The intriguing Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, flanked by Thailand, Laos, China and India, has opened up to tourism in recent years and one of the best ways to see the country is by boat. As many of the roads in Myanmar are in poor condition, some villages and areas can only been accessed via the waterways. Belmond Orcaella, a boutique sized river cruiser, is designed to reach remote, less travelled areas of Myanmar between July and March, avoiding the hottest and rainiest months of the year.
As a passenger you may choose to start your journey in the bucolic central region of Myanmar at Bagan or Mandalay, or alternatively at Yangon in the south of the country near the Bay of Bengal. Yangon, the former capital, is home to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, fascinating markets and historic colonial buildings as well as Southeast Asia’s largest reclining Buddha. Waterways connect Yangon to the great Ayeyerwady River which runs north to south through the centre of Myanmar. So for guests staying at Belmond’s Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon (below) it’s possible to begin your trip here.
As we enter The Governor’s Residence in Yangon we are heralded in by the “welcome gong”. Turns out that Yangon/Rangoon in Myanmar/Burma, is a very hospitable place; I spotted three welcome signs in the first five minutes of leaving the airport. And everyone we meet is friendly and curious about the tourists now visiting their country.
[UPDATE: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard boarded the same train – though journeyed in the reverse direction of Bangkok to Singapore – for their honeymoon in south east Asia. The Eastern & Oriental is a sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express on which Depp filmed the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Kenneth Brannagh.]
Cocktail hour can be a precarious business on board the Eastern & Oriental Express. There’s a risk of losing great splashes of your G&T overboard with every sway of the train. But standing on the open sided observation deck at sunset, passing by the verdant scenery of South East Asia, is worth any effort incurred. And of course being a passenger on a luxury train is really no effort at all.
Our journey had begun in Singapore where we spent the night at Raffles whose white shutters, balustrades and wrap around balconies outside; and dark wood, ceiling fans and antique furniture within took us back to a more gracious era. Perfect before boarding the E&O for a three-day journey through Malaysia and into Thailand, disembarking in Bangkok.
Now, 24 hours later, we are deep into the Malaysian countryside. And with darkness swallowing up the last of the view, it’s time to dress for dinner. The E&O is owned by the Orient-Express company [Update: now rebranded Belmond]and as such features exquisite marquetry and fabrics. Unlike the Venice Simplon train that runs through Europe, the carriages are not Art Deco originals. But what they lack in authenticity they make up for in modern comforts – ensuite bathrooms, the aforementioned observation deck and a reading room (home to a resident reflexologist and a fortune teller). There’s also the bonus of some pit stops along the way.
The first takes place just before dinner when we pull in to Kuala Lumpur station. It’s fun to walk up and down the platform in our finery, and see the pleasure on the commuters’ faces when they look at our gleaming train, but the best bit is to come. As we leave the station, tucking into our first course of goose liver wrapped in Chinese with pumpkin and coconut veloute, we spot the Petronas Towers sparkling in the darkness.
In the bar car after dinner the gregarious pianist, Peter, keeps playing until the last guest goes to bed. On this occasion, not us – we are out stayed by a young couple from the UK. When we return to our State cabin it has been transformed into a bedroom, the sofa and lounge chair magically turned into twin beds.
“Did you sleep well?” enquires our steward, Sarawut, as he brings us breakfast in our cabin the next morning. When we sheepishly reply in the negative he is not that surprised. “Some people don’t on the first night, it’s like sleeping through an earthquake.” At 8.35am we pull into Butterworth station. All the passengers set off on the first of our excursions to the island of Penang, passing a sous chef wheeling a trolley filled with ice along the platform.
Georgetown, the capital, has UNESCO heritage status on account of its abundance of historical buildings. We are all now settled into trishaws as we are pedalled around the ancient streets. Had I known it was an unofficial race I may have chosen a younger cyclist – the task of pushing both me and my husband seems a little much for ours. But the leisurely pace means we get a good view of the beautiful buildings from old merchants houses to Chinese temples filled with red lanterns or bright pink firecrackers. We pass through Little India, China Town and the Street of Harmony (so called because it’s home to a church, a temple and a mosque) and make a promise to return for a longer stay.
Back on board it’s time for lunch. From his tiny galley kitchen chef Yannis Martineau has prepared a tom yam vichyssoise with quail followed by pan roasted seabass with Sichuan style vegetables. Yannis’ dishes are a perfect blend of East meets West with local ingredients and techniques incorporated with his French fine dining background. At Penang, he took the opportunity to stock up on spices which will we try tonight in a delicious beef medallion curry.
We gain an hour today, as we cross the border into Thailand. The scenery changes noticeably. Palm trees give way to paddy fields, small temples can be glimpsed through tree tops and in the distance we spot a huge golden Buddha statue.
From the observation deck we get an unbeatable taste of local life. We pass through rural stations where food stalls are set up along the platform. A couple of Buddhist monks in their distinctive orange robes chat on a bench. In one village the locals are sitting in a row of deckchairs having an evening foot rub. Children riding bicycles try to keep up with us. Everywhere, people stare or smile and wave – the train has an uplifting affect on everyone who sees it.
To celebrate our crossing into Thailand, a traditional Thai dancer is performing in the bar car this evening. There’s the usual merriment as the she entices guests up to join her. The trip is a convivial one: there’s something about a train journey that draws people together. Friendships are forged in the bar car, on the observation deck, over lunch and dinner. Our fellow passengers range from other couples to families with young children or teenagers, and several singles. There are honeymooners, Ruby wedding celebrators and at least one blossoming romance.
Our last day on board and the train manager announces that we are running slightly late but I think we are all secretly pleased to have some extra time on the train. When we pull into a stop right next to the River Kwai bridge we cause quite a stir. The tourists are intrigued and delighted by the train.
We leave them to their photography and embark on a gentle raft journey along the Kwai, floating under the notorious bridge as a local historian tells its story. Our tour continues to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, a small but well run museum and the adjacent cemetery for Prisoners of War – a soothingly pretty spot. Everyone seems moved by this visit; it is undoubtedly one of the best experiences of the trip.
We re-board the train at the photogenic Kanchanaburi station for the last leg of the journey. As we draw closer to Bangkok the temples become bigger and more frequent. On the outskirts of the city, hard hatted construction workers wave at the train with the same enthusiasm as the school children in the countryside.
Soon we draw alongside canals – the city’s famous khlongs – and know we about to reach Hualamphong station. The frenetic station is a shock after the cosseting of our train trip but we are soon back to the comfort we have grown accustomed to when we check into the Mandarin Oriental. We are staying in the Author’s Wing, the original part of the hotel named after the likes of Somerset Maughan and Noel Coward who stayed here. At the heart of it is a gorgeous colonial style conservatory with rattan chairs, cream shutters and a Gone with the Wind staircase. It’s as fitting an end to our trip – although you can also take the train from Bangkok to Singapore, with an extra night onboard.
On our last evening in Bangkok we catch the wooden shuttle boat over the Chao Praya river to the hotel’s Sala Rim Naam restaurant. In the opulent setting of a Thai pavilion we feast on the set banquet menu including fried snow fish in red chilli sauce, roasted duck with tamarind and warm flour dumplings with coconut milk. All the while entertained by a traditional show.
Tomorrow we will be leaving Thailand but alas the journey involves airports and planes not stations and luxury trains. If only travel was always as glamorous as the E&O.