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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 a train!

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 than Asia-exotic. 

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 consider.

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 western civilization.

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 dancing kings.

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 not?

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 fruit.

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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