“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories,” writes Paul Theroux in his 1975-published classic, The Great Railway Bazaar.
There’s not really a point to Theroux’s meandering train trip from Europe and through Asia—not even a contrived one such as searching for the perfect meal, as Anthony Bourdain does in A Cook’s Tour. Yet Theroux’s blend of reportage and travel writing—now more history than anything else—seduces the reader into coming along for the four-month ride, country after country, thanks to his ability to capture the excitement of the possibilities of a train ride.
Beginning in London, Theroux heads to Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and Japan, before returning by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Southeast Asia forms a solid and interesting chunk of the trip: Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam all get decent coverage.
Theroux’s trip took place 45 years ago, perhaps making the book interesting today in a way somewhat different to how it was in 1975. From a Southeast Asian perspective, we found it compelling not just as a piece of travel writing, but rather more so as an historical work. So much has changed in the region, and yet in some ways, when one takes a distant view, somehow so little.
Theroux’s sketches of countries are necessarily quite brief, and of the broad-stroke variety. But there’s a skill to capturing some essence of nations (if you agree there’s an essence that can be caught) and Theroux has it. Theroux in fact thinks the essence can perhaps be seen on the trains of each country themselves:
“The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Singhalese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.”
Here meanwhile we have an example in one hit of a country sketch and an historical moment: Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a nuisance. Formerly it was cheap and barbarous, and people went there to buy lumps of hashish—they would spend weeks in the filthy hotels of Herat and Kabul, staying high. But there was a military coup in 1973, and the king (who was sunning himself in Italy) was deposed. Now Afghanistan is expensive but just as barbarous as before. Even the hippies have begun to find it intolerable. The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent. I had not been there long before I regretted having changed my plans to take the southern route. True, there was a war in Baluchistan, but Baluchistan was small. I was determined to deal with Afghanistan swiftly and put that discomfort into parentheses. But it was a week before I boarded another train.”
Vientiane, meanwhile, “is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than the hotels, marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium easier to find than a cold glass of beer.”
There’s an occasional eerie feeling of knowing what some countries will have to face down the track, so to speak. Take Sri Lanka, and the Asian tsunami of 2004: “The train from Galle winds along the coast north towards Colombo, so close to the shoreline that the spray flung by the heavy rollers from Africa reaches the broken windows of the battered wooden carriages.” A train along this track was hit by the tsunami, leading to the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll; at least 1,700 people were killed.
Better than the country descriptions, we especially liked Theroux’s capture of the characters he meets along the way—the older ones certainly now all dead. There’s 80-year-old Mr Bernard on the train to Maymyo, then a Mr Thanoo on the train to Butterworth, and a Mr Lau on the same train. The latter was an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, and Theroux quotes him as saying he has been passed over a dozen times and missed promotions and pay increments because “the government wants to bring up the Malays. It’s terrible. I don’t like the light business but they’re driving me further and further into fluorescent tubing.”
We also love Theroux’s snapshots of the railway stations themselves. Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong, for instance, “is not on any of the tours, which is a shame. It is one of the most carefully maintained buildings in Bangkok. A neat cool structure, with the shape and Ionic columns of a memorial gym at a wealthy American college, it was put up in 1916 by the Western-oriented King Rama V. The station is orderly and uncluttered, and, like the railway, it is run efficiently by men in khaki uniforms who are as fastidious as scoutmasters competing for good-conduct badges.” The station at Hua Hin, meanwhile, “was a high wooden structure with a curved roof and wooden ornamentations in the Thai style—obsolete for Bangkok but just the thing for this small resort town, empty in the monsoon season.”
Then there’s the simple beauty of the scenery, perhaps best captured in Vietnam on the Danang to Hue line: “She was snapping pictures out the window, but no picture could duplicate the complexity of the beauty: over there, the sun lighted a bomb scar in the forest, and next to it smoke filled the bowl of a valley; a column of rain from one fugitive cloud slanted on another slope, and the blue gave way to black green, to rice green on the flat fields of shoots, which became, after a strip of sand, an immensity of blue ocean. The distances were enormous and the landscape was so large it had to be studied in parts, like a mural seen by a child.”
If you need even a little bit of encouragement to take the train in Southeast Asia rather than another low-cost flight to hop between cities, then read The Great Railways Bazaar. You might even find yourself rejigging your itinerary in order to squeeze in a few more legs on rail… Some things might have changed, but most of the lines are still operating and the romance is still there for the taking.
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