Train travel is quite voyeuristic, allowing a fleeting glimpse of life beside the track as we roll through backyards and backwaters. Fiona Harper shares her enchanting experience on one of the lesser known ways to see Thailand, the Eastern Orient Express. Channel your inner Agatha and let's explore!
Stepping onto the platform at Bangkok's Hualampong Railway Station I'm greeted by immaculately-uniformed staff, their heads elegantly bowed and palms clasped softly at chest level in the traditional Thai greeting of 'wai'. It's a warm greeting infused with promise for our Epic Thailand journey ahead.
Wandering the carpeted corridors of the Eastern & Oriental Express train I feel as though I've lobbed into the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. Anticipating a bespectacled Hercule Poirot to pop out from behind a cut-glass lampshade at any moment, it feels surreal and mysterious.
Each guest is assigned a Butler who becomes central to life on board. A gentle softly spoken man with a wide-mouthed smile, Pratash guides me through the idiosyncrasies of my compact home for the next seven days. But not before he lays out a silver platter laden with a chilled lemongrass-scented washcloth, fresh squeezed juice, a bowl of fresh fruit and chocolates in a be-ribboned box. The cabin is gorgeous with inlaid timber wall panels, polished brass and muted furnishings dominated by large tinted windows framed by heavy drapes. Pratash proves to be a master at transforming a tiny space from day use to night and vice versa during my absence. Bulgari toiletries, monogrammed linen, oodles fluffy towels, bathrobe and slippers along with room service ensure I'll want for nothing. I may not leave this opulent enclave.
But we're heading north east from Bangkok where few tourists venture so there is much to explore beyond the etched glass windows of our plush carriage. With a gentle nudge our journey begins, rolling slowly out of Bangkok's congested suburbs. The rear Observation Car is the only carriage not fully enclosed by air-conditioning (which is both a blessing and a curse). It's also the location of the bar and lounge so it becomes my haunt when I feel like socialising or for watching the changing landscape, tall G & T in hand.
Train travel is quite voyeuristic, allowing a fleeting glimpse of life beside the track as we roll through backyards and backwaters. I watch a mother washing her child in a plastic tub beside a ramshackle hut. Smoke radiates skywards from an unseen fire behind her while the flickering light of a television lights the doorway. Elsewhere a man clothed in a tattered singlet over faded trousers held up by rope stoops to pick through a pile of rubble. Other men sprawl lethargically on a raised platform trackside, cigarettes dangling between slackened lips. Ponytailed school girls giggle behind their hands when they spot me waving. Younger boys in crisp white button-up shirts run cheekily beside the track. Everywhere the tracks are littered with plastic and piles of garbage.
We cross paths with passenger trains transporting men, women, their families and treasured belongings to who knows where. Local trains provide a stark contrast to our own uber luxe carriages. Faded paintwork is concealed beneath dirt and grunge, square holes bereft of glazing are occupied with bored-looking faces staring out of poorly lit carriages. At some point abandoned carriages on a disused track became homes for squatter communities.
Excursions off train provide fascinating history lessons. We visit Phanom Rung, a grand shrine on a colossal scale carved by hand from sandstone between the 10th and 13th centuries. A Khmer temple significant enough to attract UNESCO World Heritage status, it's perched on the rim of an extinct volcano. Another day we step inside a 12th century Khmer Hindu temple with pagodas arranged in a pattern rarely seen outside nearby Cambodia. Descending on a village at Hin Dat villagers weave sacred silk thread around our wrists in a traditional gesture offering protection for our journey.
We're fortunate to stray so far from the usual tourist trail where few but the most intrepid backpackers venture. But it's easy to succumb to Eastern Oriental & Express indulgence where few decisions are required beyond whether to skip desert or which wine to choose. Dining is an exceptional highlight from leisurely breakfasts in bed served by the ever-gracious Pratash to exquisite three course dinners.
Did Ms Christie have any inkling, when concocting Monsieur Poirot's adventures, of this ever-growing luxury rail travel trend she has undisputedly contributed to? The lady was well ahead of her time.
Fiona Harper is a freelance travel writer specialising in travel boating and lifestyle genres and writes frequently for Sequins and Sand. When not on the road checking out divine holiday destinations, she can usually be found bunkered down in a tropical location working on her next writing project.