-looking carriages being nicely turned out in dark green
livery: two restaurant cars, 12 sleeping cars, two bars, a lounge, a saloon.
(Unnotable locomotives are supplied by the Malay and Thai railway systems.)
Total passenger capacity is 130 — but we are only 68 today — welcomed
as we climb aboard by smiling, smartly uniformed attendants.
As the afternoon departure moment arrives, a station master in
an all-white, notch-collar suit waits on the platform, poised as a matador.
He holds red and green flags on short sticks — his banderillas. A minute-hand
ticks forward, the green flag sweeps down, the train begins to roll. The
journey has begun.
My compartment has a rose-plush Victorian look; drapes with tasseled
tiebacks, blossoms in a vase, a bowl of fruit, two brass table lamps,
a couch/bed, a tight closet, brass light sconces. Walls are diamond-pattern
marquetry done in Burmese rosewood. Two broad, double-glazed windows are
spotlessly clean for scenery-gazing. The compact bathroom has a tiny marble
sink, flush potty and a tight shower. The whole look is more 1990's-luxury
As we move slowly through rural Singapore heading for the Straits
of Johore, I go for a first exploration of the train. The dining cars
are already set up for dinner, all ablaze with starched white linen, shining
flatware, polished crystal, flowers on every table. I walk through other
nicely appointed lounge cars, a compact boutique (passengers are already
shopping for pricey stuff with the E&O logo on it), a bar car and
the open-air observation car.
As afternoon wanes, we pass through Malaysian villages where naked
kids wave and battalions of putt-putting motor scooters wait behind crossing
gates. The countryside glides by at about 30 miles per hour: oil palm
plantations; dark, gloomy rubber forests; some macadamia groves; much
red mud and red, muddy streams. The train plays a continuous song of steel
wheels on steel rails — sometimes a whisper, sometimes a grinding cry.
The cars lurch and tilt disconcertingly on the uneven meter-gauge tracks.
The observation-car platform is spacious enough for a couple of
dozen standing passengers at a time. It is a windy, popular place at all
hours. A small, adjacent bar dispenses drinks to be taken outside. An
ever-changing cast of wind-buffeted sightseers visits here, all ages,
many nationalities, all infected with the gaiety of a journey just beginning.
In the bar car before dinner, a smiley piano-player in white jacket
is banging away at popular show tunes. Many lights reflect in etched glass
mirrors. I am served a Malay beer by a Malay girl in a long, pink-crepe
Malay kebaya. The barman wears a rich, silk-paisley vest with a high Chinese
collar. A honeymoon couple hold hands and sip Camparis; two American women
smoke up a storm while enjoying serial Singapore Slings; two businessmen
talk agribusiness and the success of the strawberry crop in Thailand.
Beyond the windows, it is still not full dark. Malaysia races by
in the dusk: houses on stilts, smoky backyard fires, vegetable patches,
laundry drying, heavy-horned buffalo mucking in watery ditches. Towering
cumulus clouds are black mountains against a watercolor magenta sky.
Passengers drift into the bar after the first dinner seating: a
few tuxedos, sparkly cocktail dresses, whiffs of expensive perfume. They
are the same folks who were on the observation platform this afternoon.
We recognize each other now; nods and smiles between fellow travelers
on a common journey.
This is an ultimate theme-park ride, I think, a make-believe travel
experience. "Let's dress up and pretend we are going somewhere; let's
play Trip!" It seems we are amateur actors who have paid to play our parts
in an amateur theatrical. I wonder how our train must look as seen from
a Malay village tonight — this string of speeding, brightly lighted carriages
taking the rich-and-maybe-famous for a two-day ride — a trip that might
be accomplished in two quick, cheap hours by air.
When I return to my compartment to "dress for dinner," heavy drapes
are drawn, the couch has been transformed into an inviting bed, lights
are dimmed. The train's perspective has turned inward now, an island in
the night. I'm wondering if my old blue blazer will look okay for dinner-in-the-diner.
Second seating at 9. The service is white-glove proper, but slow;
the food nouvelle-inspired, but more a series of presentations and tastings
than a meal. Deviations from the set menu are too expensive for me to
Bedtime. I fall asleep on the narrow couch/bed, but not for long. I awaken from a dream: I am riding
through Asia on a bullock cart with no springs. Side-to-side knockings feel as if the train's wheels do not fit
the rails. Objects hanging from hooks in the compartment do a wild, herky-jerky dance. Motion-sickness
seems imminent and sleep becomes doubtful. I get up and continue my reading of Maugham's Gentleman
in the Parlour, his tale of travels in Malaysia.
