I was very excited for this particular trip because despite my many journeys to the region (Southeast Asia) I had never visited Singapore or Penang, and this was to be my first time aboard The Eastern & Orient Express. The trip concluded with three nights in Bangkok, and although I’ve been several times each visit is different and it’s a fascinating place so I always welcome the opportunity to go back. Delta Air Lines was our partner on this business development trip, which was great because we really utilized their extensive Asia route network. Our group consisted of 8 people in total, coming from seven different US cities. Due to the numerous gateways and multiple flights per day we were able to use 3 separate departure cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit & Los Angeles) for optimal convenience and then meet in the spacious business class lounge in Tokyo’s Narita Airport. All three flights arrived within a half hour of each other and no one had a layover longer than 3 hours prior to our departure for Singapore.

We were spoiled heading over because we were able to experience Delta’s award winning business class. The way home was surprisingly comfortable as well despite being in economy. The entertainment and cuisine (not to mention route network and flight frequencies) is really what sets Delta apart from its North American counterparts in the airline industry.

Singapore

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Being my first visit to Singapore I had a lot to learn. The main things that I had heard about the ‘island city-nation’ (this is what it is commonly referred to as) were that it is clean and expensive. These minor points are true but there is so much more!

Singapore is an island off the Southern tip of Malaysia connected by multiple bridges. The size of the island is only 31 x 16 miles and amazingly 5.5 million people call this city-nation home. The port in Singapore is very impressive and is one of the five busiest ports in the world.
One of the things that I found most fascinating about Singapore is that the island has grown significantly over the past few decades and it continues to grow. This is being done using ‘reclaimed land’ – a process in which earth obtained from its own hills, the seabed, and neighboring countries is used to extend the island further out into the sea. This land reclamation has led to Singapore increasing its size by about 25% over the past 40 years. In fact most of the modern hotels and entertainment centers visited by tourists, and even the airport, are in areas that was not even land just two decades ago…

This map shows the growth of Singapore over the last 4 decades. In another 20 years it will be even larger.
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Another amazing thing that I learned while traveling was that Singapore has NO natural resources (zip, zero, zilch). Everything, including water which is piped in from Malaysia, is imported. This fact combined with the large population in such a small area makes it very understandable as to why it is expensive to live in Singapore. Given the lack of natural resources it was decided long ago that Singapore should be developed into a financial power – that plan has worked as Singapore is considered the world’s 4th leading financial center! Singapore has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, with one out of every six households having at least one million US dollars in disposable wealth. This excludes property, businesses, and luxury goods, which if included would increase the number of millionaires.

The millionaires of Singapore are not the only ones making it rain; the climate is tropical rainforest. Sitting just 1 degree north of the equator does not allow for much variance in temperature. The temperature ranges from approx. 75 – 95 degrees Fahrenheit and it is very humid. Although the climate doesn’t fluctuate much April and May are the hottest months, with the wetter monsoon season from November to January.

Other general info:

  • The currency is the Singapore Dollar (SGD) which trades US$1 = SGD1.33
  • They are in the time zone GMT +8 (13 hours ahead of New York, EST
  • Since it is an old English colony people drive on the left hand side of the road
  • Buddhist is the most widely practiced religion (34%), but it is a very diverse country
  • Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil

Now on to the fun stuff – the actual trip:
We were met upon arrival just after midnight at Changi Airport by Destination Asia, our hosts for the week. The airport is large and modern with lots of shopping and dining options. In that sense the airport reflects the overall culture because dining, along with shopping, is said to be the country’s national pastime.

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The following two and a half days were spent exploring the city and seeing all that there is to do in this bustling international metropolis. The trip got off to a great start because we had entertainment for the 20 minute ride to our hotel from our incredibly knowledgeable and humorous guide Alan. The Singaporean did a great job of familiarizing us with his hometown, while keeping us chuckling and learning throughout.

We spent our nights at one of the truly iconic hotels of the world, the stunning Raffles Singapore.

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I could not come up with one negative thing to say about this property if I tried. The grounds are beautiful and well maintained, the lobby spectacular, rooms well appointed and homey, and the restaurants and bars elegant and delicious. Each of the 101 suites (there are 84 Courtyard & Palm Court Suites, which is the entry level room) comes with all the amenities one could ask for and even has 24 hour butler service. There is also the famous Raffles shopping arcade just outside the hotel and it features The Long Bar – the birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail.

Our time in Singapore was spent seeing the sights and eating, with a sprinkling of shopping. Singapore is a relatively easy city to get around as long as you are comfortable using public transportation. Due to the high population density traffic can be horrible. The government has placed hefty restrictions and fees just to own a car to try to combat the traffic problem but it’s still an issue. The public transportation system is excellent city-wide. There is a bus network but that isn’t ideal due to the traffic, so the way to go is with the trains (MRT or LRT). The train network can get you almost anywhere and it is inexpensive. For anyone not comfortable using public transport there are plenty of taxis around and they are reasonable in price.

