Paul Theroux talks to Greg Lowe about travelling in Thailand, Burma and China the hard way, and gives a tip on his favourite $10 guesthouse in Siem Reap.
There is a misconception about how travel has changed, like the misconception about the Internet. That it makes people more intelligent, that it puts them in touch, that it gives them more information.
It has made people presumptuous: this idea that the world is all connected, that you can go anywhere and do anything.
I have a lot of trouble getting a Burmese visa now. I went to Burma about a year-and-a-half ago without too much trouble. This time visas are hard to get.
It’s hard to travel in Burma right now. It’s impossible to travel in Afghanistan. It’s difficult to travel in Iran. But I went through Iran and Afghanistan easily 30 years ago.
Look at Africa. People say they went to Africa. That it used to be so difficult. That they went game watching. But the Congo is harder to travel now than when Henry Morton Stanley went there 120 years ago. It is impossible. You couldn’t even follow Stanley’s footsteps. Guys have tried.
When I lived on Ghana, I used to go to the parts of Kenya that are now having problems. I used to drink beer and drive around all different times of the day and night for that matter. That’s a thing of the past.
When I wrote Riding the Iron Rooster, a book about China, my mission was to travel overland. There was no train to Tibet then. I got a car from Golmud, Qinghai. And I got this guy to drive. He freaked out. He had never driven in snow before and he was going very fast. We crashed and rolled the car over. We had to turn it back over. After that he basically was incapable of doing anything apart from sitting in the back seat gibbering and trembling. So I drove.
The car could still move, just about. We had to make frequent stops, but eventually we got to Lhasa in this beat-up wreck. Now there’s a first-class train to take you there.
So the point is that some countries are opening up and are easy to travel. For example, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. Others are closing. There are some dangerous countries now that weren’t dangerous before.
So the nature of travel is this. The situation keeps changing. A place that was easy to travel one time now is very hard.
Discomfort, pain, and anxiety are probably the very core of a good trip. If you have an easy time of it, you’re having a vacation. If you’re really suffering, then you’re travelling.
I never had a worse time than on my Africa trip, when I wrote Dark Star Safari. I went from Cairo to Cape Town, went down the Nile. Stayed on a houseboat. That was very pleasant.
Then I went to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Northern Kenya. It was very lawless. I got shot at. I got hassled. I heard: White man, white man, all the time. Across Lake Victoria it wasn’t too bad. Tanzania was tough. Then I went back to where I was in the Peace Corps. It had disintegrated. It was in chaos.
It was very difficult, but very rewarding.
You don’t want to suffer. But it helps if you’re writing about it.
If you read a travel book about a place, the writer is doing the best that he or she can to describe it. But it’s still just one view of a place. That’s not the absolute truth of a place. It’s just that one person’s view at a particular moment in time.
People say that they capture the spirit of a place. I hope that’s the case. But there’s always more to see.
For example, when I first came to Bangkok, I was looking for Somerset Maugham’s Bangkok, Noel Coward’s Bangkok, Graham Greene’s Bangkok. But the Bangkok that I saw in ’68 was American servicemen’s Bangkok. It was an American soldier’s R&R Mecca, which was 10 times more interesting than the Bangkok of the books.
Every bar was full of American servicemen. That was the impression I had in ’68, and when I came back in ’70 and ’73. When you see American Vietnam soldiers, GIs who had seen the horrors of war and they just came here to forget it. It was wild.
Is travel writing over? No. I think there is always something to write, something to do.
There are books that rest somewhere between travel, anthropology, ethnography, art history. Whatever it is. They’re written by people who really know what they’re talking about.
Wilfred Thesiger wrote a book about the Bedouin called Arabian Sands. He just travelled and lived with the Bedouin for years. He wasn’t intending to write about them. He just liked wandering in the desert and having a terrible time.
But it’s a great example of a travel book about a vanished civilisation.
I do plan my trips. I wing it to a certain point. I study maps. I look at the Lonely Planet guide if there is one. I don’t read travel books for information about the destination, but what I need to know is if I get to a certain place is there a way out of that place overland. Bus, train, taxi, walk. Whatever it is. I’m not interested in air travel. So I look at maps a lot.
The last time I was in Bangkok I took the train to Aranyapratet. I took the bus to Poipet, walked across the border to where there are gambling casinos. I saw a guy, said I wanna go to Siem Riep. Got on a bus. Didn’t know where I was going to stay. There’s a million places, but I made no plan.
When I arrived in Siem Reap, a local guy said he knew a good place – it’s $10 per night. I’m a wealthy man. I could stay anywhere. But I thought okay; give me your best shot. It was a place called Green Town Guesthouse. Perfect. Good noodles, clean room. Laundry two kilograms for a dollar.
I thought I could be here for three months. I had a good time. I was just among a lot of people with a lot happening. I wasn’t in a remote place with a wall around it. So I thought this was really good.
I still get the same thrill from travel, but it really depends on the place. There’s a certain stage in your life – this may be news to people – when you really like to be home.
You spend half your life raising a family and getting your children educated. You find a great place to live. You get a house, you fix the house and you then you realise this is what I want.
I live in Hawaii. Hawaii is a wonderful place. We have great weather, the people are wonderful, the waves are breaking out. I have a little farm there. I don’t live in Honolulu, I live in the forest on a bluff where I keep bees.
I often question why I bother going anywhere else. Sometimes when I go to the airport I say to my wife. Why am I going? Is this trip really necessary?
So the thrill of travel? I see new places. I like revisiting old places. But it keeps coming back to this thing.
You get that feeling that after seeing a lot of the world you also know you’re in a nice place, where you can spend a lot of your time. A lot of travel is about looking for a nice place, a place to live.
I feel like Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve found my Vallima. Vallima is the house in Samoa where Stevenson lived. After travelling all the time he got there and he said: I’m not going anywhere else. I’m here. I’ve found it.