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Monday, December 25, 2006

Travel: 3 days on a train to Chiang Mai

By Detlef Berg

Chiang Mai, Thailand (dpa) ­ There may be faster and safer ways to travel around Thailand, but is there one more beautiful?

It takes three days for the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of the most exclusive trains in the world, to make the journey from Bangkok to Chang Mai in northern Thailand and back.

The dark green and yellow carriages are a dream come true for the American James B. Sherwood.

Sherwood bought the carriages in New Zealand and had them redecorated with expensive wood panelling, a lot of brass metal work and Asian décor.

Sherwood is a train fanatic and he is also the owner of the historic Orient Express in Europe. The E&O is purely a product of Sherwood's imagination.

Although the railway has not yet provided the backdrop for an Agatha Christie novel, it has managed to stake a place in the ranks of the world's luxury train journeys.

The train's regular route takes it from Singapore to Bangkok and back but several times a year it makes the journey to Chiang Mai.

With a sudden jolt, the train's 22 carriages roll out of Hualampong train station in Bangkok.

At first, the guests' view is of small houses with corrugated roofs nestled tightly along the railway line. Washing hangs from clotheslines and children wave to the passengers.

Later, that seemingly endless sea of houses gives way to the suburbs and half hour-an-hour later the train passes through rice paddies.

The last carriage in the train is an open-air viewing car designed like a veranda where passengers can take in the tropical air or photograph the Buddhist temples passing by.

The first stop is Ayutthaya, about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya was once the capital of Siam and passengers can take a tour of the city in air-conditioned busses.

Passengers who have opted to take the tour learn tidbits of information about the city such as "For 400 years Ayutthaya belonged to the wealthiest empire in the whole of Asia."

A million people lived here during the city's high point in the 17th century.

Merchants came from China, Japan and Europe to found trading posts. The city was built on an island and at the time was surrounded by a 12-kilometre long wall. It was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In 1767, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese. Today, the ruins of the temples and palace complexes are still impressive, so much so that Unesco declared them part of the world's cultural heritage. The restored Wat Phra Si Sanphet is particularly well worth visiting.

Back aboard the train, it's time to enjoy a well-earned shower. The air-conditioned cabins are small and offer little space but they are luxuriously equipped.

There is a tiny living room with cherry wood panelling and intricate inlays. There's also a sofa that converts into a bed and a shower-closet. Two large windows open to the countryside passing outside. However, there's not much time to enjoy the view.

Ulf Buchert, the train's German manager, calls the guests to the diner with a reminder that formal dress is desired.

Dining is one of the highlights of the trip. The tables in the restaurant carriage have been laid for a festive occasion.

The train's chef, Kevin Cape, greets the passengers, indulges in small talk and gives advice on the menu and wines. Everything is fresh and the balancing act between European cuisine and Asian cooking is without doubt a success.

To close the evening, there are cocktails in the bar carriage while passengers discuss the day's events and listen to the pianist play As Time Goes By.

Meanwhile, the discreet staff have transformed the cabin into a bedroom. They are the same staff who serve breakfast in the morning in the cabin on a silver tray with fresh coffee, orange juice and warm croissants.

By then, the train has arrived at its destination, Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

Passengers have only four hours to familiarise themselves with the Rose of the North and of course the train sticks rigidly to the timetable. Not surprisingly, choosing one of the three excursions is difficult.

One of the tours takes passengers to the city's old centre.

There are 36 temples in one area surrounded by a moat filled with water ­ four of the temples are older than any in Bangkok. Chiang Mai has 80 temples in total to discover.

Those interested in traditional craft making should take the second tour.

In the village of Bo Sang at the edge of the city, tourists can observe silversmiths at work, see how colourful paper umbrellas are made starting with making the paper to the painting the umbrellas.

Other stops on the tour include a silk factory and a ceramic workshop where fine, green, shimmering celadon pottery is made.

The third group visits the elephants to see them paint with their trunks. There is also an opportunity to ride an elephant up a steep hill.

The next stop on the journey is Lampang, famous for the horse drawn carriages that are built here.

Another highlight of the trip is a stopover at the River Kwai bridge before the E&O returns to Bangkok around midday.

The path is quite clearly the way on this journey and the E&O plays the main role in that trip.

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