Breakfast arrives at 7:30 on a tray — juice, yogurt, pineapple, croissant, coffee. Then a long day of racketing
along on this one-track line, passing through humid jungle, occasional villages of metal-roof shacks, the
bleak, strip-mined remains of abandoned tin diggings. Giant cumulus clouds are volcanoes of steam rising
for miles above earth. Many smells flavor the air and make the route more . . .er, exotic? Sweet smoke from
burning wood, fish drying, vegetation rotting, water stagnating. These are the scents of another world, a
Third World perfume, smells we no longer allow (but which I miss) in ecologically-correct and odorless
There is a second-day lunch, some hilly jungle, another dinner, a big lake, many rice paddies, another rough
night on the rails, a final breakfast — and then, just before boredom, we are grinding slowly through endless
urban slums. The E&O Express has arrived: Bangkok.
Porters assemble our baggage on the platform, a driver in a crisp, white Oriental hotel uniform finds me in
the crowd; a crisp, white Mercedes enfolds me in blessed air conditioning. I am on my way through the
world's steamiest city and world's worst traffic to the sanctuary of another of Asia's legendary hotels. The
map says I am in Thailand, but a romantic traveler would rather still call it Siam — land of gilded temples and
The Oriental hotel has been receiving international guests on the banks of the Bangkok's Chao Praia river
since 1873 — when it was a one-story building raised on piles at the water's edge and advertised
"comfortable quarters for gentlemen of the sea." This meant an American bar, newspapers, a billiard saloon,
boats for hire and three meals. When Joseph Conrad arrived in 1888, he wrote, "In the light of the crimson
sunset, all ablaze behind the golden pagodas, I made my way to the Oriental . . . ."
In the century and more that has followed, Conrad was joined at the Oriental by Maugham, Coward,
Graham Greene and many another great story teller. Suites honoring the hotel's famous literary guests are
still maintained in the original structure. In more recent history, no other hotel that I know has so often been
named "Best in the world."
The windows of my room look out upon the River of Kings, Asia's grandest Grand
Canal, Bangkok's main street and main sewer, furrowed and made tumultuous
at any hour by the crisscrossing wakes from water craft of all sizes and
styles. Old rice boats, built of teak, are big and bulbous, with the stately
roll of a Hong Kong junk. Or the hong yao, hotrods of the river, long
and narrow and swift as barracudas. Their roaring automobile engines drive
"long tail" propeller shafts that produce great high-speed rooster-tails.
Or passenger ferries, large and small, express and local, navigating routes
that go up, down and across the waterway.
Yes, I think, it looks as I remember — exotic.
Tomorrow I shall awaken memories again — but tonight, dinner by the river, a barbecue-buffet with swirling
smoke from charcoal fires. Bougainvillea in all its colors is sparkled with miniature white lights along the
embankment. Water taxis come and go from the hotel landing, rocking in the passing wakes, their idling
engines making deep, gargling sounds. The restless surface of the Chao Praia is painted with reflected
colors; clumps of water hyacinth float downstream from the distant River Kwai, black silhouettes gliding
across undulating pools of red and purple.
Bangkok is not Singapore, not clean and green, not all work-ethic and industrious bustle. There are no real
skyscrapers here and none planned. The city occupies a swamp and settles a few inches into the muck each
year. The pervasive smell of sewage is neither explained nor excused.
Bangkok is ever gracious, never in a hurry, a touching, tolerant manana town, paralyzed by traffic, choked
by pollution, dusted with a patina of grime. Its palaces and temples are among the most beautiful in the
world — and its massage parlors, red light districts and pornography marts are the most notorious — and most
interesting — in Asia. Seedy Patpong Street is the city's infamous neighborhood of touch-bars, go-go
performers, VD clinics and money changers.
Bangkok's traditional menu of proper sightseeing attractions is limited but unduplicated elsewhere in Asia.
Its watery network of klongs (with their colorful floating markets) is unique and more extensive than all the
canals in Venice. There is a snake farm (see 'em milked at 11 a.m.), a crocodile farm (see 'em fed red meat
at noon), a rose garden (with lunch and a show), over 400 temples. Most visitors cover the main sights in
two or three days.
