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First of all, I want to say that my heart and prayers go out to all those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It's horrifying and heartbreaking to see the images. What's crazy is that I was supposed to be in Tokyo on Friday with American Airlines as they were highlighting their new JFK-Haneda nonstop. Luckily, neither I nor any of our writers could attend, and my travel-writing friends that did make the trip are all safe. In 2005, I was in a Tokyo earthquake. It was just a 5.1, but because I was on the 26th floor it felt stronger than that, and I thought my days on earth had come to an end--so I can't imagine what an 8.9 must've been like.
A few minutes after learning about the tsunami, I created a helpful resource page, and it was well received on Twitter. It has great information, including links to what to do in an earthquake and tsunami. Most importantly it has instructions on how you can help Japan, such as by donating to the Red Cross.
I usually don't say in my newsletters where I'm heading because I leave clues on my Twitter and Facebook pages, but I will disclose that I will be in Tokyo's Narita airport in 10 days. You can try and guess my final destination while I tell you about my incredible ride on the Eastern & Oriental Express last month. Natalie and I took the luxurious train from Bangkok to Singapore (through Malaysia), and it was an unforgettable trip. For those who don't feel like reading about it, I created a five-minute video from start to finish. We also have Margot Black's trip to the beautiful Whidbey and Camano Islands in the Pacific Northwest.
HOTEL TO HUALAMPONG
When we checked out of our Bangkok hotel the bellman asked where we were going before putting us in a taxi
. I told him Hualampong Station
, so he could tell the driver in Thai and there would be no confusion. Then the bellman became confused, because not that many people staying at the JW go to that train station. When Natalie said we were heading to Singapore, his eyes almost popped out of his head. He blurted out, “On the Eastern & Oriental Express?!” He was obviously wowed, and then said, "That's only for millionaires." He then looked at me like I was the man, complete with a beautiful woman in tow. But, unfortunately, I'm not the man. I'm a travel writer who just happened to be invited to try out this uber-incredible experience and share an honest opinion with his readers. Sadly for the bellman, he wasn't going to get tipped like I was the man, either.
Earlier I had asked the hotel concierge to call to make sure the train was on time. It was, and she informed us that Eastern & Oriental Express (E&O) recommends arriving at 4 p.m. for the 5:50 p.m. departure. I thought that was a little early, so we left the hotel at 4 and rolled
up 15 minutes later. FYI: The taxi ride cost 60 baht (US$2)--don't you just love Bangkok?
GET A PORTER
There's a big sign for E&O at the station, and as we made our way closer to their counter their porters tried to help us. I wasn't sure if they were with E&O or not, so I just kindly declined since we only had two small bags each. After reading this New York Timesarticle, I realized that was a mistake. The author makes a great point when he writes, “In American airports and hotels I never get help with my luggage; wheeled bags roll, don't they? But overseas, I've learned to relax and let someone else carry my suitcase. It's a rational way for local residents to feed their families, and certain people have turned luggage-carrying into an art…”.
LUGGAGE CHECK First stop was to check luggage. Most passengers bring way more than they need, but unless you are in the presidential suite, space is extremely limited. If you're traveling with lots of bags, you will need to have them stored in another car and you won't see them again until you arrive at your final destination, so pack accordingly. We had one of E&O's larger rooms, and it was still tight. To make boarding easier we had our medium-size clothes bags tagged and delivered to our room while we held on to our smaller carry-ons with our valuables (computers, camera, passport, money, medicine…).
We were next to track 12, and I wasn't sure what the train looked like, so I asked the porter if the train behind him was the E&O. He laughed and said, “Oh, no sir--don't worry, it's much nicer than this.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief, since that train wasn't looking too special. The official check-in desk was just past luggage check and inside a comfortable air-conditioned room. There we needed to show our passports and pick up our boarding cards.
The private E&O waiting room really wasn't anything special. It just had some cool nostalgic posters and hot tea. Most of the passengers waiting appeared to be rich and stuffy, dressed in designer clothes and indiscreetly staring at one another trying to figure out what he or she does for a living. Once again I was reminded that you should never judge a book by its cover, because it turned out that most of the people weren't stuffy, and some not even rich. They were just there to celebrate a special occasion with a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Boarding was supposed to begin at 5:30 p.m., but fortunately it started early at 4:45. The excitement began to build the moment we made our way to track 3, and it peaked the moment I made the high step onto the train. How exciting is it to be going on an Oriental Express train? The train was long, but we didn't have far to go since we were assigned to the third car, “C.”
