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MAY 15, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 19

Do-It-Yourself Luxury on Thailand's Railways
By MORRIS DYE


Illustration for TIME by Harry Harrison.

The romance of rail travel is alive and well in Southeast Asia, especially for those who can afford a ride on the Eastern & Oriental Express (www.orient-expresstrains.com). This luxury hotel on wheels--more of a destination unto itself than a means of transportation--shuttles in vintage style between Singapore and Chiang Mai, as well as points in between. Passengers are ensconced in comfy carriages that combine modern amenities with elegant meals and colonial-Asian decor. With rates beginning at around $800 a person for the Bangkok-Chiang Mai run, it's much more expensive than flying, but that's not really the point.

Too dear for you? With a bit of planning, you can enjoy a perfectly civilized rail journey from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos, at a fraction of the E&O price. The State Railway of Thailand operates several trains a day to the border crossing at Nong Khai, including overnight trains equipped with clean and comfortable first-class sleepers. Tickets can be bought up to 60 days in advance at Bangkok's Hualamphong Station or through a local travel agency. First-class berths are a steal at $30 a person, twice that if you're traveling solo and want the compartment to yourself. Be sure to book as far ahead as possible, especially during holiday periods like Chinese New Year, when demand is high. On the day of departure, set aside an hour for provisioning. A limited menu is available aboard the train, but a nice bottle of vin rouge and a simple picnic hamper will enhance your Orient-Express fantasy. Peppers on Soi Langsuan (in the Langsuan Balcony Building near Lumpini Park, tel. 02-254-7355) can fill your basket with Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches and roast vegetables. Or you can pick up a selection of bread, charcuterie and pastries at the Oriental Shop in the Oriental Hotel (02-236-0400). The shop also has branches at Central Chidlom on Ploenchit Road, Isetan in the World Trade Centre and Emporium on Sukhumvit Road.

  TRAVEL WATCH
Do-It-Yourself Luxury on Thailand's Railways
The romance of rail travel is alive and well in Southeast Asia.

Detour
Visitors to Kota Kinabalu can take a trip back to colonial times on the newly refurbished North Borneo Railway

Web Crawling
Depots for sites providing information on passenger rail travel throughout Asia and Russia

Take a taxi to the station in time for your 8:30 p.m. departure, then make yourself at home in the small but serviceable first-class sleeper compartment, equipped with seating for two, air conditioning, a small sink and bottled drinking water. When the train begins to roll, pop open your wine and tuck into your supper as the bright lights of Bangkok gradually give way to the flat farmland of central Thailand. Stewards will come knocking soon after departure to convert your compartment for sleeping, but it's best to send them away and savor the evening hours sitting upright. When it's time to turn in, roust the stewards from their card game and they'll fold the seatback up to form two single bunks made with crisp white sheets and lightweight blankets. Now you're ready to don your best silk pajamas and drift blissfully off to sleep.

After a restful night lulled by the gentle rocking of the train, you'll wake to see the deep green countryside of northeastern Thailand rolling past in dawn's early light. You'll arrive at Nong Khai around 7:30 a.m. Hop on a tuk-tuk to the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong, and, after completing border formalities, take one of the plentiful taxis to reach Vientiane in time for a breakfast of croissants and caf au lait.

Similar journeys can be arranged from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Surat Thani, Trang or Hat Yai, with connections to Malaysian trains for onward journeys to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. For timetables and fare information, visit the State Railway of Thailand's website at www.srt.motc.go.th/httpeng/index.html and Malaysia's KTM Berhad website at www.ktmb.com.my.

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