Travel: On the right track from Thailand to Laos

Twenty years ago, the Eastern & Oriental Express introduced luxury train journeys to South East Asia.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28th November 2013, 6:00 am
The Phimai temple in Thailand Picture: Sarah Marshall/PA Photos.
The Phimai temple in Thailand Picture: Sarah Marshall/PA Photos.

Sarah Marshall harks back to a golden age of travel with a trip through northern Thailand and Laos.

The dull thud of hammers on wood disturbs the usual mid-morning peace outside Luang Prabang’s Wat Mai temple. Teenage monks in saffron robes and jasmine scarves are scurrying around the 19th century complex carrying long stems of bamboo and banana trunks, the building blocks for a traditional boat.

They’re preparing for the annual Fire Boat Festival, where 2,000 boats are sent floating along the Mekong river to mark the end of Buddhist Lent - this year at the end of October.

It’s a serious business, with many of the town’s 3,000 mild-mannered monks temporarily revealing uncharacteristic competitive streaks; boats are decorated with elaborate dragon heads and ten-pointed stars, in the hope they’ll win a prize for being the most beautiful.

Rivers may provide one of the country’s main transport networks, but my journey here has been by a very different means. I’ve arrived in Laos, a landlocked, mountainous country sandwiched between the more popular tourist destinations of Thailand and Vietnam, by train.

One of the poorest countries in South East Asia, and governed by a Communist regime, Laos remains off the mainstream tourist track, and links with the outside world have been slow to develop.

The first train linking Thailand and Laos, which crosses the 117km Friendship Bridge from Nong Khai to Vientiane, started running in 2009, and now carries passengers and backpackers daily.

But our train crossing was something special; an event which happens only once a year. Greeted by a fanfare of drums, khene pipes and delicate-footed dancers with hair tightly whipped into towering buns, we’d arrived a day earlier on the Eastern & Oriental Express.

Regarded as the most luxurious train in South East Asia, the younger sister to the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this year. Our trip from Bangkok into the jungles of northern Thailand and finally Laotian capital Vientiane, is part of the train’s Chronicle series of inspiring journeys, designed to introduce travellers to lesser known regions - all in five-star comfort.

Furnished in exotic elm, cherry, teak and rosewood, the 22-carriage train embraces the gentlemanly grandeur of the early 20th century, when a vibrant expat community of writers and artists took root in South East Asia.

Even the fine, diamond-shaped marquetry was inspired by 1930s Marlene Dietrich film Shanghai Express, a hit with Orient-Express founder James Sherwood.

It’s fitting, then, that our visit should start in Bangkok’s prestigious Mandarin Oriental hotel, a favourite haunt of playwrights Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, which continues to bask in past glory and was recently named best hotel in the world by The Sunday Times.

Sat on a white wicker chair in the Author’s Wing, an atrium lounge where staircases lead to four heritage suites named after the hotel’s most famous literary guests, I imagine an era when the Far East provided creative fodder for artists hungry for something new and exotic.

Bangkok, a sprawling, unkempt city heaving with 13 million residents, continues to pulse with excitement and possibility.

Boats hurry along the Chao Phraya river, carrying tourists to historic temples, or into quiet flower-lined village canals where locals sell steaming pad thai from long boats in the floating Taling Chan market, and enterprising Buddhist monks sell bags of breadcrumbs to feed long-whiskered cat fish.

As we depart for the Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station, the temperature already hitting 34C, I’m reminded of Noel Coward’s disdain for “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” who would brave the scorching equatorial midday sun.

But any madness quickly subsides as we board our grand hotel on wheels, where a butler has kindly laid out afternoon tea in our private cabins.

Drinking a glass of prosecco from the open air observation car, I watch the steel skyscrapers of Bangkok disappear behind me. For the next two days, we will visit an ancient Khmer temple (a forerunner to Angkor Wat) at Phimai Historical Park, taste wines painstakingly produced in the Khao Yai jungle, and learn about traditional silk weaving techniques.

It’s stories of my experience onboard, however, which fill the OE-embossed postcards, which my butler kindly offers to post at the next local station.

From my window, I watch town and country rush past, as local train stations increasingly begin to resemble toy town replicas, decorated with neat flower beds, ceramic animals and the ubiquitous image of reigning Thai King, Rama IX.

Unlike the Venice-Simplon, the Eastern & Oriental provides guests with en suite facilities, meaning there’s no excuse not to look glamorous at dinner.

“When we first started, people would be dressed in silk gowns and heels,” recalls train manager Ulf Buchert, who’s been with the train since its inception.

And the menu, devised by French chef Yannis Martineau, is certainly worth getting dressed up for. Meals are prepared with military precision, a necessity given the shortage of space onboard. Every plate, cup and teaspoon has been accounted for, with not a centimeter of space left unused.

Mentally adding up the volume of washing-up involved, I’m even more appreciative of my final breakfast, served while crossing the Friendship Bridge into Laos.

As the first part of our journey draws to an emotional end, we head towards a country where politics have shaped a very different future for its people.

One of the most heavily bombed countries, per capita, in the world (a figure notched up largely during the Vietnam War), it’s surprising to discover people are generally warm, laid-back and remarkably positive.

People may only earn an average of 20p per hour - the price of an egg - but they still find money to throw parties, with speakers tied with ropes to the back of tuk- tuks, and crates of state-brewed Beer Lao shared with friends.

This spirit is most evident in former royal capital and Unesco World Heritage Site Luang Prabang, a short plane ride from Vientiane. The last two nights of our journey will be spent here at Orient-Express property La Residence Phou Vao, with views of jungle-clad mountain upon mountain disappearing into swirling clouds of mist.

Weaving my way through 30 golden temples, interspersed with inviting French bakeries and stalls selling fruit smoothies, it takes me an enjoyably long time to explore the compact town centre.

Sticky rice cakes - a staple food for Laotians, who can consume 20kg of the stodgy grain in a month - have been laid out on wire racks to bake in the blistering sun. Young monks take refuge in the shade - one studying a Cambridge University chemistry book, while another, glad of an audience, shows me how he’s taught a small dog to shake his hand.

Monks are a constant source of fascination for visitors to Luang Prabang, especially during the early morning almsgiving ceremonies. At 5am, I join a group of nuns huddled on the floor outside Wat Manolam, waiting to gift food.

Afterwards, some of the monks deposit small mounds of sticky rice on Buddhist shrines, demonstrating that this truly is a food of the gods.

Sticky rice is fairly tame compared to some of the local delicacies I encounter at the eye-boggling Phousi market: bowls filled with scaly toads, blocks of congealed blood, and plastic bags of bile used for salad dressing.

That afternoon, I wander down to the river bank, where park benches overlook the Mekong. I’m joined by a monk, who tells me - in broken English - why he likes to come here and “enjoy the nature”.

As children splash around in the water below, and the air fills with the smell of cooked meats, lemongrass and sweet frangipani, I reflect on my five-star journey to Laos. Butler service and comfortable cabin aside, it’s being given access to these places, and moments, that’s the greatest luxury of them all.

Travel facts

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000 www.coxandkings.co.uk) who offer an eight-day/six-night trip (eight day trip including flight/six nights in a hotel) priced from £4,795 per person, including two nights at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok with breakfast, the two-night Tales of Laos trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Vientiane with full board, and two nights with breakfast at La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang. Flights from Heathrow with Eva Air and transfers are also included.