14 February 2011
Making New Tracks to Laos
The Eastern & Oriental Express train plies jungle-lined tracks between Singapore and Bangkok - and has recently added a new journey to Laos.
The badge of the Eastern & Oriental Express train, sported on all its carriages, is a wild Malay tiger. Though now rarely seen in the jungle along the railway this fine creature is also the symbol of the rapidly developing nations that host the train. Since its inauguration 17 years ago the E&O has paced up and down the track linking Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as though caged, looking for an escape.
There has long been talk of expansion of the rail network beyond the Malay Peninsula - of a new section connecting to the Vietnam line which joins Hanoi to China's Yunnan province, and on to the Tibetan Himalaya and freedom! This might have progressed further had not the Khmer Rouge torn up great sections of track in Cambodia which are yet to be re-laid.
But today we find ourselves aboard the E&O in north east Thailand, on what is its first, pioneering journey to Vientiane. Snaking its way through emerald rice fields, it is bound for 10 km of newly-opened track that will take it on a bridge over the Mekong river and on to the capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.
We have already experienced some lively diversions en route since we left Bangkok: the temple complex at Phimai built by ancient Khmer kings in the style of the Angkor group further south. Spared the scratch of tourist sandals it sits, languorously, among brightly flowered tamarinds. A party of white-uniformed Thai schoolgirls arrive. Phones appear everywhere and countless pictures are taken of us alongside the children ('Hello!' 'Pleeese, Than Uu'), a reminder that we are off the main tourist track. Next we head to vineyards with alpine views, where we taste Thai wines of surprising quality in the company of the proprietor.
But now we are crossing the Mekong and road traffic is halted for a while: the track runs along the middle of the road so only one type of vehicle can cross at a time. On arrival at the station a civic committee awaits with drums, music and girls in national dress.
Local hospitality abounds and 200 goodie-bags have been prepared, two for each arriving passenger, which showcase the country's most famous beverages. The first contains tins of Lao Beer - renowned throughout Asia for its smoothness but not quite the perfect chaser to our sumptuous on board breakfast. The second contains many large packets of fruit-flavoured coffee - several months' supply, in fact. It underlines the country's French colonial heritage and heralds the city's many sidewalk cafes where the brew is savoured at leisure beneath sun umbrellas.
Spectacular SilkIf you take home just one thing from Laos, make it a swathe of silk. Look for tie-dye ikat designs and brocade (often with gold and silver threads), all made with dyes from seeds, woods, insects and roots.
Vientiane is a tourism backwater with plenty of charm for those not seeking a 'big wow'. Wide boulevards stretch out from the Pha Tat Luang stupa (pictured top). The National Museum is fascinating, giving the impression that it was last curated in the 1970s, with curling photographs of communist heroes. There are tree-lined boulevards and Buddhist temples, shops with dusty stock-piles of fine French vintage wines and louche riverside bars.
It is a place where one can easily call to mind the French officials of former times, trying not to let a rogue report slip back to Paris to interfere with their life of lotus-eating in the heart of Indochina's Golden Triangle. And how those same officials would have taken to arriving here aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express.
Visit the Eastern & Oriental Express website.