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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

THE EASTERN AND ORIENTAL EXPRESS: Bangkok to Singapore


While the locomotive did not look particularly modernistic, the more aesthetically pleasing Green and Crème train of the EOE left the station exactly on time at 5:50PM, and slowly strolled through the bowels of Bangkok.  I had a Tanqueray Gin with some fruit juice, and joined Kathleen and Phil Hebron from South Shields, England at dinner.  I’ve so far met three couples, and they were all from the UK.  But, that is where the original Simplon Orient Express began.

Their home is 7 miles from Newcastle.  In fact, this is the region, specifically in a town called Washington, where the kin of our first president, George Washington, came.

There is another city (or town, where the demarcation is a quarter million) here called Cragside, close enough to the Craigside, where I live.  Thought Thomas Edison invented the light bulb?  Nope, that was Sir John Swan of Bishopwearmouth, an older name for Cragside.

Dinner, crafted by Chef de Cuisine Yannish Martineau, started with pan fried foie gras (goose liver) on gingerbread tartine (not sure what this means) with pineapple chutney and balsamico reduction (boil the vinegar until you lose half the volume), and moved on to  a Tom Yam Cappuccino with fennel and celery.  I don't like fennel and hate celery in soups, but this one tasted great.  In general, each dish will feature local products blended into an Asian-French fusion creation. 

The main course was a tranche (slice) of lamp chump (yes, chump--that certain part of the lamb) with jus (juice) of asian spices and the meal ended with a Khanom Krok chocolate ganache (smooth mixture of chocolate and cream), coconut ice cream and orange sauce.  We had a bottle of PB Khaoyai Reserve, a Shiraz (14%, $38), the wine served at the 2000 APEC meeting in Bangkok.  The grape was actually grown in Thailand and the wine was very, very good.  My first Thai wine.

Now I can better appreciate why the trip is so expensive.   I have a whole living space with two beds and a bathroom with shower.  Even the Green Car on the Japan Shinkansen is shared with a bunch of people.

I also wondered why the trip took four days, for if you divide the distance by 60 miles per hour, it should take one day.  This is partly because of the single gauge system in this part of the world.  That is, trains coming from both directions use the same track, so waiting is worse  than on Amtrak.  Also, the speed when the EOE does move is not quite that of a Shinkansen.  But when my train moves, you need to be athletically proficient to not bang into something.  I’ve already suffered one cut and need to wear a bandage.  At ten times the speed, the Shinkansen offers a ride ten times smoother.

I just realized that I had not seen the Sun since I left Hawaii a week ago, until just now, while observing large fields of sugar cane, evoking a time half a century ago when I began toiling for C. Brewer’ Hutchinson Sugar Company in Naalehu.  Well, these workers here are actually cutting cane by hand.  That’s real work!

The first stop:  Bridge On the River Kwai, which was a novel and fictitious film (7 Academy Awards), starring Sir Alec Guinness.  When you click on that movie, you know why they are whistling Colonel Bogey's March?  Because singing it would have prevented the movie from being shown.  Something to do with Hitler having one ball.  


The real river, Mae Klong, was renamed Kai Yai River after the movie.   Yet, the backdrop was real, and there is a descriptive Death Railway Museum providing all the facts.  All the publications refer to it as the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, as does the sign outside.  However, a very large black and white banner proclaims this the Death Railway Museum.  I gather the organizers are debating what to call it. 

There were 100,000 deaths associated with building this railway, 16,000 prisoners of war, but mostly local workers, who made the mistake of drinking the River Kwai.  They grew up in the vicinity consuming this water, but during the war there were cholera and other diseases that made it dangerous.  The POWs only drunk boiled water.  To the left is the Donrak War Cemetery.  You would think this location was in the middle of nowhere, but, located here is the city of Kanchanaburi with a population of 64,000.

Lunch today was with Jane (Illinois) and Margaret and David (Scotland).  With a Gin Gimlet I had pan seared scallops, rolled Marsala chicken and mandarin orange mousseline cream with lime sherbert.

Dinner was not till 8PM, so what to do over the next seven hours?  No web connection.  No television.  No golf.  No comfortable reading because the train pitches and rolls.  Short waits for nothing, but each stop and start is a sudden  magnitude 5 earthquake.

I went to the observation train where there was a Thai lady playing a ranart thum.  I ordered a Shanghai Express, the specialty of the bar…for $12.  This is why I brought a bottle of Tanquery Gin, for the whole quart cost $20.  I thus spent all afternoon just gazing at the passing countryside and ocean, so boring, but what a luxury.  Children the world over wave at trains.

