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The Nostalgia Train

Forget the crowds, forget the delays. Climb aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express as it follows old rail routes up the Malaysian Peninsula. Experience the ambience of the period of British Rule in South East Asia. The Savvy Traveler's Judith Ritter recently took the nostalgia train on a two day trip from Singapore to Bangkok.

The Nostalgia Train
by Judith Ritter

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This is what happens when you read too much Somerset Maughem and Joseph Conrad. First, you find yourself turning yellowing pages of old travel books, staring at antique maps of South East Asia, dizzy with nostalgia for romantic sounding places you've never been: The Malacca Straits, Siam, the Singapore of spices and pirates. Then you imagine a train, British green and gold, interior trimmed with rosewood inlay, Chinese lacquer, afternoon tea and the "thukka-thukka" of the steel wheels on the track through the night jungle to Kuala Lumpur...Penang. And then you find the train.

The Nostalgia Train

It's 100 degrees on the platform of the Singapore station, but inside there's not a drop of sweat on anyone, least of all on our immaculately groomed personal steward, Eckashai, as he guides us to our sleeping compartments. Eckashai is a handsome, young Thai man in a green silk vest. He glides gracefully in front of us, balancing a tray of cool pastel drinks. Not us. With every small lurch of the train, we bounce off the walls of the narrow corridor like billiard balls on an antique table in some exclusive London men's club. A miniature world of beveled mirrors, dark wood, rose silk, brass, a writing desk...

In fact, that's exactly what I'm doing as I watch the white skyscrapers of Singapore blur and then fade, replaced by small villages and thick vegetation. My reverie is short lived. My two teenage traveling companions, who have with the speed of the Internet turned their 19th century compartment into a dorm room at State U., burst in to tell me they're off to the saloon car to find two Belgian boys they saw getting on with their parents. Though less sure of foot, I follow.

The Nostalgia Train

Perfect. In the bar car, a South East Asian version of the KFC Colonel is playing flapper tunes on the piano. Etched mirrors, velvet drapes, there are about 90 of us on here. Japanese tourists fascinated with this fabrication of European colonialism, proper British families only a generation away from ruling this part of the world, North Americans in Khaki shorts and running shoes democratically disregarding the "wardrobe notes" we all received ahead of time informing us that, even when informal, we should be elegant.

Aside from the common bond of having a lot of disposable cash (this costs about $700 a day), the travelers are here for different reasons: luxury, history, one-upmanship. Some, like Australian Valerie Close, are genuinely nostalgic about old trains.

Close: "I grew up in a little country town and steam trains weren't just wonderful experiences. It was sort of everyday life. We would hop on them and go down to the local river and dive off the railway bridge into the water and spend the day there. So, I guess railways have a fascination for me. We have a lot of memories of that, but life goes on."

At the turn of the last century, everyone had a passion for trains. One ambitious Sultan built Malaysia's first railway out of wood. Ants devoured it, but the Sultans and the Governors-General didn't quit. Track by track, they linked the cities on the peninsula. However, there was never a single train covering the whole distance between Singapore and Bangkok until the Eastern and Oriental in 1993. So historically, the train and the route are a bit of fiction, a faux period piece, a bit of uptown Disney built as entertainment, a backdrop for a dress up party. It works. Nothing made us feel more authentically "colonial" than the five course, five star meals in the elegant dining car.

The Nostalgia Train

For some of us, the ritual dressing for dinner is no vacation, but our European travel companions seem to have a more cultivated taste for Empire. They take to the anachronism rather well and some dazzle us with white linen suits, ladies big hats. Others appear in black tie and glittery gowns, but all of us dine on extravagant cheeses from France, salmon from Scotland, prawns from the South China Sea, all served with silver, china, crystal. We eat chocolate orange mousse as we see newly greening rice paddies and endless flowering trees seen through panoramic windows. But sometimes, the contradictions are painful. Linda Lawrence from the wealthy town of Newport Beach, California:

Lawrence: "I was so relieved this morning when I noticed that there were more substantial houses and that not everyone in Thailand was living in the abject poverty that we saw all along the tracks in Malaysia. Sitting here eating croissants looking out the window of this train, it was very difficult to watch people with their houses flooded out."

We also pass naked children playing in muddy puddles. An unplanned slow down revealed someone squatting by the track, eating rice from a crumpled paper bag. At that moment, all the extravagance felt obscene. For a few, like this British woman Mandy, though mildly embarrassing, the distance the train provided was welcome.

Mandy: "We decided to take the train because it gave us an insight, a little bit, into Malaysia and the peninsula. It gave us a very sanitized view. We didn't have to get in among the people but you see the way they live from the railway line. The sort of shacks and shanty towns and crops. And it's also rather exciting to see the children come out and wave and their obviously excited by the train. They're obviously excited by seeing white people and westerners, although what they really think about us I dread to think."

Dreadful to think too much about what was outside it sometimes was, but as a fiction, a movie setting, the E&O is superb. In the wired 21st century, you can only read 19th century fiction in a rattan chair for so long, and even exotic palm oil and rubber plantations start to pale after a while. A quick visit to the island of Penang...

Announcement: "...where the coaches await you for this tour."

And a corny trip by motorized raft down the river Kwai with Colonel Bogey's March and a muffled travelogue squawking out of some old speakers on the deck.

Despite all the luxury, by day two on the train there were some passengers grumbling. One person compared sleeping on the train to sleeping in a washing machine. Another complained about how far he had to walk through the moving train to get something to eat. All the teenagers and most of the Americans got restless after the first 24 hours, and then suddenly one evening, the train stopped for about an hour in the middle of the Thai countryside. Out on the deck of the observation car, the engineer and I peer down the track.

Engineer: "Water Buffalo crossing."

Judith: "Water Buffalo?"

Engineer: "Yeah, Water Buffalo. They cross the tracks quite often so the train has to stop. During the night especially, the train has to stop. Then we have to move the buffalo aside and then we proceed. There is nothing wrong with the engine."

Paul from New Jersey is fed up. He's been on business in Asia and he and his friend hopped the E&O to play hookey from work for a few days. He's feeling a little guilty and bored and resigned.

Paul: "The mode of this is supposed to be one where people are to be relaxed and enjoy these things, but I'm still feeling my sense of, I'm kind of whiling away here in the heat. I'm not used to delays. You jump on something else if you're delayed, you know? You go to another ticket counter. We won't be doing that. The other thing is there aren't any phones on this thing either, so I feel a little detached. Maybe I should just accept it. Slow the pace down here a little bit and relax. We're not going anywhere in the next 22 hours."

For a few people, this elegant confection, a marzipan dream had become a bit cloying and claustrophobic. For me, the real highlights of the trip were those unexpected moments. Things that could only happen on a train: slick black Water Buffalo lumbering in the moonlight on the tracks, the young boy standing at the edge of the track growing smaller and smaller, one arm raised. And the most memorable moment for me: night on the deck of the observation car when the light on the back of the train was the only thing illuminating the dark and we could see our own long shadows on the track as it ribboned it's way through the jungle and the century.

From the jungle somewhere in Thailand, I'm Judith Ritter for The Savvy Traveler.


The Eastern & Oriental Express

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