In carriage C there are four rooms. We were assigned to C-4, which is the first or last cabin, depending on which end of the car you board on. Our Thai cabin steward, who was on call 24 hours and assigned to all four of the C cabins, was waiting to welcome us and his other new customers. Sadly, I can't remember his Thai name, so let's just call him Sir, since that's what he called me. Sir showed us to our room and toured us around (see my video for a visual).
There are three types of beautifully appointed compartments: Pullman Cabins, State Cabins, and Presidential Suites. All have cherry wood interior walls and elm burr panels. As the brochure states, they are adorned with decorative marquetry and intricate inlays with Eastern designs. There's no TV, phone, or Internet, but my BlackBerry worked the whole way. And there is a bathroom.
We were originally assigned to a Pullman Cabin, which has bunk beds, but we were upgraded to a State Cabin, which has twin beds. During the day the beds are converted into a couch and chair, and then while you're at dinner the steward transforms them into cozy little beds with pressed fine linen sheets.
GOOD TO KNOW: There are no irons in the rooms, but the steward will bring an iron if you ask.
The cabins are all fully air-conditioned and they have large picture windows so you can see all of the passing scenery clearly. The windows don't open, but there are blinds built in between two window panes so they don't rattle, and the windows have blackout curtains.
The cabin is tight, but we made more room once we placed our bags on the small overhead luggage racks (there's one above each bed). But since the train was really bumpy at times, we took them down at night just to make sure we didn't end up with a lump on the head. The small closet is too small for bags, and we used all eight padded hangers and the few hooks that were scattered around the room.
Obviously, it's really nice to have your own bathroom on a train, even if it's tiny. Two people don't fit in it at the same time unless one is in the shower. There are a couple shelves with a basket of Bulgari toiletries, a hair dryer, and a miniature safe. There's a 110-volt adapter for razors.
The room has two international electric sockets (220 volts) but they require a UK adaptor, so bring one.
E&O is the sister train to Europe's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It's the first luxury train to transport passengers directly from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore--a 1,262-mile (2,030-km) journey. Prior to September 1993 passengers had to change trains from Malaysian railways to Thai railways.
The train was first built in Japan in 1972 and operated as the Silver Star train in New Zealand. Its carriages were then remodeled and designed by Gérard Gallet, who was behind much of the design and refurbishment of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
After we unpacked we took a quick walk through the train to see what we had in store over the next few days. First of all, the hallways of the carriages are tight--the only way someone can go by you is if you literally hug the wall. We passed through the on-board boutique, which sells everything from jewelry to copies of Murder on the Orient Express. I saw the reading room and saloon car before getting to the observation car.
The observation car is located at the very end of the train. A third of it is an outdoor observation area decorated with teakwood. It filled up quickly with fellow passengers while we waited to depart. This is also the go-to place first thing in the morning so you can get a breath of fresh air since the windows in the rooms don't open. In the morning they serve tea, coffee, and muffins. When we first walked in there was a man traveling alone who looked just like Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. I didn't think it was him since he was wearing European-style shoes, but I still needed to find out. I made small talk with him, but the moment he opened his mouth I knew: He had a French accent.
Unfortunately, the observation car is also where the smokers go, since it's the only place smoking is allowed. Luckily, there were just a few smokers, which was surprising since most passengers were European. In fact I only met five Americans, and I met practically everyone. FYI: There were 90 passengers on the train, but it can hold up to 120.
The bar and restaurant cars have Thai wall carvings and engraved mirrors and are decorated in Chinese and Thai lacquer using Malaysian motifs. The bar car is open throughout the day and late into the night. Their signature drink is the Shanghai Express: bourbon, amaretto, Southern Comfort, orange and lime juices, and grenadine syrup. FYI: Drinks are not included in the price of the train trip, but food is.
One of the highlights of being on the train, besides feeling like you are trapped in an Agatha Christie novel reliving the colonial age, is the food. It's very safe for me to say the food was superb. Actually, it's shocking how good it is, and I have no idea how the French chef and his team work their magic in the tiny kitchens. I wasn't the only one who felt that way. I asked everyone I met and they all agreed, and that's saying a lot since the train was full of well-traveled and pampered people.