After a shower, and this took incredible dexterity, I dressed up (I was one of the very few men without a tie) the best I could and joined Karen and Rob Mackie of Melbourne for dinner.

We had the more expensive version of the Thai Shiraz with a strange salad (I’ll skip the epicurean commentary tonight), terrific cheese soufflé and a chicken in coconut soup poured over rice.  Excellent.  There came one of those multi-colored assortment with a sorbet.  After a 3 hour meal, we were the last table still in the room, so we went to a packed piano bar, bringing the remnants of our wine.  My previous dinner mates (Kathleen and Phil) then caught me on my way back to my cabin, so I ended the evening with a Johnny Walker Blue Label Scotch (the price of that bottle of gin) with one ice cube. 

I had a good 8 hours of bumpy sleep and the morning of Day 3 began with a pineapple juice and croissant served in my room.

We passed through customs into Malaysia, losing an hour, but the room attendants took care of the process.  At 10:45 I joined Marbelle and Roberto of Uruguay and Australia, a brunch, starting with poached egges over asparagus and brioche topped with Hollandaise sauce and a crispy bacon.  The whitest aromatic sea bass was next served with egg tofu and shiitake mushrooms.  The dessert was mangosteen panna cotta with a fruit salad.

Our stop for the day began at Butterworth, where our bus caught a ferry to Penang (means betelnut, and, while smaller than Kauai, but bigger than Molokai, has a population of 1.5 million) Island and the city of Georgetown, named after George IV.  We then rode trishaws to visit the city landmarks.  There is even an Eastern and Oriental Hotel, where we stopped for I think was a whiskey laced fruit drink.

I went to the outside observation deck this afternoon, and, watched Malaysia roll by.  This is a long country, and, I again learned, is in two parts.  Here plus part of Borneo.  

The final dinner was a disappointment, as I joined Jane and Jennie for what we expected would be a spectacular conclusion.  I had two Thai wines, a Monsoon Valley Colombard from Siam Winery (13%, $42) and a St Francis Cabernet Sauvignon (14.6%, $48).  The meal started with a chicken curry soup, then braised beef cheeks with potato mousseline (means pureed), bok choy and abalone mushrooms, and, for dessert, a spice ganache in white chocolate mousse with passion fruit coulis.


After inumerable delays, we finally made it through customs in Singapore.  It was raining, but the view of the Marina Bay Sands was awesome.




Well, was it worth $3480?  My initial gut feeling is no.  Even the most expensive cruises are less than $1000/day.  In fact, you can get a 10-12 day cruise to or from Hawaii for all of $1,000.  Yet, an around the world first class ticket costs around $17,500, for which you are in the air around the same amount of time as that train.  Of course, the plane takes you 25 times further. The meals on the EOE were better than that of any airline, and, while you had to pay for all your alcoholic drinks (which only added up to $104) on the train, I think I got more than 50 free drinks on my last global air adventure.  


I should caution you that if you are getting old like me and are not now sure of your next step, don't even consider the Eastern and Oriental Express, for you will bounce along the walls of the hallways (the tracks are narrow, so the train rotates left to right to left as you walk), worry about crossing from one train to the next (a cabin could easily be ten trains to the observation deck) and have some difficulty taking a shower or even shaving.  Yet, I don't know of anyone who seriously fell or showed evidence of an accident, and many of the passengers were older than me.


One final disconcerting thought, something that was on the back of my mind when I made the reservation: worsening terrorism.  There are Islamic militants in the southern region of Thailand bordering Malaysia.  In fact, two armed guards were placed on our train through this section.  Over the past seven years 4,400 have died from violence.  How difficult will it be, you think, for a platoon of terrorists to block a train, kidnap the passengers, for I suspect there were some rich people on the EOE, and extract some serious ransom?


I guess this train ride was something that was on my list of things to do, and I can now check it off.  My next adventure on the rail will be two weeks on the Shinkansen when I eventually get to Japan for the cherry blossom season.  I plan to visit  Pearl's three favorites viewing locations.

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A 7.2 earthquake struck 90 miles off Honshu in the Pacific and shook Tokyo, creating a 2 foot tsunami, but surprisingly causing little damage.  There has already been a 6.3 aftershock.  The truly worrisome speculation, though, is that there is a 70% chance that an 8.0 quake will crush Tokyo in 30 years.

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