All aboard! Imagine being transported to a different time, to the bygone era of Agatha Christie with famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Christie’s novel, Murder On The Orient Express. Except this time, there isn’t any murder on the train, nor is there any famous Belgian detective.
The plot has changed: on board is a celebrity chef and a bunch of journalists from four countries – Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines – the public relations team of Asian Food Channel, lucky winners of the “Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Getaway” contest, as well as other international travellers.
And this Orient Express isn’t the one that runs throughout the European countryside, but the Eastern & Oriental Express which travels through the exotic tropical rainforests, paddy fields, villages, towns and cities of Malaysia and Thailand, journeying from Singapore to Bangkok. Both trains are owned and operated by Belmond, a premium travel curator and connoisseur that owns a collection of 46 iconic hotels, trains and river cruises worldwide.
Our journey starts from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore where we checked in to the E&O Express. While waiting, we are served the renowned Singapore Sling cocktail, born right in this very hotel in 1915. It was created by a Hainanese bartender working at the Long Bar at the hotel. We then proceed to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint to board the train.
Just like its original namesake, the E&O Express exudes old world glamour. From the moment you step on board, it is like stepping into a different time and place where life slows down … and where there is no television, gym, Internet or wi-fi (gasp!). Doormen in smart uniforms wait at the carriages to assist passengers to their cabins.
There are four different types of cabins: Presidential, State, Pullman and Pullman Single. Elaborate furnishings with detailed trimmings greet my eyes as I enter my Pullman cabin. Even in the limited space that one would expect on a train, it exudes elegance, and is very comfortable and extremely cosy. Wood-panelled walls and warm lighting add to the charming ambience as tropical rainforests, rivers and villages whizz by outside the large window. The scent of fresh jasmine potpourri waft through when I open the bathroom door to a hot and cold shower compartment, sink, cabinet and seat toilet.
Each carriage is assigned a personal steward who sees to the comfort of the guests, reminiscent of a personal butler in days gone by. My steward is Eakachai, or just “Ea”. He makes sure that I have breakfast in bed (literally, because the sofa is turned down into a comfortable bed before sundown and only reconverted into a sofa after breakfast!) at a time that I specify, and afternoon tea each day with real china on a silver tray with real silverware cutlery.
Lunches and dinners are held at one of the dining cars, quaintly named Malaya and Rosaline. Elaborate table lamps, polished silverware, crystal glasses, starched white tablecloths and personalised menus – so characteristic of the charm of the 1930s – add to the opulent feel of a bygone era.
Lunch is a semi-formal affair, and dinner is formal, something that I have to get used to, as I’m a regular jeans-and-no-make-up kind of person, but dressing up for the occasion adds to the whole romantic feel of being on board the elegant express.
I am amazed at how such delicious meals of good portion could be prepared in such compact kitchens, and also the versatility of the dishes, which combine both flavours of the East and the West.
The meals prepared by executive chef Yannis Martineau from France are the epitome of fine dining. There are exquisite appetisers like cauliflower bavois and vegetable medley with smoked duck breast, mouthwatering mains like medallion of beef with foie gras croquette and Asian vegetables, vindaloo sauce and mustard foam, and delectable desserts like chocolate and pandan mousse on crispy hazelnut praline with coconut coulis.
For the participants of this trip, the icing on the cake is, of course, meeting UK-based celebrity chef and host Jonathan Phang, and enjoying a five-course Caribbean-style dinner specially prepared by him on board the train.
What is special about Phang’s style of cooking is that, because of his unique Caribbean background (his father is Chinese and his mother is Creole), it is a potpourri of tastes. It is enchanting to savour the diverse flavours in the dishes that the celebrity chef serves up that night, which are also featured in his cookbook, The Pepperpot Club: A Celebration Of Caribbean Cuisine.
Nuances of Western herbs and West Indian spices in the pumpkin soup, touches of West Indian spices in the cod fish cakes with red mayonaise, and traces of traditional Chinese seasonings in the beef pepperpot and jerk chicken, as well as hints of East Indian spices in the chickpea and vegetable curry, the main courses served during dinner … all adds to the uniqueness of the meal.
So … what does one do on board a luxurious train like the Eastern & Oriental Express, where there are no Internet or wi-fi, television or gym? To that, I have to say that it’s a really “social” environment.
Besides hanging out in our cabins, there is a reading room where one can sit and while away time amidst the pages of a novel, a boutique where one can buy premium souvenirs, and evenings can be spent watching the sunset from the observation car which is adjacent to a colonial, planter-style lounge bar at the back of the train where one can chat with other travellers, sit and sip champagne, or enjoy an espresso while watching the world go by.
There’s also a piano bar where guests can gather to enjoy cocktails and after-dinner drinks while listening to veteran pianist, Singapore Pete.
Humour is a huge part of Phang’s adventures and the down-to-earth celebrity host and food adventurer really throws himself into each experience. From telling us amusing anecdotes of his travels to joining in the sing-a-along at the piano bar after dinner, Phang is an excellent host and makes everyone feel at home.
Sleeping on a constantly moving train is a unique experience for me. For some, the rocking motion of the train lulls them to slumberland easily, but for light sleepers, wearing earplugs or taking sleep medication may help. I’m thankful that I have to do neither to sleep, but I wake up a few times during the night and wonder why everything around me is moving!
Not all the time is spent on board the train. There are two excursions in the works. The first is at the royal town of Kuala Kangsar in Malaysia, where we are brought on a wet market tour by Phang and Martineau to shop for ingredients for dinner. We also visit the royal Ubudiah Mosque, with its majestic golden dome and minarets. The second is to the River Kwai Bridge, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, where we go on a raft down the river, pass by a Vietnamese temple, and visit the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Museum.
According to Phang, one of his most moving experiences travelling on the Eastern & Oriental Express was two years ago at this location. When they were visiting the River Kwai Bridge and war cemetery, he noticed a group of older Australians who were clearly war veterans on a pilgrimage.
“When you see the River Kwai Bridge, something really hits you and you think: ‘Oh my God, how many people died here? Tens of thousands.’ It dawns on you when you see rows of graves of young soldiers. That brought me down to earth very quickly and I did shed some tears off screen. It was a very special and emotional part of my journey. It was the place that moved me the most, and I will always remember it.”
Our journey rounds off at the Bangkok Railway Station where we are brought to the Dusit Thani Hotel for the night before catching our flight back home the next day.
Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains recently aired on Asian Food Channel (AFC) Astro Channel 703.