Published 16/12/2012 | 06:00
Graham Boynton revisits the golden age of train travel as he journeys between old-world Bangkok and state-of-the-art Singapore
'You are very lucky people," the train manager says as we board the Eastern & Oriental Express at Bangkok's crowded, steamy Hua Lamphong station in the late afternoon. "You are going to see many faces of Asia."
There is no time to ask him precisely what he means, but on one level he is rather stating the obvious, for to travel from Bangkok to Singapore is to move from the chaotic rough-and-tumble Asia of the past century to the ordered, organised and super-efficient Asia of the 21st century; from frenzied, exotic Thailand after Thaksin Shinawatra to Lee Kuan Yew's modern economic tiger.
And to travel between the great Asian centres by luxury train is to witness these contrasting aspects in slow motion. As the train pulls out of the station promptly at 17.50, I feel a twinge of sadness leaving behind a city that, over three decades, I have come to love.
I had arrived in Bangkok some 48 hours earlier, to adjust to local time and also to have a considered stroll around one of Asia's most vivid cities. The first evening I wandered somewhat jet-lagged through the elegant corridors of my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, and then crossed the Chao Phraya river for a superb Thai dinner at the Sala Rim Naam restaurant.
But by day two I'd fully re-engaged with the great sprawling city. My first stop was a fleeting visit to my favourite tailor, Jack at Premier Tailor, to have a pair of trousers copied. Of course, his name is not Jack, it is Chaiyakiat Thanaapcharoen, but the point is he'd knock up a decent pair of trousers for less than €30 by the end of the day.
A boat ride along the Chao Phraya followed, then an afternoon visiting the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho, site of the famous reclining Buddha; then early-evening cocktails at the marvellous Sirocco Sky Bar, which looks out over the city sprawl from the 64th floor of the State Tower building and boasts the largest open-air restaurant in the world.
Then the inevitable visit to Patpong Road. This is a family newspaper, so it would be inappropriate to discuss in detail the sex menus the young Thai men were brandishing in front of the Western tourists trooping listlessly along this notorious street.
Suffice to say they were rather alarming, even for this old Asia hand.
Apart from the dubious sex bars, Patpong also serves as a market for fakes, with stalls full of 'Mulberry', 'Thomas Wylde' and 'Hermes' products, and shiny electronic equipment and gadgetry that costs next to nothing but inevitably breaks down the minute you land home.
By the time I head for Hua Lamphong station I already feel I am immersed in Asia, so the three-day train ride that lies ahead now strikes me as a bonus. I arrive at the platform to find immaculately liveried Eastern & Oriental stewards leading passengers to their cabins; the train manager is on board, greeting us all with his promises of many faces of Asia.
Pretty soon the journey is under way and we pull out of the sprawling Bangkok suburbs and head northwest through paddy fields, past small villages, all of which we watch from the Observation Bar, clutching cocktails, fellow passengers getting to know one another.
Given that the passing countryside is enveloped in humidity, darkness and low-hanging cloud, there is only one thing for it and that is to start exploring the train, getting used to the sway of the carriages as we clatter west, and to acclimatise to the mobile-phone-and-Wi-Fi-free world of luxury train travel.
Another cocktail, and then it's time to retire to one's cabin to prepare for dinner. The cabins come in three categories – from Pullman to Presidential – and recreate the golden age but with power showers, sockets for hairdryers and other mod cons. I can already feel mine will become a quiet sanctuary on this trip.
On the Eastern & Oriental Express the dress code is designed to create an atmosphere of "relaxed refinement", which is shorthand for no jeans or trainers, and gentlemen are expected to wear jacket and tie for dinner.
The dress code and the decor are intended to help replicate the golden age of rail travel, and they largely succeed. Most guests dress up, some even turn it into something of a fancy dress parade, and the surroundings do indeed resonate with the sepia photographs of that other age.
We are woken at dawn the following morning and the train is already beginning its crossing from Wang Po along the wooden trestle viaduct towards the Kwai Bridge station. An engine has been attached to the back of the train and, for an hour and 20 minutes, we are dragged backwards to Kanchanaburi along part of the old Burma-Siam (Thailand) railway.
This is the part of the journey, we'd all agreed the previous night, that we were anticipating most – it is our visit to the museum and war cemetery at the Bridge over the River Kwai.
We are escorted from Kanchanaburi railway station to the riverside, where we clamber on to a barge and begin a cruise along the river, during which we are treated to a moving and highly informed lecture by an English expat named Hugh Cope.
Cope is a former British Telecom executive who moved here from Hong Kong to become the principal River Kwai lecturer and, as we head towards the bridge, the museum and the Don Rak war cemetery, he describes the events leading up to the construction of the infamous bridge by more than 60,000 Allied POWs and 250,000 Asian forced labourers.
These hours with Cope, both at the museum and the war cemetery, will remain with me forever.
We rejoin our coach for the short ride to the Kanchanaburi railway station to reboard the train and, as we head south towards Hua Hin and Ao Noi and eventually to pass along that narrow strip of Thailand separating the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand, a sumptuous lunch is served.
The train is rattling through Thai countryside, where villages and communities are living not far from the railway line. The clouds have lifted and Buddhist temples, bright golden shrines, glitter in the afternoon sunshine.
Through the night the Thai countryside gives way to Malaysian jungle and, after a mid-morning brunch, we come to a halt at Butterworth, Penang's central transport hub, where we are promptly and efficiently decanted into waiting buses and transferred across the channel to George Town, Penang's capital.
The highlight in George Town is a visit to Khoo Kongsi, the most important Chinese clan house in Malaysia and, some say, anywhere outside China. The complex boasts a magnificent hall embellished with intricate carvings and richly ornamented beams – not a single nail was used in its construction.
The saddle-shaped roof reputedly weighs more than 25 tonnes, and is the best example of the cut-and-paste Chien Nien technique, where shards of ceramic bowls are used to form patterns, beasts and beings.
Out in the tropical heat again, we hail a small fleet of trishaws and wind our way through George Town to the wet market, where, as anticipated, an array of colourful, squirming things are set out for the Chinese clientele, who seem prepared to eat anything and everything that moves.
Waves of olfactory unpleasantness assail us in the humidity of middle of the day and it is a relief to get back on board the air-conditioned train.
It is late afternoon as we pass through Malay royal towns Taiping and Kuala Kangsar, and through swathes of Malaysian jungle in between. I am immediately reminded of my father's stories of fighting the Japanese army here in the Second World War – then an impenetrable jungle of heat and misery, now penetrated by concrete flyovers and ribbons of asphalt.
It's a strange sensation, reliving in situ the stories I've had with me all my life, and I spend some time sitting quietly in my cabin and staring at the jungle with which my soldier father once struggled.
After breakfast the next morning we cross the Straits of Johor into Singapore, thus ending the train ride. However, I am not finished, as I am determined to treat myself to 24 hours in Singapore. It hasn't changed since I was here five years ago, except it seems even cleaner, faster and more efficient than before.
I pay a sentimental visit to Raffles Long Bar, which, despite being a tourist trap, is still a lot of fun, but this time I avoid the oversweet, overpriced Singapore Slings in favour of a beer. After that, I head for the fabulous Ku De Ta Skybar at the Marina Bay Sands, 57 storeys above the city.
This stay isn't long enough to take in Singapore in all its full thrusting intensity, but a swirl around the nightspots confirms that this really is an Asian city in its pomp. I must come back.