Lunch and dinner are served in the two lavishly decorated restaurant cars (both cars serve the same meals). Before you board they ask which seating you would like: 6:45 p.m. or 9:15 p.m. Natalie chose the 6:45, which I thought was too early, but I agreed 9:15 was too late. It was a good choice and that time stayed with us for all three nights. It also gave us the first lunch seating, which was at 11:45 a.m. and lasted 90 minutes.
Dinner time is very dressy, with some people wearing tuxedos and others suits. I felt a bit underdressed in a suit without a tie. Some couples get one of the two-top tables to themselves, but most get seated at a four-top with a different pair each meal. It was a nice way to meet people.
On our first evening, when I sat down and saw lamb as the entrée on the menu I was totally bummed, since I was starving and I despise lamb. When it came time to order, though, the waiter already knew exactly what I don't like (fish, veal, lamb, goat cheese). I forgot I had alerted them when we signed up--they ask everyone to send in their dislikes and/or allergies. Again, the food and presentation was outstanding. Here's a sample menu.
AFTERNOON TEA AND DESSERT
Every meal came with dessert, including afternoon tea, which is delivered to your room around 2:40 p.m. Actually, the only food improvement they need to make is on the afternoon tea desserts--they weren't up to par with lunch and dinner. That's a good thing, though, since it helped me control my sweet tooth.
BREAKFAST Breakfast is served every morning and it usually consisted of freshly baked croissants, muffins, fruit, cereal, juice, and coffee or tea.
Here's how our journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express went:
To our dismay there were always a couple mosquitoes in our room at night, and they ended up biting us a few times. Other passengers said the same thing. The good news is they don't carry any bad diseases, they are just annoying, but what can you do? It's Southeast Asia. The first night I barely slept, as our air-conditioning was temperamental and the train was crazy bumpy with lots of rude jerking. In the morning I thought for sure people were going to be complaining about the rough rails and lack of sleep, but I was wrong. They all loved it. They boasted that it's part of the experience, and you know what? They were right. Some of my longest nights were on this train, and that's because I kept waking up from the shakes. But I made the most of it--I would stare out the window while thinking, Wow, I'm on the Eastern & Oriental Express train traveling through the jungles of Southeast Asia--how surreal is that?
FYI: The first night the conductors stop the train from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. so guests can get some undisturbed sleep.
MUSEUM AND CEMETARY
We then got on one of three buses for a five-minute ride to the Thailand-Burma railway museum (it normally costs 80 baht=US$2.60, but it's free for E&O passengers). We had 1 hour and 15 minutes to visit, so I quickly toured it and the Don Rak war cemetery, which was directly across the street. There are no Americans buried in the cemetery, but 131 American soldiers did die as POWs here but were returned home. Our steward left a miniature fresh flower wreath on our bed the night before so each passenger could pay their respects and show appreciation for these brave men by leaving it at the cemetery.
DON'T MISS: Buying some fried food from the street vender next to the museum. He sells incredible treats like fried plantains; I got nine pieces for 30 baht (US$1).
NATALIE NOT FEELING WELL Natalie wasn't feeling well--she's not used to that much food, and the bumpiness didn't help--but don't worry, no one else felt sick (that I know of). I decided to stay in the room with her, so our steward brought her some Ginger Ale and crackers when he served my dinner, which was lobster bisque soup to start and chicken curry. I woke up at 2 a.m., hot since our a/c was giving us problems, and heard the first sign of rain in a week. I loved it, but it didn't last but a few minutes. I looked out the window and stared in amazement at the countryside. My favorite was seeing a spirit house decorated with Christmas lights.
FYI: Regarding the air-conditioning, I could've rang the steward call button and had him fix it, but I felt bad--which was a mistake and my fault.
DAY THREE: BUTTERWORTH - KUALA LUMPUR
The first thing I did every morning was open up the curtains and blinds wide. The scenery was getting much more lush and the tracks were getting smoother. Breakfast was being served, and we went to the observation car where it was noticeably much warmer. We arrived at the Malaysia border at 8 a.m. and we had to sit there on the train for two hours. The construction workers thought Natalie was a movie star, so they started taking pictures of her. Ha! They turned the tables on us. We left at 10:23, but once we crossed the border we changed our clocks ahead to 11:23, which meant it was almost lunchtime. It was a four-hour ride to Penang, and we started to see rice fields and more local woman covering their heads with scarves because there are many muslims in Malaysia.
