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How luxury train travel got hip

Modern experiences on the tracks are opening up a new golden age of rail travel

The Eastern & Oriental Express, which runs between Singapore and Bangkok, first pulled away in 1993. Its aim: to provide luxury train travel in Asia. It’s popular – especially with the one Japanese traveller who has travelled on it 12 times, general manager Nicolas Pillet tells me.

But this spring, hotel group Belmond, which runs the E&O service, wanted to bring a younger audience onboard. Trains can have that image problem. (I know – I was the youngest passenger by about 30 years in the first-class car of a Cathedrals Express steam train when I travelled from London Paddington to Hereford in western England a few years ago.) And running between two of Southeast Asia’s zingiest capitals, the E&O wanted to connect some of its best creatives, too.

And so the Japan-built coaches on this route, which spent a brief spell serving the Silver Star sleeper through New Zealand’s North Island to Wellington, look a little different this month. Belmond commissioned Singapore-based street artist Rajesh Kumar to graffiti two of the 22 green-and-grey train carriages with chic slashes of blue, red, yellow and green in an artwork called The Koi Pond. They’re running until the 28 April.

The reinvention doesn’t stop there. The champagne-stocked bar car, which stays open until the last passenger goes to bed, has a jazz-meets-groove soundtrack produced by Mr Has, a Singapore-based DJ. Cocktail Professor, a mixologist from Amsterdam, makes drinks inspired by the route, with sensory names such as Malay Jungle and Mist of the Rice Paddies. In fact, the only thing that wouldn’t appeal to your average millennial is the E&O’s strict no Wi-Fi rule. Only in the gorgeous teak observation car at the back of the train can you get any signal – and often in the most rural bits of Malaysia and Thailand it turns slow and sludgy. The view’s still interesting: with or without Instagram.

This millennial boarded one of Kumar’s grafittied carriages in Singapore. The journey took me through the jungly centre of the Malaysian peninsula before pulling into Bangkok 51 hours later.

If graffitied carriages sound a bit inner-city grimy and crime-y, think again. This train is still the epitome of rolling luxury, straight out of the Asian hotel playbook, with spacious cabins (I’m G3), butlers (he’s called Nat), ensuite bathroom (complete with Panipuri toiletries and fluffy bathrobes), a library car and several fine-dining restaurants and saloons with pleated lamps, starched tablecloths and velvet curtains.

Leaving behind the city’s glossy urban-ness, the route tracks from Singapore Woodlands station over the Straits of Singapore into Johor Bahru, the flourishing, gentrifying city at the southern tip of Malaysia. From there, it’s an eight-hour chug through dense snatches of palm trees, vaulted green hills and limestone karsts.
We pull into Kuala Lumpur at midnight. This is only obvious thanks to the Petronas Towers sparkling in the distance: once the tallest buildings in the world, now joint 12th. And onto Thailand – immediately evident by the way the train bounces from side to side: the rails are more rickety this side of the border – and through the suburbs of Bangkok into the city proper.

You might want to come onboard the E&O to experience the outside – included in the itinerary are a couple of short trips, to the rainforesty royal town of Kuala Kangsar in Malaysia, as well as rafting under the River Kwai just northwest of Bangkok on the second day – but you’re more likely to want to relax onboard.

In fact, the only thing that hasn’t changed about the E&O is how difficult it is to get off the other end.

Al Andalus, Spain

Credit: Courtesy of The Luxury Train Club

Spain’s Al Andalus might depart from Madrid, but it’s in the southern, mountainous Andalucia region that it feels most at home, sweeping through historic towns including Seville, Córdoba and Granada as well as the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Al Andalus’ belle époque carriages echo to the sound of music recitals in the four lounge cars.

Belmond Andean Explorer, Peru

South America’s first luxury sleeper train sets off next month through Peru. The Belmond Andean Explorer will ride some of the world’s highest railways – up to 4,800 metres high – giving uninterrupted views of Andean landscapes from two dining cars, an open-air observation car and plush ensuite cabins. Four itineraries range from an overnight trip to the three-day Peruvian Highlands trip, which departs from Cusco, passing remote highland villages and the vast Colca Canyon en route to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa.

Shiki-Shima, Japan

Credit: Courtesy of East Japan Railway Company

Japan’s all-suite train Shiki-Shima hits the rails next month. Panoramic views through the glass walls and ceilings of the observation car are paired with opulent interiors decked out with tatami mats and Japanese cypress bathtubs. The Shiki-Shima, which runs different schedules depending on the season, departs Tokyo for various places in Japan, including Aizu-Wakamatsu and Noboribetsu, on the northern island of Hokkaido – with spectacular stops along the way.

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