Overland Southeast Asia is always a perennial feature on any bucket list and is pretty much tailor-made for slow travel by train. Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore is a well-trodden path but is definitely best explored on the rails with not a single soulless airport lounge or freeway traffic jam in sight; something hard-pressed families can truly appreciate. This is as hassle free as Asian travel gets and offers a wealth of adventurous sightseeing en route. There are two distinct options to choose – go glam and nostalgic on the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express or by public state owned Thai and Malay railways. Either way, you get priceless views of glorious passing scenery and a real flavor of Southeast Asia at a carefree pace.
It is easy to traverse Thailand and the Malay Peninsula by air or along unexceptional freeways by bus, yet nothing beats an Asian odyssey on the rails. This is slow travel without the stress; trains are modern and air-conditioned and overnight journeys offer surprisingly plush creature comforts. State owned Malay and Thai railways jointly run mainline services along a 2,000 km stretch of track between three of Asia’s most fascinating cities – Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. It’s a pretty seamless, well-oiled operation but to travel along its full length, means at least one change of trains. This is hardly an inconvenience for intrepid travelers and is the perfect excuse to take things slow and explore some historic towns and cities en route.
Traveling northwards, trains depart from Woodlands terminal in Singapore; sadly Singapore’s wonderful 1930’s art deco train station at Tanjong Pagar closed in 2011. From Woodlands, it crosses the causeway into Malaysia, rumbling slowly through dense tropical rainforest and rubber plantations. Noteworthy stops include Tampin (for historic Melaka) Butterworth (for the short ferry crossing to Penang) and Ipoh (Cameron Highlands.) The whole journey can be completed over two nights but riding the rails at least part of the way during daylight hours offers a glimpse of some incredible scenery.
Buying tickets in person or online is a pretty straightforward task, although there is technically no such thing as a direct Singapore – Bangkok (or vice versa) ticket; you will need to book a separate ticket for each section of the journey. Fares are very cheap with even deluxe sleeper cabins going for little more than an average low cost airline ticket. You can choose from family sized 2-bed first class sleeper cabins for around $100 (Singapore – Butterworth) to reclining premium seats in air-conditioned cars.
There are, on average, three trains a day in each direction for the longer distances – such as Singapore to Kuala Lumpur or Butterworth to Bangkok and numerous other permutations with more frequent stops. Interestingly enough, the diminutive station at Butterworth has the best connections for travel to and from Thailand and with Penang just across the water, it’s tailor made for a fun stopover by the beach.
It may be surprising to learn that the Eastern and Oriental Express (E & O) has only been in operation 20 years, completing its inaugural journey in 1993. An Asian offshoot of the signature Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, it exudes that same timeless colonial elegance with a distinctly Asian flavor. It is a 2 or 3-night 2,000 kilometer journey winding its way at a leisurely pace between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. This is a trip that is more so about the journey, rather than the destination. Unlike the regular service run jointly by Malaysian and Thai railways, it is a seamless journey without the need to change trains, yet there is no real urgency in getting from A to B. There are side trips stopping at Butterworth for a short ferry ride to historic Penang Island and to the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand. This is a classic luxury rail journey that offers few concessions to the modern age; there is no WiFi or onboard TV, just the opportunity to rediscover the art of old fashioned conversation or simply marvel at the passing scenery in the observation car.
For many passengers, the E & O experience is all about the food. It is gourmet fine dining of the highest order for brunch, lunch and dinner and despite the cramped kitchen space, it is equal to the finest Michelin-starred restaurants. Impeccable standards are expected of guests too. That lost art of dressing for dinner is alive and well on the E & O, with set meal times and convivial place settings to encourage sparkling conversation.
The train’s usual clientele is not all nostalgic seniors and European aristocrats – the E & O attracts an eclectic bunch. A starting price of $2,500 per person is the common denominator, but you can expect all walks of life onboard, including a smattering of young families. Three days among such a diverse cross section of passengers in a confined space often means the wonderful scenery of the Malay Peninsula often takes a back seat to the social whirl of elegant dining, high tea and late night cocktails. Aside from organized excursions, there is ample opportunity to delve into a little Southeast Asian culture in the well-stocked library or enjoy evenings of traditional Thai music and Malay classical dancing.
The phrase ‘intimate luxury’ could have been invented for the accommodation onboard the E & O. There is a choice of cozy single and twin Pullmans, state cabins and plush presidential suites costing upwards of $5,000 per person. Expect quintessential colonial decor of polished teak paneling, quaint floral motifs and rattan fixtures. Elegant and eye pleasing it may be but is functional too with a masterful use of limited space. Kids are sure to find it a refreshing change of scenery from the average luxury chain hotel.