by Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai
For the month of October, I was surprisingly assigned by the German tour-company “WINDROSE” in Berlin to accompany a small group of guests on a journey through Southeast Asia including a luxurious ride on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok. It quickly came to my mind to read the book of travel writer William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) called “The Gentleman in the Parlour” to prepare for the journey accordingly.
W. S. Maugham was born in Paris, later attending school in Canterbury and university at Heidelberg, and finally settling in the south of France. In
the above a-mentioned book, the travel writer set out by ship from London to Colombo and Rangoon in 1923. There he visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and went up by steamer to Pagan and Mandalay. From Mandalay, he proceeded to Taunggyi to cross the Shan States to Kengtung and on to Chiang Mai, from where he took a train to Bangkok to continue his way to French Indochina by steamer. What an adventure this journey must have been in these early days of travel!
Retracing some parts of Maugham’s adventure, my modern journey started with a low cost carrier flight with AIR ASIA, which departed from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City at 7.50 on October 25 early in the morning. Arriving the day before from Chiang Mai, I had to overnight and was invited to stay at the InterContinental Bangkok, a luxurious hotel with 381 guestrooms overlooking a prime location at the city’s business and commercial center on Ploenchit Road. Located on the 37th floor and commanding panoramic views of the city’s stunning high-rise buildings, Club InterContinental provides exclusive services, with early breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails – services Somerset Maugham had enjoyed, when he was staying at the Oriental Hotel during its former days.
In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, I met with my travel guests arriving from Germany. We stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel downtown in an area that still is called Saigon. Formerly a Khmer port town called Prey Nokor that the Vietnamese had occupied and annexed in the 18th century, Saigon and now Ho Chi Minh City boasts close to 12 million people – most of them on a motorbike.
We did not miss to sip a Saigon Cocktail on the 5th floor terrace of the world-famous Rex Hotel and marveled at the most impressive colonial building of the former Hotel de Ville, which is now the office of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee.
During a one-day sightseeing tour, we visited other attractions such as the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and also the Saigon Central Post Office, which was built from 1886 to 1891 by renowned French architect Gustave Eiffel.
Furthermore, we inspected the important Independence Palace, where the official takeover of power to the victorious communists took place on April 30, 1975. A visit in the Museum of Vietnamese History evoked 3,000 years of a cultural development, which already started in the stone ages, but also showed marvelous art pieces of early Champa and the Khmer Empire. Mixed Taoist-Buddhist temples were seen with the Thien Hau Pagoda in Cholon and the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Old Saigon, while a romantic dinner cruise on the Saigon River was timely to end a fine day.
The next stops on our luxurious tour through Southeast Asia led us by air to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where we stayed one night at Raffles Hotel “Le Royal” in the capital and four nights at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Both hotels – having been built in the 1930s – are even now well known by the special “Elephant Bar” offering colonial cocktails. The property in Siem Reap has just got a new general manager, German Mr. Robert Hauck, who is delighted that the place offers a multitude of sights and experiences.
We enjoyed a stroll at Wat Phnom in the capital and had enough time to see the Royal Palace, National Museum and Central Market. In Siem Reap, we stumbled over the stone castles of Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat and the mysterious Bayon within Angkor Thom. Last not least, we visited the fishing village of Kampong Klaeng, which neatly nestles near the Tonle Sap Lake, and ended our sightseeing tours with temples along the “Great Circuit” such as Prasat Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Phrom – best to visit when night is falling in. Also, don’t miss any of the classical “apsara” dance performances, which echo times of a lost paradise, as well as “Pub Street” with a myriad of restaurants near the Old Market.
To reach Singapore at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, we had to take SILK AIR flight MI 622 from Siem Reap via Phnom Penh on November 2, which was all well arranged by DIETHELM TRAVEL Cambodia. We arrived at Singapore’s Changi International Airport in the afternoon and were transferred straight to the landmark Raffles Hotel Singapore. Founded in 1887 by the four Armenian Sarkies brothers, this iconic property had welcomed Somerset Maugham between the two World Wars and – seen over the times – functioned as second home for people like Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin. Today, Raffles Hotel offers 103 suites, which are dispersed over five wings linked by colonial-styled verandahs, while public areas are large and airy.
Highly recommended is the modern Tiffin Room Restaurant, serving a sumptuous breakfast, lunch and curry dinner buffet. Also, try the refreshing “Singapore Sling” in the Long Bar, which is always frequented by thirsty travelers for decades. Raffles Courtyard serves as a popular alfresco dining place, while the famous Palm and Fern Gardens create a fantastic tropical atmosphere.
