Is Classic Train Travel the Antidote to Modern Life?

On a luxurious journey from Singapore to Bangkok, writer Chris Colin lifts the veil on the magic—and mystery—of rail travel.

Is Classic Train Travel the Antidote to Modern Life?

Photo by Sean Fennessy

We had crossed from Singapore into Malaysia, but to all aboard, this was one land, the country of heat. It was thick, permanent heat, the furnace blast. Everything was somehow about the heat: the acrid smell of hot steel in motion, the sheen of warm grease on old gravel, the simple thrill of the metal behemoth shuddering into muggy jungle. Two tidy Germans perched at the observation car’s polished brass railing. The inn operator from England sat nearby, presumably lost in inn-operating memories as track unspooled hypnotically out the back of the train. The stoic smoker from Tokyo made his way through another pack, unflinching as jackfruit and papaya branches slapped the sides of the train. The sun was low. Soon the passengers would change into their gowns and suits, a tuxedo here and there—still, in adults, the thrill of dressing up. The night would sprawl, martinis and petits fours. I wondered who would be stabbed.

Or strangled? Or die by gunshot, conceivably. If dispatched via lady-pistol, lady-pistol then slipped back into something pearl-studded. I knew my way around bygone rail travel, having reviewed my Agatha Christie, but also from just being a person on planet Earth. We are, every one of us, born with fully developed train understanding and yearning. Fifteen percent of the human brain is occupied by images of old steam lines bisecting snowy countrysides, entering ominous mountain tunnels, teeming with trysting spies and royalty. Pick the happiest person you know. A lonesome whistle blows in the distance, and on some imagined plane this poor soul hocks every possession, deserts the family, and hops heedlessly aboard.

You could drive a train through the space between a train and the idea of a train. I was here to do so. My younger brother, Nick, was here for the soft bed.

And for the roast duck and the shower. Nick had been bumming around Southeast Asia for three months when I finagled us a spot aboard the luxurious Eastern and Oriental Express. For a hobo, essentially, he cleaned up nice—Errol Flynn–like, with that thin mustache and trim backpacker physique. I had insisted fanatically on formal wear in the evenings, per the instructions on my embossed invitation. A three-day ride from Singapore through Malaysia and on to Bangkok would surely feature a murder at some point, and ideally a person expires in sharkskin.

And there it had been, awaiting us at Singapore’s gloomy Woodlands station, all stately dark green and ornate old lettering, the squiggliest of ampersands. The thing was nearly half a mile long, with the tremble of horsepower held in check. Fastidiously appointed Thai porters collected tickets. Tasteful vintage fixtures lit narrow corridors the precise width of a set of shoulders plus a cigarette case or small dagger. We found our way to our berth.

No one likes a small room. Everyone loves a tiny room. Our quarters were organizational miracles, everything folded up or tucked behind something else. If train designers got their hands on the rest of the world, it would all fit neatly within Rhode Island. Two steps from the bed was the even cozier private bathroom. We hung our suits. We tested the bunk beds. A stillness rose. A porter passed wordlessly, head bowed. There was nothing to suggest this was any era but one long passed.

It’s that long-passed era that fills seats on a trip like this, but the seduction is soft-focus, imprecise. At the hotel where the passengers first gathered before heading to the station, Nick and I had struck up a conversation with a Swiss couple. The trim, orderly husband was a retired railway man who speculated with us about the vague romance that attaches itself to trains.

“It’s a nostalgia for an early form of travel,” he said, with the genial gravitas certain mustachioed men convey. “This kind of train, it’s a museum. And there’s perhaps a melancholy to it.”


Photo by Sean Fennessy

The melancholy would be pondered later. For now the 1,132-mile overland journey was groaning to a start. One minute a fellow is noting his little brother’s superior abs, the next he is watching frantic Singapore give way to a blur of jungle. The two of us walked to the observation deck and beheld the rush of green things: papaya, teak, palms choked with epiphytes.