The highlights of our touring included:

A Class on Tea – we were hosted by one of the foremost experts in tea who took us through the four types of tea (black, green, white & oolong). We got to taste, smell, learn & laugh. It was very lighthearted and very fun.

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City Tour – we spent a half day covering most of the city. We visited popular tourist areas including Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam (a Malay area). The tour really highlighted the diversity of the city. We also stopped at the urban planning center which was very cool. This featured a huge model of the city and showed the layout of Singapore today, it marked reclaimed land, and showed future projects and developments. Late in the afternoon we also took a fun cyclo ride through the busy streets.

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Gardens by the Bay – this park opened to much acclaim in 2012 after 6 years of planning and development. It is built on a plot of reclaimed land in Central Singapore and has 3 different waterfront gardens. There is a vast variety of plants and flowers from all over the world and even an indoor waterfall. Most leisure travelers that visit Singapore visit this new iconic structure and it has become incredibly popular for private events and functions.

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Singapore River Tour – this was probably my favorite tour that we did in Singapore. It was about 90 minutes on a boat that traveled down the Singapore River through the largely European influenced areas and then into the main marina where most of the new hotels and entertainment centers are located. It was a stunning ride!

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Following two and a half days in an amazing city it was time to check-in for the Eastern & Oriental Express, which conveniently is done at the Raffles Hotel.

Eastern & Oriental Express

Our next two nights were spent aboard the world famous E&O Express.
Following check in at Raffles Hotel you have some time to enjoy a welcome drink at the Long Bar while the staff finishes all check in procedures. Once all passengers are present and checked in you are shuttled to the train station by a Destination Asia minivan. Although the distance to the station from the center of town is not that far the traffic is bad so it took us approximately 40 minutes. Customs & immigration formalities are taken care of at the station, so you are technically in Malaysia even before boarding the train. Our journey was from Singapore to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth. Unfortunately you get to KL in the middle of the night so you do not get to see the city. There are two excursions however, one to Penang and the other on the River Khwai for a short cruise and a visit to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.

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The train is as elegant as advertised. The colonial style train cars bring you back to a foregone era. The train consists of multiple dining cars, sleeping coaches, a lounge, a bar car, and my favorite – the observation car. The back of the train is where the beautiful observation car is situated; there is a bar and some indoor seating with large windows and then a very comfortable furnished outdoor area that could comfortable seat about 10 (with standing room for plenty more).

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Every meal aboard the train was superb! It is incredible that the chefs can produce such quality food and beautiful plating aboard a moving train. Breakfast is served in cabin on a tray, while lunch and dinner are plated and in one of two dining cars (there are two seatings for each). There are also snacks available in the bar cars throughout the day. We all received all menus from the trip before disembarkation as well.

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There are three categories of cabins aboard E&O Express – Pullman, State & Presidential. During the day the cabin is a lounge with a couch, and while you are enjoying dinner your butler convers your sofa into a bed. I was in a Pullman cabin which was a bit small but comfortable. I was most impressed with the en suite bathroom which had ample space and great water pressure in the sink and shower. The State and Presidential are obviously larger so they are a bit more comfortable. There is minimal storage space in the cabins so passengers are asked to check larger luggage in a train car that is inaccessible to passengers and only bring a small duffle or carry on in their cabin.

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As previously mentioned there were two excursions on the journey:

PENANG

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Penang is an island and key state of Malaysia; it plays a crucial role in Malaysian economy, tourism, history & culture. The ride from the station in Butterworth to Penang was about 20 minutes and then another 10 minutes by ferry until you reach Penang. Our time was limited but we did a nice walking tour through the market and the Street of Harmony and then visited a beautiful Chinese clanhouse called Khoo Kongsi. Our time in Penang was thoroughly enjoyed but I think we all would have liked a little more.

Kanchanaburi/River Khwai

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This excursion featured a short boat ride on the River Khwai while a historian gave a talk on the river and the rail line and the historical significance. The most interesting part of his talk was him explaining how the book/movie was totally historically inaccurate. The boat trip ended at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and there was time to walk around there and also visit Don Rak War Cemetery. We then reboarded the train to make our way to Bangkok.

Bangkok

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Upon arrival in Bangkok we were once again greeted by a smiling face from Destination Asia. This time it was our guide Khun Mae, and she brought along two beautiful Thai dancers to greet us!

