The Greatest of Trains

India / Maharajas’ Express / Mumbai | December 5, 2013

I recently returned from discovering the holy grail of trains. A sleeper train which is so comfortable a night’s sleep is as good as in any hotel (well, almost). A sleeper train where a private cabin is big enough to not just swing a cat, but wrestle a tiger and the ensuite facilities are not hidden in a cupboard. A train where the food onboard is some of the best local cuisine you can ever taste.A train which takes you from one day to the next to some of the most exciting, vibrant cities in the world, and provides you with experiences that most would say money simply cannot buy. “What is this train?” I hear you ask. Well ladies and gentlemen, this train is in India, and it is the Maharajas’ Express.

I first travelled to India 8 years ago, and spent 2 months with a bag on my back travelling the country in 3rd class on the trains which have made the country famous throughout the world. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but I would be lying if I said it was constantly comfortable and pleasant (I still have the scars to prove it).

India has always been somewhere to visit where one has to sacrifice certain niceties and rough it. It is true that the sheer number of people and the obvious poverty are unavoidable and can be at times uncomfortable to say the least, but it is possibly the most diverse, magical, enchanting, and historic country in the world, rich in soul and culture unlike any other place. A trip to India for any budding photographer is like being the proverbial child in the biggest sweet shop they could imagine. The experience of travelling on the Maharajas’ Express gives travellers the opportunity to experience every gem this country has to offer, but from the comfort of a 5* luxury hotel on wheels.

My journey began in Mumbai or Bombay as the locals prefer to call it. I was lucky enough to stay at the Taj Palace hotel, infamous for the horrific terrorist attacks of 2008. As with every major hotel and tourist destination in India, the security at the hotel is obvious and reassuring. The staff at the hotel, who had been subjected to such unbelievable horror, made this possibly the warmest and most welcome hotel I have ever stayed in, where each and every employee welcomes guests with a genuine smile and Namaste. I spent the morning exploring the old Prince of Wales Museum and the India Gate, whilst getting pestered for a little change or a photo. Of course I ended up having the obligatory bit of coloured string wrapped around my wrist with what I was told is a special Hindu blessing. The cynic inside me tells me that I’m just being marked as a tourist whilst being asked for a small amount of rupees, but in India I think it’s important to let the romantic in you come out.

After all the passengers of the train had been gathered together back at the hotel for some introductions and formalities, we were all transported to the majestic VT station (sadly not all the stations we stopped off at on our journey were of UNESCO heritage status) for a welcome, which by the end of our trip we became more than accustomed to. No less than the Bombay Police brass band had been summoned there to bid us farewell, together with crowds of eager onlookers. Before we boarded the train we were presented with the most beautiful flower garland, which by the end of the trip was one of a large collection as there was a similar ceremony at every stop along our way. There really is no hiding the secret to this train: it is called the Maharajas’ Express since everywhere you go whilst on board, you are treated like royalty.

Life aboard this train is a relaxing affair as I’m sure you can imagine. The two bars are wonderful spaces to meet with the other passengers and exchange stories, and the canapés just keep coming. The food is an experience in itself, and some of the best I have eaten. It really does take some immense skill in my eyes to be able to constantly produce food of that quality, including freshly baked croissants and hand-made chocolates on a daily basis, on a train. The chef, who made himself known to all onboard, was really hospitable and willing to fulfil any requests, even a wonderfully rich and delicate chocolate birthday cake for one of my fellow passengers.

A trip to India however is not all about spending your time on a train, no matter how good the train is. At each stop we disembarked to marvel in a once in a lifetime experience, be it exploring an ancient Buddhist cave network which could double for an Indiana Jones set, or spotting crocodiles and wild tigers from a dangerously open top truck. I have to say my personal favorite memory of the whole trip would have to be playing Elephant Polo on the Maharaja of Jaipur’s back lawn. Sadly he wasn’t there to witness my unquestionable natural talent at the game, but his personal staff ensured that we were all well catered for.

In my eyes there really is no better experience in the world than travelling in India, and the Maharajas’ Express has taken it to a whole new level. If you have a special occasion coming up I would strongly suggest you start saving now, as in a couple of years the secret will be out and everyone will know about the best train in the world.