By Ken Scott
Looking back on nearly 30 years of travel in Southeast Asia, I think the most memorable forms of travel have been by slow trains, slow boats, and even slower yet – by bicycle and by foot.
In a way I’m pleased that the rail networks in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam are old, slow and full of character. There’s perhaps no better introduction to a country than ambling through the rich green paddy fields in the restaurant car with the windows open at a stately 40km an hour. Who needs faster? The smells, sounds, sights, even the “minglabar” and “sawasdees” of the people are audible and welcome.
Train traveling, Kanchanaburi, Thailand (Source: TAT)
Oh, and those strangely gothic arrivals and departures in and out of big city train stations are the best. The train slows to 20kms an hour. Kids and vendors scamper off the train lines. The back yard views, life in the raw in the big city – it’s all here – and priceless.
Also beautifully slow and rewarding, the boat rides – the navigations of the narrow canals of Thonburiin Bangkok, the rice barges from Battambang to Siem Reap in the wet season when the waters are high, the boat ride down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan, all provide meaningful and contemplative insights into unadorned local life, Asia at its best.
And for the contemplation of nature, what can beat paddling a silent kayak among the mangroves along the brackish waterways surrounded by cathedral like cliffs of the Andaman coast – with sightings of monkeys, Brahminy kites and exotic palms possible around each bend?
One of the best bike rides I’ve had was in Vietnam. We were somewhere in the northwest. The landscape was peppered with outcrops of sheer limestone. Our hats and sunglasses offered scant protection against the relentless April sun. Riding to the numerous pristine red pagodas along quiet single track roads among paddy fields was like riding through an Indochinese dream.
And for true urban exploration, abandon all forms of transport and walk. What better way to discover Chinatown than by foot? Encounters along the alley ways, the shrines, tiny tea shops, the push cart vendors, all are best done on foot. The only things you need for a successful exploration are sunglasses, hat, comfortable flip-flops, some modest spending money, and most importantly, plenty of time and curiosity with no fixed agenda.
In a world increasingly fast, connected, plugged in and converging, isn’t it nice to go slow in the opposite direction, back to a place and time where the old is new and change is something that might happen tomorrow. But hopefully not.