Others drifted out, too, testing themselves against the heat—the Germans, the innkeeper, the Tokyo smoker. We were all on script so far. En route to the station, I had outlined for Nick the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, a book about a different but similar train. The murder is the least interesting part. Stuck in a remote snowdrift in the Balkans, Christie’s old train essentially becomes a nation unto itself. Isolation from the outside world serves the plot, of course. The murderer is stuck on board, and Detective Poirot must solve the crime alone. But the train’s utter isolation also provides the book’s deeper appeal: seeing people’s quotidian existences stripped away, and imagining a more profound universe for a few days.

No Wi-Fi. No cell phone reception. Stolen glances into cabins revealed people reading novels printed on paper. Or talking to each other.

There are many ways to describe the reality of the three-day, two-night trip we were actually on, but the price tag cuts to the chase: $2,560. With a 12-year-old’s sense of money, Nick and I had imagined our fellow passengers as titans, magnates, and other forms of billionaire. Maybe there was a titan or two. Over the years, Neil Young, Senator John McCain, assorted princes, and the guy from Jamiroquai have taken berths. But mostly we found ourselves surrounded by pleasant nonmoguls who’d saved for a big anniversary or retirement splurge.

They could’ve gotten from Singapore to Bangkok faster, not to mention cheaper. But flying degrades the species, the consensus seemed to be, making us incurious about the strangers on either side. What the $2,560 buys is a three-day antidote to the beige plastic monotony of contemporary air travel.

Who knows, maybe it buys an antidote to modern life itself. No Wi-Fi. No cell phone reception. No laptops atop laps. Stolen glances into cabins revealed people reading novels printed on paper. Or talking to each other. Or—this can’t be verified, but it really looked like it—thinking about things. Cultural critic James Wolcott, reflecting on hotel rooms past, wrote of the pre-media-saturation quiet in which people could still “hear the tick-tock beneath their own thoughts.” This was that.


Photo by Sean Fennessy

Nick and I settled into a mesmeric little life. Up and down we’d stalk the endless rocking hallway that is a vintage luxury train. Want to check out the front? Yes. Want to lean out over the back? Yes. The library car? Start walking. The saloon car? Turn around. Scenery flying. Smoke in the distance. Monkeys near a generator. The hot forest opening for a dilapidated shack then sealing up again, impenetrable. A muddy river. A lush rice paddy. Rice paddy giving way to acres of rubber trees, taps affixed. Back to the rattle and wind of the open-air car, hot Asia blurring into an infinite Monet.

The inside world felt similarly impressionistic. Meals were a flash of blind dates, each lunch and dinner a new pairing with two new fellow passengers. That first day, over seaweed salmon fillet and pineapple crumble, we met Peter and Alison, a retired accountant and a teacher. “We don’t vacation, we travel,” Peter informed us. From their native England, they’d lit out for Australia, Botswana, Egypt, and the Amazon over the years. Peter’s highlight in all the world: Chicago. He was full of Britishisms. Something about Chicago was “fit as a butcher’s dogs.”

“Is it?” Nick said. It was a Britishism of his own, picked up from fellow travelers. He’d started to say it constantly.

They were from Manchester, which, they told us, was preferable to London. “Is it?” Nick said. I delivered a helpful kick to either his shin or the base of the table.

That’s sort of how it went, the first 24 hours. We sipped martinis with a large and garishly attractive Spanish family, the kind of people who can keep pants pressed no matter how long or sweaty the trip. I read train novels near men drinking gin and tonics. A woman from Dallas got a foot massage in the library, moaning with delight. A solemn I Ching astrologer from Bangkok considered my fortune under a small lamp and delivered all happy predictions, per fortune-telling convention.

Outside, smudges of life edged by. Here, a soccer game in a tiny village, the players pausing to look up and wave; there, on the dirt road leading out of the village, a young woman adjusting her grip around a young man on a motorbike. Maybe they’d grow old together. And maybe this glancing mode was the melancholy our Swiss friend spoke of: the world seen only in glimpses, the rusty bicycle leaning against the house, story untold.

