Asia's Intrigue, Adventure And Great Food (PHOTOS)

Who hasn't fantasized about the Orient-Express? I want to ditch the hoodie, my overbearing dachshund and job for some adventure on the rails.
11/24/2012 10:11 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2013

I'm so excited, I'm frozen like a mannequin. Holding my head just so, so I don't lose my sweet hat with veil scored in a vintage store. Hoping I'm projecting more Marlene Dietrich than Ruth Buzzi from Laugh-In.

I packed "Murder on the Orient Express." Since I never had the pleasure, what better place to read it than where I'm going?

That anticipation of boarding one of the luxury trains of the world stands out in an Asian adventure full of memorable moments.

Who hasn't fantasized about the Orient-Express? I want to ditch the hoodie, my overbearing dachshund and job for some adventure on the rails.

Having seen lots of Europe and not much of Asia, I decide on the Eastern & Oriental Express, sumptuous sister to the fabled European train. Singapore to Bangkok -- roughly the distance between Manhattan and Miami Beach. The Florida ride is 21 hours packed into a Spring Breakmobile (it always feels like that, no matter how old you are) with people you don't necessarily like. The train trip, three days and two nights. In my own private cabin, with a steward. La-di-da.

Thought I'd also check out Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which I knew as Saigon growing up during the Vietnam War. I was curious to see what it was like nearly 40 years later, still under communism.

Here's how it played out.

Since I have to catch the train in Singapore, I try to string a bunch of fares to get me there from New York around Southeast Asia then back. The prices on airlines I'm familiar with are almost as much as a mid-range used car.

I turn to AirTreks, a company that specializes in international flights. They came through flawlessly for me on a migraine-inducing, round-the-world trip, so I sound an SOS again for connections between New York and Southeast Asia.

Once again, their price is staggeringly cheaper and hassle-free, compared with the competition. (Google round the world and see for yourself.)

There's a catch. I have to fly to Singapore via the Middle East, with an eight-hour layover in Dubai. I end up shrugging off the connection because the economy flights on Emirates are, in a word, fantabulous.

At Dubai airport, I get a manicure, wolf down dynamite Middle Eastern food and do a lot of window-shopping.

In Singapore, despite being half-dead, I take the subway to my hotel because that's what us Nu Yawkas do. BTW, Singapore laws are as strict as they say. Airport signs warn of death for drug smuggling. Jaywalking and littering can also get you arrested. But the people are friendly, and the subway much cleaner than New York's.

The Scarlet Hotel, where I'm staying before boarding the train, is hip and historic and next to a lively Chinatown. With a nearby eatery that comes recommended. The homemade noodles are to die for.

I feel compelled to stop at the iconic Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was supposedly invented. Imposing place, but since I'm not a drinker, the famous cocktail is lost on me.

On to the Eastern & Oriental Express, my five-star hotel on wheels. The cabin and tiled bathroom are more posh than some apartments I've called home. And the steward's programmed to respond to a call button. Heaven on Earth.

Since there's no Internet, nothing to do but break out Agatha Christie, get a foot massage and make sure I'm on time for meals. They're lavish affairs, choreographed by a French-trained chef.

Per the scenery, if you really want to see what's between Singapore and Bangkok, this isn't the trip for you. Quite simply, you're on the train to be pampered. And they do that very well.
But to say you've really been to the lush tapestry of Malaysia and Thailand that glides by? Too fleeting. At best, it's a nice introduction to places on a map.

We get out a few times for a closer look. Once in Georgetown, a Malaysian city that's on the prestigious UNESCO list of world heritage sites. (That generally means it's good.) It dates back to the 1700s, when it was a British trading post. It's one big museum, with a colorful relic on every corner.

The other stop is on the real bridge that inspired the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Almost overrun with souvenir joints, but still a sobering trip back to World War II, when Allied POWs were brutalized into building a railroad.

Last stop: Bangkok, where, after being treated like Lady Gaga, re-entry into the real world is a downer. But the awesome bathroom view from my rented condo lifts my spirits.

My schedule and budget allow only a brief stay. Have a blast at the Chatuchak weekend market, a big local hangout . But another market, a floating one, is flooded with tourists. So's the reclining Buddha. But since Murray Head made it so huge, I've just gotta see it.

Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. After all these decades, its French roots are still showing, and it's still called Saigon. Like the vibrant city, the young professional couple I'm renting a room from are up on the latest everything.

In a city with such an eye toward the future, there's a big emphasis on the past, in the form of the Vietnam War museum. It's surreal being a spectator in this place where the bogeyman is the United States. But this is communist Vietnam, after all, and this is that nation's view of the Vietnam War.

My only other brush with the government as a tourist: I can't access Facebook. I'm told it's blocked.

The entire trek is just enough to whet my appetite for a bigger taste of Southeast Asia someday.

Want to find out more about how I put this trip -- and others -- together? Head over to my blog.

Amazing Asian Adventure