BRUNCH ON TRAIN
For brunch we were paired with a couple German women who were friends traveling together. They didn't speak to us at first, so it was a bit uncomfortable. Natalie thought they didn't speak English, but I said everyone speaks English especially on this train, and I broke the ice. We had a good conversation, food and some laughs.
FERRY TO PENANG After brunch the train arrived in Butterworth. Here we jumped on another bus for a two-minute ride to the ferry. Ferries depart every 9 minutes and the trip takes 15 minutes. The bus drove right onto the boat, and then passengers could get off for some fresh air and better photos. The ferries run from 5 a.m. to midnight and there's six going at each time. It cost 7 ringgits (US$2.30) to take a car on the ferry and 1 ringgit (US$0.32) for foot passengers.
BRIDGE TO PENANG
We could've driven over a 13.5-kilometer (8-mile) bridge, which is the longest in Southeast Asia, but it would've taken longer since the Butterworth station is a stone's throw from the port. FYI: Only motorized vehicles are allowed to go over the bridge, no walking or riding bikes, and 70,000 cars make the crossing daily. The toll costs 7 ringgits (US$2.30).
We had a great guide provided by E&O for our two-hour tour of colonial Georgetown. It's the capital of Penang, and we saw pre-World War II mosques, elaborately roofed temples, churches, bazaars, and colorful shops. Penang Island is also known as the Silicon Valley of the East because of its high-tech industry. I didn't see any signs of that, though.
E&O arranged a 25-minute tri-shaw ride for each couple. I picked an 82-year-old man who I felt sorry for as our driver, but he was visibly struggling with our weight. After we were being lapped by everyone else, Natalie said, Why would you do this to him? It's cruel. I agreed, so I got out and walked a bit, and then I ended up talking him into letting me drive. That was the highlight of the trip, having him sit with Natalie while I drove them around town. Our final stop was the Eastern Oriental Hotel, where we were served cold towels and drinks.
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, my live updates and clues alerted a fellow travel writer, James T. Clark from NomadicNotes.com, of my whereabouts, and he messaged me, "I'm in Penang if you are heading that way." We met at the hotel--it is always cool to connect with colleagues.
DAY FOUR: JOHOR - SINGAPORE
The train had gotten much smoother, so I slept well the last night. I woke up and had a leisurely breakfast. We were informed we would be delayed three hours arriving into Singapore because we had to keep stopping for local train crossings. They offered us morning tea (marble pound cake and vegetable samosas) to tide us over. So instead of arriving at 11:45 a.m., it was 2:30 p.m. It wasn't a bad thing as I actually was able to finish this video (below).
We filled out the Singapore immigration form, and after stopping at the Malaysia border it was just a five-minute ride over the bridge to the tiny island nation. Their point of entry is Woodlands Station. It's always nerve-racking going into Singapore since they have so many rules and regulations and they are very diligent. Not that I do drugs or anything illegal like that, but I still get worried I could get set up, and who wants to die, right? Death is their penalty. In Singapore all bags need to be scanned, so we all had to have our bags packed and leave them in the room while we got off the train. Then Singapore guards board the trains with dogs. Inside, the passport line took about 10-15 minutes. From the Woodlands Station to Keppel Road Station (downtown Singapore) takes 30 minutes.
When we left, all the E&O staff was lined up waving goodbye. It was a nice touch and a great way to end our incredible journey. If it wasn't for the pictures, video, and bill, I would've thought the whole thing was a dream.
In addition to the two- or three-night journey between Singapore and Bangkok, the E&O also travels overnight to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Prices (these are rack rates so you can find better) range from US$2,320 to $4,770 depending on your room type. Prices are per person based on sharing accommodation (except for single cabin). FYI: There were no kids, so I don't think they are allowed, nor would I think they would want to go.
The week after next I will bring you my Singapore story, since next week I will write about the L.A. Times Travel and Adventure Show. If you are in town, be sure to come by and say hi. Here are the details.
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