The sheer optics of rail travelare seared into the cinema section of the cerebrum so profoundly that you can’t help but embed yourself in an imagined plot.

Which might explain why I was bent on generating some concrete drama of our own.

“There are some power gays on board—bigger, stronger,” Nick had observed appreciatively upon arriving. He was single now.

“Any chance of a dalliance?” I asked.

“It’s the porter I’d be more interested in.”

“Whatever. Make it happen. Stuff needs to go down on a train like this.”

But he dithered, and soon it was time for another meal. We ate sea bass with an Italian couple. It was one of those meals that becomes a fog of wine and too many bites. What a tremendously muscular head, I remember thinking about the husband. Then we were back in our berth, more or less preparing to dine again.

We could not suffer. Porters attended every whim. The E&O carried 45 staff members for its 97 passengers. They were a dedicated bunch. Yannis, the chef, told me he’d been doing his thing for five years, in his sweltering shoebox of a galley. Before every trip, he brought aboard 200 kilograms of meat and fish. Evelyn, the diminutive train manager, spoke proudly of marriage proposals she’d seen happen over the years. Adirek, a porter, was excited to squeeze in a brief visit with his 7-year-old son, Prince, when we stopped in his hometown in Thailand. They see each other just once a week in the high season. The boy has become a train expert. He can ID any train simply by hearing its approach.

All the while we chugged and puffed, pressing deeper into the Malaysian countryside. At one point, I stood at the window watching it snow in reverse. A thousand flecks of crisp white sprinkled in the green marshland, gradually lifting off the dewy rice paddies and rising into the air. I squinted—egrets. I’d only ever seen lone egrets, but here they were, a whole flock of them.

The sun sank behind the trees, the palm shadows lengthened, and inky darkness erased our tracks. I can’t say this happy train took on a sinister cast, but you can imagine where Agatha Christie was coming from. All around us was the simple ominousness of the unknown, put into higher relief by the comforts within. A thin and ornate wall separated us from uncertainty.


Photo by Sean Fennessy

I lied earlier: We never chugged or puffed. This old train steaming toward Thailand was neither old nor steaming—Nippon Sharyo & Hitachi of Japan built the diesel-powered beauty in the 1970s for a New Zealand company. New Zealand appreciated it insufficiently, so it was loaded onto a container ship, ferried over the South Pacific, and remade by its new owner into its current vintage self. When it comes to the reproduction of outmoded simplicity, the nostalgia industry is nothing short of extravagant.

I lied because this whole thing was a kind of lovely lie, I’d come to realize. The chugging and puffing, supplied by the mind in postproduction, were figments of a broader fantasy. The sheer optics of rail travel—watching from the back, say, as the front of the train starts to round a bend—are seared into the cinema section of the cerebrum so profoundly that you can’t help but embed yourself in an imagined plot. The ride felt fictional those first two days; Nick and I felt like characters in some rolling colonial drama.

Then, on day three, it all changed.

We had crossed into Thailand and eased to a stop along the Khwae Yai River. Ostensibly we were there to see what every tourist for miles had come to see—the bridge, or rather a replica of the bridge, made famous in the World War II film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The whole scene was a postmodernist orgy: A faux-historic train that people vaguely knew from an old mystery novel was now crossing a faux-historic span people vaguely knew from an old movie, and the people were documenting it for eternity on their digital SLRs. It felt like an afterthought when we then boarded a ferry and floated down the river to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.


Photo by Sean Fennessy

Such a bland-sounding name for a death museum. We ambled in and spent the next hour in a state of bewilderment. I’d known very little about the Thailand-Burma Railway, Japan’s unspeakably horrific, depressingly hare-brained scheme to have POWs build a strategic railway through the heart of the jungle. I had no sense of the cholera and hunger and leeches that made shadows of the prisoners over the course of the project. As many as a hundred thousand died, tossed into shallow graves. In the end, the railway wasn’t even of any use.