An informative city tour brought us to China Town, Little India, Arab Street and Mount Faber to get a feeling about the cosmopolitan flair of Singapore. Especially on the top of Mount Faber, the beautiful and panoramic view over Keppel Harbour, Sentosa Island or distant Indonesia is unbelievable. But coming back from the city tour to the comfortable Raffles Hotel, destiny had struck.
In an urgent message from the general manager of the Eastern & Oriental Express, Mrs. Leesa Lovelace, I was informed that railway services between Malaysia and Thailand have been halted due to heavy flooding. As the Eastern & Oriental Express was presently in Bangkok, the track closure regrettabl meant that the train was unable to reach Singapore in time to operate our scheduled journey as planned. So what to do?
Luckily there was an acceptable alternative given, but within one day later than planned. To enable us to join the train in Bangkok, Eastern & Oriental Express arranged to fly us from Singapore to Bangkok on November 5 with their compliments and still enjoy a two-night journey on the E&O luxurious train heading to Kanchanaburi in the western part of Thailand and back. Thus, we had to extend our stay in the Raffles Hotel for one night. In exchange for the missing railway stops in Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth in Malaysia to see the tropical island of Penang, I suggested to arrange a full day tour from Singapore to Malacca by RMG Tours.
Malacca or Melaka as it is written was the seat of a 15th century Malay Sultanate, which was subsequently colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers that sought to control the whole region and its lucrative spice trade. We visited the old Chinese Chen Hoon Temple, Dutch Red Square and Portuguese fortress with its restored Porta De Santiago, where Saint Francis Xavier preached centuries ago. The whole trip lasted some 12 hours, as we drove along endless rubber, palm oil and coconut plantations, as well as had to go through the international checkpoints.
To make a long story short, we finally arrived in Bangkok to board the Eastern & Oriental Express for the two-night excursion to Kanchanaburi and Wang Pho, where we visited the close-by Muang Sing Historical Park and Elephan Village in the morning. In the afternoon we disembarked the train for a sightseeing tour at the world-famous River Kwai Bridge.
Actually, a ride on the E&O is one of the last, real, oriental adventures as well as one of the most memorable experiences travel can offer in today’s global world. Mrs. Lovelace, who accompanied us personally on this trip, told me that the train is a truly unique way to learn about the wonders of Southeast Asia. From colonial Singapore to mesmerizing Bangkok or vice verse, the rides are very popular with American, Canadian and European guests, who like to experience the East. Also, the train ride is extended to the cool hills of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for at least six times a year.
Merely stepping aboard the green-and-cream carriages of the E&O Express is a thrill in itself. Every compartment is fully air-conditioned and comes with an en suite shower bathroom. While you go for lunch and dinner to the lavishly decorated restaurant cars, a team of international resident chefs will be a guaranty for finest dining. While you dine in the evening, your discreet and friendly steward transforms your compartment into a bedroom. Also, there are Reading Room, Boutique Section, and Bar Car, where the resident pianist keeps you entertained. To round off this trip of a lifetime, you can combine your train journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express with a cruise on board the “Road To Mandalay” – a cruise ship on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar – which would continue your luxurious travelling in the footsteps of Somerset Maugham.
For me and my group the journey ended back in Bangkok, where we stayed in the best possible riverside location, namely at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, formerly the well known Oriental Hotel, where Somerset Maugham had stayed too, when he was in Bangkok. Directly from the Hualampong Railway Station, we went sightseeing including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and on a canal tour, which stopped at the pier of the Mandarin Oriental. ASIAN TRAILS Bangkok had arranged for us a welcome dinner at Sala Rim Nam, which faces the “Oriental” across the Menam Chao Phraya River.
The 393-room modern hotel offers 35 suites in the “Old Wing” including four original residential suites. As the Somerset Maugham suite was occupied, I could only marvel at the fac็ade of the old building, which is more than 130 years old, and looks out into a tropical garden. Instead, I inspected the elegant Jim Thompson suite at Room 1512, which was available for some 1,000Euro. New German general manager, Mr. Jan D. Goessing, is upbeat about the history of the hotel and tries to welcome its guests accordingly.
We all wished to stay a little bit longer than one night at this luxurious hotel, but found a perfect spot for breakfast at the Riverside Terrace to
watch countless rice barges pass by. Our last lunch of the journey we had at the prestigious Lord Jim’s seafood restaurant, which is named after the seafaring character in a Joseph Conrad novel. The journey had proved that dreams come true.
Reinhard Hohler is a GMS media travel consultant and can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com