July 2014

From Bangkok to Singapore

There I was, a classy New World pinot noir to hand, having a 30-minute foot massage on board the Eastern & Oriental Express as it sped through the Malay jungle towards Singapore, wondering what ordinary people do on their holidays.

Sorry to gloat, but if you want to stop a dinner party dead when it comes to holiday gossip, tell your guests your next trip is on the luxury train from Bangkok to Singapore. Finding original and unusual holidays these days is not easy. Half the people in my street have traversed the world a couple of times over. But an Art Deco train with piano bar, open observation car, Michelin-standard food and a wine list to die for during a three-night trip across Thailand and Malaysia? Now thatís original. Itís also much more than a train journey.

We flew on a spanking new Eva Air 777 to Bangkok. No one in the Western world seems to have heard of this airline, which is Taiwanese and owned by Evergreen Marine, the fourth- largest container shipping line in the world. Eva undercuts other national airline prices on this route, yet nothing is lost in equipment or service.

It all boded well until we emerged from Bangkokís new airport and hailed a taxi to travel to the city centre. Although Iíve been to the Thai capital many times, Iíd almost forgotten itís the world centre for the notorious GangstaCabs franchise.

We were just half a mile into the journey when the driver (he hadnít put the meter on) tried to negotiate an illegal fare some 150 per cent higher than the standard. Itís difficult to stop a cab on a motorway and get out. Letís just say we almost came to blows. Not pleasant.

Still, a visit to Grand Palace the next day temporarily lifted my spirits. Unfortunately, hailing a cab to return to the hotel resulted in GangstaCab No 2 quoting a fare 100 per cent over the top. Cue second ugly scene. There was a repeat performance with the menacing GangstaCab No 3. We finally hailed a rickshaw to take us back Ė and even then we were ripped off.

Clean living: a Mosque in the spotless George Town in Malaysia

So thatís it for Bangkok for me. I cannot recommend a location where your hard-earned money is openly stolen by deeply unpleasant villains. The police are useless, and even though hotel doormen caution you to be careful, it doesnít help. I am careful Ė what then? I shall not visit Thailand again until I receive incontrovertible proof that the Bangkok authorities have expelled GangstaCabs once and for all, and introduced a proper licensing system that works every time.

Itís a pity really because we stayed first at a stunningly luxurious (and cheap) hotel, the brand new Oriental Residence where we had a suite the size of Wembley Stadium. The hotel includes the Mandopop, by far the best Chinese restaurant Iíve ever visited. If we even so much as glanced at our dedicated waiter, he ran to us to serve. Find that kind of service if you can at your local Star of Peking.

We then moved, as planned, to the high-end Mandarin Oriental, which has fantastic views to match its prices. Staff organised an afternoon boat trip for us which we found very relaxing and a welcome change from the dusty streets of the city.

Next evening we boarded the Eastern & Oriental Express at a dedicated platform at the main railway station in Bangkok. The carriages were built in 1971 and eventually ended up in the hands of a zillionaire train buff who turned them into the luxurious Hercules Poirot-era coaches that they are today.

That said, a train is a train is a train. It may be a superbly different kind of train, but its basic dimensions remain unchanged. That meant our mid-range air-conditioned compartment was not exactly over-sized, and I would discourage anyone from trying to swing a cat in the en suite shower/toilet.

As space is restricted, you must leave your suitcase in the train hold and rely on a cabin bag for the duration of the journey. Just bear in mind this is not a hotel on wheels.

Our first stop was Kanchanaburi, setting for the legendary film The Bridge On The River Kwai, about the horrors faced by Allied PoWs forced to construct the Thailand- Burma railway during the Second World War.

The train slowly crossed the impressive wooden viaduct at Tham Kra Sae with its dramatic views (get to the observation car early as it will be packed). Later we disembarked at the River Kwai station and floated downstream on a pontoon-like raft to visit the Thai-Burma Railway Museum and the nearby Don Rak War cemetery.

