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Riding the rails from Singapore to Bangkok

Singapore and Bangkok have very little in common. However, both these major cities of South East Asia attract legions of travelers who, for differing reasons, revere them.
/ Source: TravelWorld International Magazine (NATJA)

Singapore and Bangkok have very little in common. However, both these major cities of South East Asia attract legions of travelers who, for differing reasons, revere them. I'm one of those people. I'm fascinated by the frenetic daytime pace of the Thai capital and by the seedy and sinful persona it adopts at night. By contrast, the orderly beauty of Singapore, even in its ethnic enclaves, provides me a welcome escape from the traditional frenzy of Asian urban life.

What too few visitors know is that they have a choice of two railways that travel the 1,200 miles separating the two cities. Like the cities they link, they are very different from one another, but both offer one of the most delightful train journeys in the world. A recent arrival, the Eastern and Oriental Express is now available for the comfortably fixed passenger. I have never been fortunate enough to try it, and know about it only from glitzy brochures. It is an affiliate of the company that operates Europe's revered Venice-Simplon Orient Express.

The train offers luxurious compartments, world class cuisine, superb personal care, and includes a boutique, lounge pianist and even an astrologer. Passengers board in Singapore to make the two-day run to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur and Penang (both in Malaysia), then on through Surat Thani in Thailand, finally arriving in Bangkok. It a luxurious excursion, but rather costly. The other option, one I'm affectionately familiar with, is done on a railway system that's been around for years, and continues to serve the needs of its sizable local clientele. This train has carried me from Singapore to Bangkok three times, each of them in comfort and each for far, far less than the Orient Express fare--and less still if you're a senior citizen.

In essence this trip is a combination of two lines. The first, a Malaysian train, runs from Singapore through Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth, the stop for transfers to both Penang and the Langkawi Islands. The other, a Thai train, called the International Express, goes on to Bangkok from Butterworth. Total elapsed time for the entire run comes to about 48 hours. The first part is a daytime trip that provides splendid coach facilities as far as Butterworth. The second leg of the journey offers comfortable air conditioned sleeping compartments. Food on these trains, while adequate, hardly qualifies as gourmet dining.

The mechanics of doing this journey are easy. The Malaysian Railway office in Singapore, or nearly any local travel agency, can make reservations. But, do not, I repeat, do not make this run without a stop. Plan to pause for several days in Malaysia's colorful capital, Kuala Lumpur, and at least that long again under the palms overlooking a gin-clear sea on the islands of Penang and Langkawi. Butterworth is where you switch to other transportation to reach both these islands.

Having done precisely all the above on my last trip, I boarded the morning International Express in Butterworth for the final leg of my trip and settled into my compartment to watch Thailand pass by outside. It is a continuum of palm clad villages, of rice paddies worked by water buffalo and Tarzan-like jungle. Dotting the land from almost every vista was one or more Buddhist temples.

I had delightful, but unexpected, company on my last trip. At about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, an Englishman named Sean poked his head into my compartment and suggested that we have a peg or two of his Scotch. I agreed with dispatch. He rang for the steward, who shortly appeared with glasses and a bucket of ice.

"As a yank, you surely use ice." Sean said without a trace of condescension.

"Yes," I replied, "but not the ice used on this train. I'm a little concerned about its source."

"Rubbish," he snorted. "I use ice everywhere. I use it in Dacca, Kabul, even Calcutta." Then with a flourish he removed a condom from his wallet, stuffed it with ice, closed it with a knot and tossed it into his drink. "Bob's your uncle," Sean said, raising his glass in toast.

Subsequent dinner in the dining car was marginal with food that was far from inspiring. The waiters, a nonchalant group, cleared tables by hurling debris out the open windows. My advice to travelers completing this last leg to Bangkok, is to do prudent shopping in Butterworth and eat in your compartment. Be assured, however that coffee, tea, cold drinks and even beer are available on these trains.

When we returned from dinner, I found my compartment radiant in the evening light. My bed was turned down, white sheets aglow, and a cool breeze wafted through the window. There I fell asleep. The next morning at ten we pulled into Bangkok. The train trip was over, and ready or not, I was spilled out into that merrily throbbing city of six million.

If you go: For info on the Orient Express, contact Abercrombie and Kent at (800) 323-7308. Fares for this luxury trip begin at US $2,160 Reservations may be made for the Malaysian and Thai railways at their offices in either Singapore or Bangkok or at any local travel agency. Fare for the trip is $170. Penang and Langkawi can be reached by either ferry or taxi across the bridge from Butterworth.