On track for a luxury rail trip
The spacious State Compartment has two fold-down beds and an ensuite.

It's an announcement that even the professional mystic in front of me couldn't have predicted. In the lounge car of the Eastern and Orient Express, with my hand in the grasp of a palm reader, a brass-covered speaker crackles into life.

"I am sorry to say that there has been a derailment south of Bangkok and there is a chance we may have to turn back," purrs the train manager.

It is not quite the glimpse of my future I had been expecting. But then a touch of mystery seems about right for a luxury railway brand which Agatha Christie deemed worthy to act as a stage in one of her most famous books.

Plying a main route from Bangkok to Singapore, the Eastern and Orient Express might not be the classic European sojourn which the fictional detective Poirot took. But that takes nothing away from the grandeur and opulence which greet passengers as they travel through South-East Asia in style.

The route was launched in September 1993 as a sister to the traditional Venice-Simplon Orient-Express, 110 years after the start of the classic service which travels between London, Paris and Venice.

But the train which travels through Asia bearing the famous logo has its own history, having been built in Japan and formerly operated in New Zealand as the Silver Star.

It was 20 years after its construction that it was transferred to Singapore and transformed into its current ultra-luxurious state. Inner walls are panelled in elm, cherry, teak and rosewoods, with diamond-shaped marquetry hand-cut by local craftsmen. The Observation Car is floored in Burmese teak.

But this decor is just part of the attraction.

A complimentary palm reading was just the latest luxury in the journey which began at Bangkok's Hualampong Station the day before.

Having moved into a spacious, cherry-panelled cabin, complete with an ensuite and fold-down beds, my first duty had been to dress for dinner. Luggage had already been installed by our carriage attendant Yi, who delivered fruit juices and a tour of our new living quarters for the next few days.

A jacket and tie is the mandatory minimum for men heading to one of the four sumptuous dining cars, which are spectacularly laid out with white linen cloths, gleaming silver cutlery and glittering crystal glassware. Women are invited to don gowns or suitable evening wear.

Many take the chance to wear full black-tie to dinner, so mealtimes take on the impression of a glitzy gala event. The food matches this high expectation, with nightly five-course feasts of European-Asian fusion cuisine created by French chef Yannis Martineau.

Even the lunch menu is gourmet heaven, with choices such as marsala chicken on lemongrass risotto accompanied by fragrant Siamese yellow curry bouillon.

The first morning involved breakfast in the compartment as the train clickety-clacked towards the infamous bridge on the River Kwai - one of the scheduled stops.

By the time my appointment with the astrologer finishes later the same day, news filters through that the derailment was a serious crash involving a Thai State Railways train.

Instead of berthing in Thailand's southern provinces that night, we will head back to Bangkok while dinner is served. Cocktails will be taken in the piano bar while the train is stopped just north of the Thai capital.

The train will press on south eventually, we are assured, but the chances of reaching Singapore on time are slim. For most it will mean spending an added night on the train - at no extra charge. But this is no ordinary travel delay. For those with tighter connections at the other end, flights to Singapore are speedily arranged. Transport will be waiting in Bangkok when we pass back through.

The rest of us will certainly not be left waiting around for the track to be cleared, and our schedule changes to make the most of the spare time.

During time which would have otherwise been spent travelling, a stop is arranged at another destination north of Bangkok, for a tour of spectacular Cham temples and a cruise along the wide brown Bassac River. A visit to an ancient palace provides the sight of a batch of screeching monkeys who have learned how to drink mineral water from discarded plastic bottles.

It is soon time to re-board the train for the by-now familiar routine of dinner followed by entertainment in the piano bar.

Sharing tables is encouraged as a way of meeting other guests, though private tables for couples seeking some quiet time are also available. Singaporean pianist Peter Consigliere takes requests and chats to everyone he can. The only stoppage is when he leaves the carriage to put on an over-the-top Elvis wig and belt buckle. His return is greeted with roars of laughter.

The following morning we are once again rattling south through Thailand, past rice paddies and lush green landscapes.

There is a brief stop at the Malaysian border while customs procedures are completed but soon the train is again travelling through lush countryside. This time, though, rubber plantations and mosques dot the landscape instead of palms and Buddhist stupas.

The open-air observation car, at the end of the train, is busy with guests enjoying the rush of humid air and a cold drink from the adjacent bar. In the gilded rosewood-lined dining room, lunch choices include Malaysian fried rice with nonya chicken curry and grilled mutton satay. There is Boh tea from Malaysia's Cameron Highlands to finish.

About the only downside to our delay is that a planned excursion to the island of Penang is cut down to a brief trip to a Hindu temple in the adjacent city of Butterworth.

As the train rattles on, there is still time for one last evening of elegant dining and cocktail sipping before we reach Singapore.

Though we are behind schedule, nobody has yet complained of the delay. But in these surroundings, that's hardly a mystery.

FACT FILE

>> A Pullman compartment on the Eastern and Orient Express from Bangkok to Singapore costs $2860pp inclusive of all meals on board plus train excursions and services. A State Compartment costs $4060pp twin share. Call 1800 000 395 or see www.orient-express.com.

The West Australian

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