Travel writer Michael Williams travelled on the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express from Thailand to Laos to discover a world of relaxation.
The air is thick with the scent of frangipani as, bathed in the velvety warmth of the approaching day, I steal out clutching my precious parcel of sticky rice. I can feel its heat against my chest, as I hurry through the darkened streets with just a few insomniac cats for company. Will I make it in time?
But yes, here they are: emerging like wraiths out of the morning mist, a solemn file of saffron-clad monks hold out their bowls as I kneel to make my offering in the ancient Buddhist ceremony of tak bat. The idea, extending back at least eight centuries, is to ‘make merit’ – through my sticky rice offering, I attach myself to the spiritual life of the monks, gaining something akin to a karmic credit as I do.
But I must say that I’m feeling fairly karmic already, even on what is my first day in this idyllic Laotian mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang, one of the best preserved towns in south-east Asia and a Unesco world heritage site. Unlike many of my fellow tourists who have arrived via cramped aeroplanes or bone-shaking buses, I arrived in Laos aboard a train. And a pretty special one at that.
The morning before, I rolled serenely into the station near the capital of Laos, Vientiane, on board one of the world’s most luxurious trains – the Eastern & Oriental Express, sister of the famous London to Venice service. This is a rare foray by the international train into a tiny, landlocked country with no railway network of its own.
The journey from Bangkok is extraordinary. The Eastern & Oriental Express threads its way over forgotten tracks, through the jungles and remote mountainsides of north-east Thailand. Agatha Christie’s Poirot would certainly have loved it, though he might have had to loosen his collar in the tropical heat. This is, more accurately, the province of that other titan of fiction, Somerset Maugham. Here is a rare chance to take a journey into the exotic old Indochina of Maugham, before it is submerged forever beneath the modern world.
I had the perfect prep before joining the train at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station: staying in that favourite haunt of all great British writers, the Mandarin Oriental. Here you can snuggle into the Somerset Maugham suite with its personal library and views over the Chao Phraya river, all viewed through the indulgences typical of the 1920s colonial era.
No sooner have we departed Bangkok station, than I am being fussed over by my personal steward, Funon. I find him swishing specks of imaginary dust from the highly polished elm and cherry wood marquetry of my sleeping compartment. He disappears, reappearing moments later with a tray baring a glass of champagne. As I sip, he hangs my white suit. Smoothing the folds, he remarks approvingly: “You are clearly getting in the mood, Sir.” How could I not be?
As we head north to the Thai border, the journey is an exquisite mosaic of fine food and dramatic, semi-tropical scenery. True, the metre gauge tracks in the north-east of Thailand are quite rickety, almost certainly unchanged since their Victorian construction, but this does not deter French chef Yannis Martineau. His cuisine is a miracle of Gallic-Thai fusion, created from local produce and freshly cooked in his rocking kitchen on wheels; medallion of beef served with spinach and soya bean stuffed pimento in vindaloo sauce, followed by warm chocolate pudding with coconut ice cream and vanilla custard. Even the wine is local. The train stops at a remote platform for a tasting at the Khao Yai winery and, surreal though it might seem to cultivate vines in the jungle, the quality of these crisp whites is on a par with those of the New World.
The best moment of all comes as the haze of the warm evening fades into night. I relax in an open-air car at the rear of the train, enjoying fleeting moments of intimacy with the places and people we pass. Winking signal lamps and the light bulbs of tiny stations disappear into the night. The fragrant smell of wood smoke and a million delicious dinners waft through the air. Children in tiny track-side hamlets wave like crazy, their barking dogs frantically chasing the rear lights of the train. I watch all, clad in my crease-free white suit and panama hat, sipping contentedly from my extra-large Singapore sling.
No wonder then I feel so relaxed on arrival (even the jolty bus journey from the station could not ruin the mood). Who could not unwind in this soporific mountain kingdom, as yet unspoilt by tourism and the excesses of the modern world? You can almost believe the legend that the place was founded 1,000 years ago, simply because the Buddha smiled when he stopped here to rest a day. Nestling in a ring of misty mountains and lapped by the lazy plum-coloured waters of the Mekong, this tranquil place of golden temples, humming saffron-robed monks, flower-filled streets and faded old colonial shop fronts is heavy with the magic of the past. Some have compared it to Shangri-La. But, unlike James Hilton’s fictional creation, Luang Prabang is a real-life paradise that anyone can enter.
For history buffs, the heritage of this one-time kingdom capital – dating back to the seventh century – is a joy to explore, with its lavish royal palace and more than 80 historic temples. However, further treasures are to be found if you are willing to dive into the alleys and cobbled lanes that echo to the shrieks of children and the gossip of the day. On the riverbank, in tree-shaded cafes, old men shoot the breeze, puffing on strong tobacco and sipping glasses of the potent Lao coffee. If you are very lucky you might turn up a rare prize, as I did, by rummaging through one of the backstreet junk shops.
Footsore but happy and with my new trophy – a battered antique Buddha – tucked under one arm, I retreat to the calm of my hilltop hotel. Belmond La Residence Phou Vao is a former R&R centre for the Americans during the Vietnam war, but is now the most luxurious address in town. Here I accept a gracious invitation to experience a ‘Path to Tranquillity’ massage: a Laotian speciality, combining a warm oil body massage with a soothing hot herbal poultice of sweet basil and lemongrass. I just about manage to stay awake long enough afterwards to enjoy dinner by the lake, where I dine by the flames of 500 candles as the sun goes down over the Luang Prabang mountain range. It’s not hard to see why the Lord Buddha was smiling when he came here.
Meon Valley Travel can tailor-make a holiday on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Thailand to Laos. To enquire, call one of our experts on 01730 711010