First, tea is served. In a fancy teapot, with biscuits, by a butler dressed in pristine white uniform. You gaze lazily out of the window as porters labour in the crushing afternoon humidity, blissfully cool in your air-conditioned cabin. Then the train eases out of the station: the skyscrapers of Singapore soon fall away, and you’re across the Straits of Johor and into the lush, torpid palm plantations of Malaysia.
This is the Eastern & Oriental Express, the luxurious train service that runs between Singapore and Bangkok, the last remnant of opulent colonial travel in Southeast Asia – evoking the days of posh British administrators, gin-sloshed planters and rich, glamorous dowagers rather like the set of a Merchant Ivory movie.
To be fair, you’re more likely to meet professionals from San Francisco or Hong Kong on the train today. There are a couple of stops to break the three-day journey – a rapid but absorbing trishaw ride through old Penang, and an evocative visit to the bridge over the River Kwai – but it’s the train itself that is the real highlight of the trip.
If you feel the need to stretch your legs, the observation car offers a 360-degree panorama of the jungle-covered terrain, and there’s a shop selling gifts to prove you’ve been. Then there’s the elegant dining car. Eating on the train is a real treat, superb haute cuisine and Asian meals prepared by world-class chefs. Many choose to wear evening dress to round off the fantasy and after dinner retire to the bar car, where cocktails and entertainment await, from mellow piano music to formal Thai dance. A word of warning: after all this, reality hurts. Standing on the chaotic platform of Bangkok’s Hualampong station, you might long to get back on board.
Singapore to Bangkok costs around US$2000 one way – see www.orient-express.com.