But is Bangkok exotic? Answer: Wow!
The Grand Palace complex, a golden enclave within this gritty city, may be the most concentrated and
spectacular eyeful of royal and religious architecture that a traveler will find anywhere on this planet.
Staggering. Stunning. Awesome. All of the above: choose your own adjectives. Gleaming gold (real gold),
sparkling mosaics, dozens of temples in Thai, Ceylonese and Cambodian styles, royal apartments, hundreds
of bejeweled guardian figures, imposing audience halls, an explosion of form and color that seduces
tourists into exposing their every roll of film on the first half-day tour. Disney, DeMille and the Arabian
Nights combined could not match this.
At Wat Pho, a 16th-century temple/monastery, a colossal, 150-foot-long figure of the reclining (dying)
Buddha gleams in brilliant gold leaf as hundreds of the faithful circle, dropping clinking coins into a row of
iron collection pots. The reclining Buddha is a money machine.
To be a contributor and a participant, I buy a thin leaf of 22-karat gold from a young monk in saffron
robes. He is reading the newspaper while racing to finish a bowl of vegetables and rice before noon (for he
may not eat again today). Doing what I see others do, I apply the postage-stamp-size rectangle of gold foil
to the face of an already heavily-gilded Buddha image — and then realize this is the moment to pray — or ask
for something . . .but what? How about a wish for my first wife's happiness in her new marriage? Hey, why
Does Buddha grant favors to Congregationalists? Does exotic mean crazy? Does it mean something we
outsiders will never, can never, understand? Does it mean such a kaleidoscope of customs and colors that
we are overwhelmed? So much gleam of gold that we can not look directly into its setting-sun glare?
Bangkok is not a walking town, too smoggy, too chaotic, too easy to get lost. Tourists are bussed around in
safety. Risks or not, I believe the soul of cities is not found in their museums or cathedrals, but in their
streets. Out I go then, soul-searching on a warm afternoon.
Crossing Bangkok's streets is a Thai version of Russian roulette. Traffic cops are about the size of Michael
Jackson and wear tight-fitting brown uniforms and anti-smog masks. They contend with gridlock as a
condition of life — and provide no noticeable assistance to pedestrians.
Exotissimo Travel (I have found it at last!) posts a short list of "sigh-seeing" [sic] tours — also offers a Thai
dinner and dance and the "cheapest hotel room in town" with twin bed: $48.
Nearby, I find a "Marriage introduction service . . .world-class lawyer and detective center . . .marriage arranged
for aliens . . .work permits . . .English-speaking detectives available . . . ."
Cooking smells drift out of side streets: bananas baking, satay broiling, fish frying. Also the brothy scent
of steaming stews, greasy whiffs from smoking woks, elusive hints of curry in the air, or ginger, or rotting
I am importuned several times while walking — first I feel a gentle tap on the arm from someone who has
sidled up, furtively close, at my side. When I look, a worn and wrinkled brochure is quickly snapped open
to reveal photos of naked, expressionless men and women doing improbable things.
"You want beautiful ladies?"
Cellular phones are everywhere, carried by swaggering kids, drivers of tuk-tuks (motorized pedicabs),
pushcart vendors, monks, blind beggars, shopkeepers, motorists — in traffic jams or restaurants, on
escalators, while riding big, red motorcycles, on the river ferry boats, in barber shops and go-go bars (. . .and in the hushed lobby of the Oriental, where I observe a richly dressed Dragon Lady businesswoman
holding her flip-phone to one ear while doing rapid math on a calculator with her free hand.)
I linger on in town, charmed by the gentle Thais, pampered by the famous hotel, finding more to Bangkok
than the standard tourist sites. I rent a roaring Long Tail boat to explore the klongs one day; I give over
almost an entire afternoon to a spa massage — and an evening to a formal Thai dinner with dancing girls.
When time was up, there were still things I hadn't done.
That, I thought, is the way to end a feast — with some appetite left.
I have my last breakfast, on a terrace by the river, in cool shade. The hotel buffet offers Penny Wort juice, papaya pulp, cucumber syrup, jackfruit,
stewed or baked bananas, water apples, pachinburi nuts, pine seeds, oat
croissants, Assam or Ginseng tea, Chiangmai honey. Also bitter pomelo
jam, Phuket ginger, baby tangerine marmalade, carrot jam, hen or quail
eggs, egg white omelette.
Exotic? Nah, just like home.
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