Tag Archives: Epic Thailand

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

Eastern & Oriental Express Staff: “Almost Like a Family”

7 Mar

Mr. Panupong Wrassamee, of Chiang Mai, Thailand-meticulous, yet warm and welcoming—a true professional. Photo by Eleanor Hardy, IRT

“Welcome on board, Madame Hardy!” was his warm welcome when I arrived.

And later: “Is everything all right, Madame Hardy? Air conditioning just right? Enough hot water?” And he never forgot that I like to wake up at 6 a.m., have my coffee — with skim milk — for half an hour while watching the world go by, then fruit and cereal or yogurt for breakfast. He decorated my every tray with an orchid. He always folded my robe into the traditional Thai greeting stance. And he always tidied my room—immaculately—before I returned for bed.

And this was just in my room. Throughout the train, in the restaurant and bar cars, the service was spectacular.

In truth, on the Epic Thailand journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express, the staff was the star of the show.

Thai symbol of hospitality-folded into E & O robe. Photo by Eleanor Hardy, IRT

My steward was Mr. Panupong Wrassamee, 41 . He was probably the best I have ever experienced on any train in the world—and I personally have ridden 18 of our World’s Top 25 Trains™. Mr. Wrassamee has worked on the Eastern & Oriental for 17 years. His English is excellent. His care was superior, attentive, friendly, and always spot-on. Sometimes, it was over the top. In Chiang Mai, where he lives, he brought me soup and strawberries from his family home.

More than 60 percent of the Eastern & Oriental staff has been with the train since it started in January, 1993—18 years.

Train Manager Ulf Buchert shares a laugh with E & O passengers. Photo by Eleanor Hardy, IRT

That special welcome starts at the top. Mr. Ulf Buchert, a native of Frankental, Germany, has been with the Eastern & Oriental since its inception. A resident of Bangkok for the past 11 years, he is witty, charming, friendly, welcoming and the essence of hospitality.

His staff of 44 includes the chef, two assistant train managers, restaurant manager, assistant restaurant manager, seven waiters, 14 kitchen staff in the two kitchens, 15 cabin stewards and two cleaners. On the regular, Singapore-Bangkok runs, which are done much of the year, they take care of 126 people. On the special Chronicles extended journeys,  like the one I took in February, the maximum is 60 persons in 28 “State” compartments and two presidential compartments.

“Somehow, it’s almost like a family,” says Mr. Buchert. “Here, you come on board, everybody is happy, everybody is helping.”

Mr. Chanyuth Techasawat, E & O restaurant manager. Photo by Eleanor Hardy, IRT

Restaurant manager Chanyuth Techasawat, 46, started as head waiter in 1993 and is now restaurant manager. His training in hotel school, plus five years as restaurant captain at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok, has prepared him well. Every table is meticulously set with the fine china, crystal, silver and linens. The hours are long: he and his staff start at 8 a.m. and end about 11:30 p.m. after the last tall crystal wine glass is polished and put away.

But it’s a fabulous job, he says. “You get to see many places, see so many people, have a chance to go to different countries and not to stay at the same place, same time, every day.” Plus, echoing his boss, “we are much like family here.”

“The key is that you have people who really understand how to give great service,” said Eastern & Oriental Express general manager Leesa Lovelace, a native of San Jose, CA and now a Singapore resident.  “They are naturally attentive and kind and genuinely interested in looking after the guests and getting to know them.”

“It makes the journey,” she said.

Indeed it does.

What’s the best service you have experienced on an overnight train trip?

Eastern & Oriental Express’s Rising New Star: Epic Thailand

3 Mar

Ulf Buchert, senior train manager of the Eastern & Oriental Express, visits with IRT's Eleanor Hardy (in dark blue) and other representatives from American tour operators. Behind Mrs. Hardy is Valerie Ottofaro, Director of Sales for Orient Express Trains & Cruises. Across from Mrs. Hardy is Elizabeth Calhoun of Orient Express.

It’s hard to contain my excitement: the gorgeous Eastern & Oriental Express will be my home for six nights. I’m on its first Epic Thailand itinerary—a 7-day escorted tour to jungles, tiny villages and temple-studded cities—and I am thrilled to be on board. Hualamphong station in Bangkok, Thailand, buzzed with activity as we boarded at about 3 p.m. on Feb. 20. A troop of young musicians and dancers dressed in bright yellow and red led us on board.