Thais, quite rightly, have used the iconic film as a basis for turning the area into a tasteful and informative theme park, a place where new generations can stop and ponder the barbarism of Japanese soldiers during the building of the railway. Of course, one can forgive so many years later, but it seems right not to forget.

A visit to the museum was a painful but necessary jolt and a solemn moment on the tour. The War Cemetery, with its rows of 6,500 neatly cut and maintained headstones, is a dignified tribute to the dead. We all know war is senseless, but occasionally an experience like this sharpens the senses. Not all tourism needs to be fun-packed.

Back aboard, I had a long chat with delightful train manager Nicolas Pillet, who informed me that of the 70 passengers, a third were Brits. Indeed, the UK supplies the second-highest number overall, and their average age is decreasing by the year Ė it currently stands at about 55. This, as you might have guessed, is not a ride for children.

We crossed into Malaysia and the next stop, Penang Island and its capital George Town. For those, like me, who were somewhat jaded with the less salubrious side of Bangkok, George Town was a delightful surprise. First of all, every single car was sparklingly clean and nearly everyone was smiling.

Perhaps their sunny disposition has something to do with their multicultural heritage of Malay, Chinese and Indian, the countryís vibrant and cheerful street life, and the old world ornamented architecture that dots the town.

We rode rickshaws through the streets, visited an old Chinese temple, and then sipped tea and iced drinks at the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Hotel overlooking the seafront. The hotel also boasts a huge ribbon of original Art Nouveau tiles on the walls of its reception area. Going to Malaysia any time soon? Go to Penang.

Travelling at speed: Tom Mangold saw some contrasting sights and attitudes on his Orient Express tour +3 Travelling at speed: Tom Mangold saw some contrasting sights and attitudes on his Orient Express tour

By night three, we had accustomed ourselves to the dimensionally challenged cabin and the clatter of the bogeys beneath our beds. We enjoyed light breakfasts, all served in our cabin with grace by our carriage steward. And we never tired of the window views of the paddy fields and the jungle.

What we were not quite prepared for was Singapore. Iíve reported from there many times and interviewed the former prime minister twice. We disembarked the train as effortlessly as we had joined it, were reconciled with our much missed hold baggage, and were soon en route (by honest taxi) to the Singapore Oriental Mandarin.

Noting the tangible cleanliness of the streets and total absence of graffiti or urban muck, we began to wonder if we hadnít blundered into the 22nd Century. Then we caught our first glimpse of the stunning down-town skyline Ė architecture way ahead of its time in style, audacity of design, and use of materials. There were no vulgar advertising hoardings or neon lights, just a display of what can happen when far-sighted politicians and free-thinking architects co-operate.

This wealthy city-state is as advanced a nation as anywhere I have ever visited. Everything works. Everything connects. We saw nothing ugly. It is the future. It is also hugely expensive Ė a glass of wine on the terrace of our hotel cost £14, and I had to take out a loan to pay for a Japanese meal.

Singapore is no longer just a stop-over en route to Australia Ė it is now a real tourist location. Do haggle when you book because they love tourists and want more of them. We were there far too briefly, yet we managed to take in the beautiful Botanical Gardens and legendary National Orchid Garden.

We also spent an unusual morning at the little-known Baba House, a perfectly maintained traditional Peranakan pre-war terrace house formerly owned by a 19th Century shipping tycoon. Its showcase of traditional furniture and items is the antidote to Singaporeís rife modernism. Visits are limited and by appointment only, but itís certainly worth making the effort.

We had dinner that night in a local Chinese where the plates were huge Ė soup for one is actually a tureen for five, while a portion of fried rice could probably feed the whole restaurant. Order minimally.

And taxi travel is a delight. Cabs are spotless, and as you reach your destination a computer voice informs you exactly how much you owe. Are you listening, Bangkok?

Is the whole trip worth it? You bet. No one will be bored at dinner parties when you describe your journey and show the photos. Thank goodness we did it before everyone else catches on.

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