We were an unlikely tour group for a holocaust museum. A hundred high-paying travelers who until that afternoon had mostly focused on whether there was enough quail in the tom yum vichyssoise. Suddenly we were walking through reproductions of the boxcars that carried English and Australian and American POWs from Singapore to Thailand, 28 men per seven-meter car, plus equipment. Four days and nights on their feet, nose to nose, no room even to lie down.

By the time we got back on the train, something had shifted. The jungle around us, until now just scenery, had a past. Unimaginable misery had been inflicted where we were snapping casual photos.

“Well, that sort of changes one’s entire thinking about trains,” I said. Nick had wandered off to take photos, and I was chatting with a fellow named Christopher. We’d just met and were sitting in the car where, the previous night, a man had been hired to play piano for us, our own private sound track.

“Our suffering isn’t nearly as bad as I had thought,” he replied drolly.

He was from the States but lived in Singapore along with his wife and kids. He was on the train to celebrate his 50th birthday. He looked 40. His wife, Andrea, was one of those people whose eyes have halogen bulbs behind them. They were kind and down-to-earth in a way I hadn’t encountered yet on the trip. We sat in the bar car, chatting about normal, human stuff: the kind of people who ride fancy trains, the advantages and disadvantages of having your kids grow up abroad. “Maybe Amy and I should move to Singapore like you guys,” I said.

We discussed the merits, and then we moved on to the merits of fancy train food. Christopher told me about this book he was reading on the subject of the museum we had visited, Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man. Lomax had survived the POW ordeal, and he had searched for and found one of his torturers years later.

My thoroughly ordinary exchange with Christopher would have gotten edited out of any decent train drama. We’d drawn no pistols under moonlight, no romance was kindled. But trains and train drama aren’t the same, even if your train is gussied up like something from a movie. Whatever great, dark myths lure us aboard must die. It’s the same with all travel. The romance and fantasy drop away. Core ordinariness is revealed. You are not in another era. You’re someone who shows iPhone pictures of his daughter to a nice and intelligent couple before lunch.

The final two hours of the trip felt like the end of summer camp—that strange mix of advance nostalgia and mild self-recrimination over wilder adventures you might’ve had. Christopher and Andrea and I said a warm good-bye, but I sort of bungled it. I didn’t quite say how much I’d enjoyed them. We were rolling toward Bangkok, and the hot chaos of the city reached out 30, 40 miles to meet us. Poor families played by the tracks. They waved up at us, thinking what? We waved back.


Photo by Sean Fennessy

The train squealed into the Hua Lamphong train station. Nick and I snapped final photos of the luxury we had parachuted into, tipped everyone in sight, and began the gloomy shuffle down the grimy platform. Suddenly I heard my name. I turned, and there was Christopher, jogging up along the dark platform. He handed me his copy of the Lomax book. He’d inscribed it, had even remembered our names. It’s not huge, a stranger learning your name on a train in the jungle. But not-huge was what the moment called for.

I would return to that thought in the days ahead, post-train, roaming Bangkok with Nick. We were in the opposite of a luxury train, sleeping in a fleabag motel, eating street food, wondering what was next, with no tracks to follow. Already the Eastern and Oriental Express felt dreamlike again. One muggy afternoon, I heard a whistle in the distance and got a rush pretending it was our train, when certainly it was not.

On our last night in Bangkok, at a small bar, I showed Nick this line from the Lomax book, which I was reading obsessively, partly out of fascination, partly out of fondness for the guy who’d given it to me. The explosive, rhythmic sound of a train, Lomax wrote, “says more to us about getting under way, about departure, than a petrol-driven snarl can ever do; perhaps it has something close to the beat of our pulse.” But of course our pulse also bends to the beat of the train, to its thrill and melancholy, and the glimpses it affords: a cruel history here, a small kindness there, a brother next to you as you roll deeper into a jungle both real and imagined.

>>Next: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Is a Real-Life Time Machine

Chris Colin is a contributing writer for AFAR, the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93 and Blindsight, and bassist for Baby and the Luvies. He was once in a film shot by chimps and teaches writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
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