Travel through the Words of Paul Theroux
As the year draws to a close, Yeoh Siew Hoon quotes her favourite travel writer to inspire your railway adventures in 2015.
It seemed only fitting that I should end the year by meeting the man of my travel dreams. Paul Theroux, travel writer and author, has been an inspiration to me since my childhood, so when I was offered the opportunity to interview him during the Singapore Writers Festival in November, I leapt at the chance.
Theroux recounts his train ride from London to Afghanistan and onwards to South-East Asia in “The Great Railway Bazaar”, which made me fall in love with train journeys. The train ride between Penang and Singapore was called the "KTM Express" in the old days, although there was hardly anything "express" about it – it was essentially a slow, sluggish ride through small towns and rural Malaysia. The Eastern Oriental was a fancier way to travel the same route, but as swish as that was, I found myself hankering for the humble express.
Elsewhere in the world, there are plenty more to see when you hop aboard a train. Experience the Canadian Rockies between Edmonton and Vancouver, which takes you through vast sweeping landscapes of big sky and open spaces; the ride from Auckland to Wellington shows off the beauty of the contrasting terrains of New Zealand; the spectacular journey between Milan and Zurich takes you through the breathtaking Alps.
Train rides are a luxury in today’s time-starved world, but they are truly the best way to travel.
“The notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth – with none of the distorting emptiness of air and sea – is possible only on a train,” Theroux said.
He also opened my eyes to travelling through encounters, not just experiences. His best stories are of the people he met.
“I sought trains, I found passengers,” his words sparked my imagination. Think of your best travel stories and they usually involve someone you met and got to know.
His words kept me company when I was flying in a single-engine Piper Malibuin South Pacific. His “Happy Isles of Oceania” was not a happy book, despite the title. At that time, he had just split up with his wife and was clearly depressed, and he wrote about the islands and the people as he saw them through that filter.
But that’s the kind of writer he is, he said during the festival. His mission as a writer is to see things as they are, not as how one might wish to see it or how others might see it.
“It’s an assertion of myself, my view of things.”
He believes that “travel is both a desire to flee and a desire for pursuit” and it is the best way to find yourself, to get to know yourself.
“You don’t discover or find out anything about yourself unless you leave home, then you find out who you are and you learn things about yourself,” he said.
His first visit to Singapore in 1968, when he was a young man of 27, played a pivotal role in him becoming the writer he is today.
“I was looking for a role to play in life,” he said. It was during his stint in Singapore that he started on the novel Saint Jack, which was made into a movie. He calls Singapore “a city transformed”.
“It’s more profoundly changed than any city I can think of or been to.”
As much as Theroux travels – he’s currently writing a book about his travels through the southern USA – he says he likes being at home. I am glad he is as full of contradictions as most of us are. I too like being at home, but I also need to travel.
Here’s to more train journeys and great encounters on your travels in 2015.
Note: Did you know it’s possible to travel all the way from Bangkok to Singapore on train? Start your journey in Bangkok and board the train for a great adventure!