Bangkok, the capital and most populous city in Thailand, sits on the Chao Phraya River and is a major hub for business and tourism in Southeast Asia. Bangkok was named the global top destination city for international visitors in 2013 in the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index.! It is a sprawling city that stretches out to large suburban areas, but a majority of the points of interest for leisure tourists can be found along the banks of the river that runs through this metropolis. Bangkok is also a tropical climate but with much more variation in weather than Singapore: Hottest in April/May; Coolest in November/December (still warm); Wet or Monsoon Season is late May – early October (Sept is the wettest); December & January tend to be the driest.

Getting around the city is quite fun because you spend some time on roads using private vehicle, taxi, buses, or my favorite – the tuk tuks; time on boats using the river to get around; and there is also a very good rail system (especially the BTS Skytrain).

Bangkok has become an incredible place to visit for people of any age and with any interests. The city is rich in history, culture and religion. The culinary scene takes on a life of its own; there is a great vibe and nightlife scene which can be as tame or as rowdy as one would like. And on top of all that it is very safe, especially when compared to cities in the Western hemisphere.

Several people asked me if I was worried to travel to Bangkok only about six months after the government coup in May 2014, and my response was categorically NO. The people of Bangkok, and all of Thailand, are incredibly friendly and peaceful and although there were some street closures and curfews in place during the changing over of government the streets remained peaceful and there wasn’t the faintest hint that anything at all had taken place during my visit.

Other general info:

  • The currency is Thai Baht which trades at US$1 = approx. 33 Baht
  • They are in the time zone GMT +7 (12 hours ahead of New York, EST)
  • Almost 95% of the Thai population is Buddhist
  • The official language is Thai, but most people that work in the tourism and service industries have a good command of English. I did not encounter any language barriers at all.

Our host for our time in Bangkok was Shangri-La, which has a prime location on the river right in the middle of the city. The iconic hotel has two large towers housing a total of 802 rooms. There is a beautiful swimming pool on the property adjacent to the river and Shangri-La Bangkok features 5 restaurants and 3 bars. Our welcome dinner was hosted by the hotel and they presented the most scrumptious five course dinner, with each course being served in a different restaurant! This was a most creative way to expose our group to all that was on offer.

With the large number of rooms spread over two towers there are many room types so be sure you know what you want and you are in fact booking the correct category.

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Our time in Bangkok was a bit shorter than what we had in Singapore but we certainly made the most of it. We did what most tourists (and especially FAM trips do) – some touring, lots of eating, and a bit of shopping… Our first day was spent seeing the sights of Bangkok on a city orientation tour. It was very cool because we combined several modes of transportation using the a minibus, speed boat, tuk tuk, and our legs as we drove and boated to certain destinations and walked through the bustling market, where fresh flowers, fruit & vegetables, poultry, and other goods are traded daily.

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Besides the market we got to see numerous things along our journey, including:

Traditional Thai Homes – people keep houses right on the river in their family for generations. They use their motorboats to get everywhere; it is very cool to pass through these canal neighborhoods.

The Grand Palace – a complex of buildings at the heart of the city; the palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, currently resides elsewhere, but the Grand Palace is still used for official events. The palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city so expect crowds.

Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha) – one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok and home to more than one thousand Buddha images. The compound incorporates a host of superlatives: the largest reclining Buddha, the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and the country’s earliest center for public education. The genuinely impressive Reclining Buddha, 46m long and 15m high, illustrated the passing of the Buddha into nirvana (Buddha’s death). The figure is modeled out of plaster around a brick core and finished in gold leaf. Mother-of-pearl inlay ornaments the feet, displaying 108 different auspicious lak-sa-na (characteristics of a Buddha).

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We enjoyed many fine meals throughout the entire trip but one of the coolest new venues to open recently in Bangkok is called Asiatique. This nighttime hot spot sits on the river and features 1,500 boutique shops, and 40+ restaurants/bars (consisting of food stands, traditional bars, and fine dining establishments). The complex, covering nearly 30 acres, is open from 5pm – midnight daily and can be accessed by road, boat or rail.

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Our last day was spent taking a tour of Jim Thompson’s house, another tourist favorite in Bangkok. Jim Thompson is known as the ‘Father of Thai Silk’ and his house has been preserved as a museum in his honor. Located in the heart of the city, the house and garden retain a jungle flavor with city noises muted by the trees and nearby canal. Jim Thompson disappeared while on a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, so his famous Thai house is a lasting reminder of his deep love of Thailand. Inside is a marvelous collection of art and antiques that Thompson loved so much.

After the tour was more food – a beautiful farewell dinner – and then off to the airport to begin the long journey home. Southeast Asia holds a special place in my heart and I love each city and country for various reasons; my time spent in Singapore, Malaysia, and Bangkok only further reinforced my affection for the region.

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