But now all is quiet, and our train, readied for departure, is a haven of peace and beauty. I open my cabin door and am amazed:

My state cabin on the Eastern & Oriental Express was roomy and comfortable with plenty of storage. All photos by Eleanor Hardy for IRT

Spacious and cool, my state compartment contains a long sofa, upholstered chair and velvet chair and matching ottoman. The sofa and upholstered chair make up into comfy twin-sized beds at night. In the middle is a small table and lovely lamp. Along the two large picture windows is a long, folding table. On it is an orchid-filled silver vase and a light green Celadon porcelain dish full of fresh fruit.

“Welcome on board, Madame Hardy!” says my steward.

I admire the details:  silk curtains, embroidered valance, marquetry in light blond and dark wood, whose border around the top of the room picks up the theme of a medallion on the wall: lotus blossoms and jungle vines. It’s a light, fresh look of the orient.

I admire the ensuite bathroom: mahogany seat, granite-topped sink, mirror,  and cabinet with four shelves; Bulgari shower gel, shampoo and soap; large fluffy white towels with E&O logo. The foot-wide closet with padded hangers has two shelves at the bottom. Another cupboard has a safe and two shelves, plus two brass luggage racks.

The fabric on the sofa and upholstered chair is a rich combination of rose and green, coordinating beautifully with the rose velvet. And the lamps and light fixtures pick up those colors, not only in my cabin but throughout the train. They are lovely.

Despite my excitement, I’m determined to unpack. I stack shirts on one brass shelf, pants on another. I hang dresses in the closet and cram my underwear in a cupboard which also contains a safe. My steward whisks my suitcase away. (I can have it back whenever I want, he promises.) In this little home away from home, there is a place for everything. Even the ottoman opens for storage. And hooray! There are two great plugs for recharging, complete with converters to match my equipment.

This tray arrived daily about 5 p.m., always decorated with an orchid.

Soon, the train is rolling out of Bangkok, and it’s tea time. My steward arrives with a lovely tray: a crisp linen cloth is laid with a silver tea set, decorated with a ginko leaf pattern. The porcelain cups and plates are pale green, and the little linen napkin sports the E&O logo. A basket of traditional Thai sweets tempts. Tucked into the sweets: a bright fuchsia orchid blossom .

“This train,” I think as we edge out of Bangkok, “well deserves to be in our pantheon of the World’s Top 25 Trains.”  But, at this point, little do I know the main reason why.

Here is the link to our photo album. https://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=39059&id=146283798751515

If you have been on the train or to Thailand, let us know about your favorite experiences.

Elephants, ceramics, markets: Which would you choose?

9 Feb
Eastern & Oriental Express

View from Eastern & Oriental Express compartment window. Photo by Jim Butkus

I knew I was going to like the Epic Thailand journey we are offering next year on the Eastern & Oriental Express.  But little did I know the incredible array of choices our travelers will enjoy. In Chiang Mai alone, there are two all-day choices and 10  half-day options. Each sounds more tantalizing than the next.

I leave next Thursday for Bangkok to prepare for our 2012  Owners’ Choice Epic Thailand journey (Feb. 26-March 3). Which of these included off-train experiences would you choose if you were doing this trip?

This is just a partial list:

  • A full-day visit to the Pang Song Nature Trails Project, a new collaboration between tourism interests and a local village working to protect the stunning Mae Lai Community Forest
  • A Day at the Mandarin Orient Dhara Dhevi Resort, with its spa and two swimming pools
  • Antiques and textile shopping
  • An introduction to Thai ceramics, meeting a ceramics expert John Shaw, educated at Oxford and a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, at his home and viewing his personal and private collection
  • A visit to an elephant camp, where visitors can see them at work – or even ride one
  • Tour of Doi Suthep Temple, an important monastery and symbolic landmark of Chiang Mai.
  • Tour of Pak Chong “wet market,” a truly “authentic” institution that is giving way to supermarkets and convenience stores, says the ground operator in Thailand “But be prepared for some strong smells and sights: all parts of animal produce will be on display.  This is ideal for those who wish to see a slice of daily rural life in Thailand. Due to lack of refrigeration in the old days, most Asians do daily marketing at the wet markets.”
  • Khao Yai National Park will be the obvious choice for nature and adventure seekers,. Khao Yai was Thailand’s first national park. Today, it is the second largest in Thailand, and along with the surrounding mountains was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This will include hiking one of three trails, each lead by a highly qualified park guide.

What would you choose?

Of course, the Eastern & Oriental Express is one of our World’s Top 25 Trains™ — and reason enough to go by itself — as shown in this short, experiential video:

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