The lounge car of the Orient Express
The Orient Express where your cabin awaits and you can relax in the lounge car
Your cabin awaits on the Orient Express
It’s like that moment when the squire brings his betrothed home to the country estate: a stately line of richly-liveried men and women await me on the platform of Bangkok’s Hualamphong railway station.
There’s the train manager, the maitre d’, sous-chefs, pianist, stewards, cocktails waitresses, dancer – some of the 40 staff aboard a quarter mile of hard-furnished carriages. I am about to embark on the most decadent train trip in South East Asia: three nights aboard the Eastern and Oriental Express travelling from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos, and back again.
From the moment I surrendered my passport in a colonial lounge of the venerable Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, I entered the velvet-cushioned cocoon of an Orient Express travel experience, where every whim would be accommodated and contact with the outside world was neither necessary nor desirable.
In any normal reality I would have been off exploring the delicious dirty chaos of the railway station, a faded colonial shroud of neo-Renaissance vaulting timber and stained-glass, but instead I followed as a steward bowed low and led me to my cabin – a tiny, delicately-crafted Fabergé egg of cherry-wood panelling with elm burr marquetry and burnished-brass fittings. It was like something one might see in a Sotheby’s brochure, and to actually be living in it for three nights felt surreal. The en-suite shower-room was diminutive, but a relief to have it at all, as on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express (the train’s older sister), there is only a shared WC per carriage.
My steward, having extracted a promise that I would press the bell at the first twinge of need, left me to unpack and prepare for the strict schedule ahead. There was to be a cocktail reception in the piano bar, followed by dinner and drinks. I had been warned before departure that “the train provides a marvellous opportunity to display glamour and style and dressing-up is encouraged” and was reminded once again over the tannoy that “men will feel comfortable with a jacket and tie”. Understood.
But I had underestimated the challenge of dressing while hurtling along on narrow-gauge tracks. Every movement required careful balance, adapting the equilibrium of the body to the swishing, swerving and sudden jolts of the carriage. Clothes would come swinging out of the cupboard at me, negotiating the shower required acrobatic skill and I can only imagine the motor neuron deftness required to apply make-up.
It’s not so much that the train is old – the carriages were built in the 1970s and completely overhauled in the 1990s – but the tiny track was unaccustomed to such unwieldy rolling stock, having been little improved since the Japanese came through with troops in the second World War.
Passing through the carriages was a violent ordeal. I learned to lean against the fine marquetry of the walls and slide along like a patient in a psychiatric ward.
Yet, the brute aggression of the ride, the screeching metal upon metal, the lurches and irregular rhythmic pounding became one of my favourite things – reminding me that out there, beyond this cocoon, was a real world of unpampered reality. That our lives run on uneven tracks no matter how softly we swaddle them.
In the ash-panelled bar carriage, I met my 62 fellow-passengers over champagne and despite their 17 different nationalities they were remarkably similar – ex-pats living in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, mainly involved in international business. A few were retired British couples who’d made money in the boom and now spent too much time in Dubai. There were also international financiers, engineers and import/export moguls.