The Eastern & Oriental is already a regular visitor to Hualamphong on its bread-and-butter journey between two capitals, Bangkok and Singapore. But like its luxurious European relative, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, it is diversifying with a selection of new, more exploratory itineraries that get closer to the fabric of South-east Asia, but without losing the E&O style. Today, it was embarking for its pioneering six-night Epic Thailand itinerary.
Thailand makes ideal subject matter for closer examination. Of all the South-east Asian countries, it is easily the most exotic: in food, in religion, in music, in language, and it is a place where the fascination is in the detailing, in the sweep of a temple roof, the delicacy of the carved fruit, the offerings on every street-corner shrine. The train reflects that attention to detail, both in its sumptuous interior – intricate rosewood marquetry on the walls, orchids in the cabin, frangipani flowers in the bathroom, an immaculate cabin attendant who polishes your shoes without you asking – and in the way it plans its itineraries.
For example, on our first full day out of Hualamphong, we'd set off into lesser known eastern Thailand (Isaan) to descend on a village called Maichanmuak, a tiny community which had rarely seen Western tourists before. That's not to say the ground hadn't been thoroughly prepared: half the village was waiting in the temple to take us through the bai sii ceremony, during which threads were tied around our wrists by the village elders to ensure that we would have protection from evil spirits on our journey.And so that we could express our gratitude for being allowed to participate in something so intimate to them, the E&O had prepared gifts for us to give the elders in return, an exchange that made our presence on their territory feel less like an intrusion.
Back in our own travelling throne, the train, it was clear that the flat, dry and infertile Isaan is not obvious tourist territory. Yet its present status as a Thai region papers over its past as part of the territory ruled by the Khmer dynasty, the builders of Angkor Wat. So Isaan has its own network of Khmer temples, too, which were once part of the Angkor masterplan.
The first one we visited was introduced to us after lunch on the train by a rather dry lecture on Khmer Hindu culture and temple design. A couple of hours later, dutifully disembarking for Prasat Sikhoraphum and prepared to be enthusiastic about shiva carvings and decaying brickwork, we found we'd been the patsies in a gentle deception: in fact this was an exotic surprise party, and awaiting us were Thai dancers, musicians, chefs and a couple of elephants who'd turned up dressed in the colours of E&O.
As we rumbled back southwards, with Bangkok's Hualamphong and the realities of life on the horizon once more, I went for a consultation with the palm reader who had just joined the train. I would live until I was 90, she said. I may have had bad knees and a bad back, but I was blessed with two children and a good wife. My life was good, she continued. Given my surroundings it was hard to disagree. One thing, though, she added: I needed to try harder to relax. Good point. So I went back to my cabin and asked Mr Thanasit, my gentlemanly cabin steward, if he wouldn't mind bringing me some afternoon tea.
Source: The Independent