Thailand by Train with Eastern and Oriental Express

Helen Oon discovers a whole new way of seeing Thailand by taking the luxury train from Bangkok.

By Helen Oon on 11 June 2014 in Travel Articles

At Bangkok Hualampong Railway Station, as the whistles blow, the iconic Eastern & Oriental Express train springs into life with a cacophony of groans and squeaks and off we go leaving the bustling city behind into the countryside. It ambles through the outskirt of Bangkok through shanty towns peppered with temples, their upturn roofs catching the rays of the early evening sun as we start on our epic journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Eastern and Oriental Express

We visit Isaan in northeast Thailand to visit a typical village to observe their lifestyle. We are welcomed at the village of Ban Maichamuak with a bai sii ceremony where village elders tie sacred white thread around our wrists amid the chanting of prayers by the temple chief. We are then taken on a tour of the village watching the women spinning silk from wriggling silk worms, which are boiled and their silk thread spin on to a spindle. The finished products of raw silk with intricate designs on sarongs are available for sale.

Ban Maichamuak - woman spinning silk

In the late afternoon, the train travels through landscape carpeted with swathes of sugar canes, tapioca and padi fields until we arrive at the small town of Sikhoraphum in Surin Province and take a short coach ride to Prasat Sikhoraphum.

There in the golden evening light, a restored 12th century Khmer Hindu temple dominates the landscape with its red sandstone quincunx pattern similar to Angkor Watt with five pagodas, a rare configuration outside Cambodia. Stalls offering local delicacies are availed to us to sample the Isaan cuisine from the region.

A bevy of dancers splendidly dressed as apsaras, supernatural female spirits, accompanied by warrior guardians armed with swords throng through the temple ground on to a stage erected among the ruins. It is a most magical evening as they dance gracefully accompanied by rousing music and fire-eaters.

Thai dancers

Our excursion takes us to Prasat Phanom Rung, one of the most beautiful and important Khmer historic sites in Thailand. Built as a religious sanctuary near the rim of an extinct volcano between the 10th and 12th century in the province of Buri Ram in eastern Thailand, this magnificent temple is built in a east-west axis where at certain times of the year the sun ray would shine right through its fifteen doors as a sign of divination.

Prasat Phanom Rung

The approach to the temple is via causeway steps and terraces flanked by sandstone columns topped with lotus buds. This leads to raised terraces where five-headed nagas, serpent-like creatures, stand guard along the balustrade and are believed to link the human with heavenly realm. Gables and lintels with relief work depicting tales from Hindu mythologies and religious ceremonies adorn the main 23-meter tower.

Today we arrive at the provincial town of Lampang where we visit Wat Sri Rong Muang, a temple built in the Burmese architectural style of multi-tiered roofs, gables and very ornate pillars. A huge golden Buddha presides in the main altar.

Wat Sri Rong Muang - Golden Buddha

After a dose of Buddhist appreciation in the temple, we travel on horse-drawn carriages through the town galloping through narrow lanes to Ban Sao Nak, known as the house of many pillars. This is a 118-year old house made of teak wood supported by 116 teak pillars. Today the house is a private museum with all the original antique furniture and decoration display as part of the exhibition.

We head off north to Chiang Mai by coach and stay the night at the fabulous Dhara Dhevi Resort. The resort is a mini village with sprawling villas and waterways and even has a padi field. Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (1296-1768) and its distinctive architecture bears the traditional northern style with Burmese influences.

Here the Lanna culture dating back more than seven centuries, is still thriving with its own local dialect of Kam Muang and ethnic food, music, dance and art are making a come-back among the Thai and foreign visitors. In a small temple set in a back lane, an abbot gives us his blessing by chanting and sprinkling of holy water.

A magnificent giant Buddha clad in gold sits on the altar with a stern expression. Then the abbot goes to a set of light switches and at the flick of each switch, a spotlight shines on the face of the Buddha and the Buddha’s expression changes from stern to smiling. It is a clever trick of optical illusion playing with lights but nevertheless adding a divine effect to the statue.

As night falls, we set off to Baan Suan, a charming villa nestled on the bank of the Ping River. After dinner, three graceful dancers perform a traditional ethnic dance by a pool. Dressed in exquisite costumes and headgears, they resemble ancient goddesses playing by the water as they twirl and gyrate to the rhythm of the music.

The musicians step up the tempo of the music and a dancer wearing a headdress of fan-like shape with the tips alight with fire, sails on the river accompanied by a pageant of little floating lanterns on the water. It is a sight to behold! We release khom lawy or fire lanterns into the air, a celebration practised during the festival of Loy Krathong where fire lanterns are set adrift into the night skies to pay respect to Mae Phra Phai, the goddess of wind and air while at the same time sending your wishes to the universe.

On the final night on the train, Ulf, the train manager, springs a surprise on us. We are invited to step outside the stationary train next to a reservoir and with skies peppered with twinkling stars, an elaborate firework display pierce the inky darkness of the night. It is the mother of all grand finales to an epic journey through Thailand.


GETTING THERE
:

Eastern & Oriental Express is part of Orient-Express Hotels Ltd (marketed under Belmond brand), a collection of iconic hotels, rail adventures and river voyages worldwide.


Fly:
We flew from London and had the choice of Thailand International Airways, which flies daily direct to Bangkok from Heathrow, or Malaysia Airlines, which flies from Heathrow to Bangkok daily via Kuala Lumpur (stopover permitted to make a two-centre holiday).


Stay:
For a classic hotel with superb view of the lively Chao Praya River and impeccable service try Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.

In Chiang Mai, check in at Dhara Dhevi to experience the culture and beautiful architecture of northern Thailand.


Best time to go:

Between November and February when the weather is dry and cooler with less humidity.


Which was the most epic train journey you ever took? Leave a comment!

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