Backpacking around Asia is a wonderful experience that has almost become a right of passage for post-uni twenty-somethings. With so much fantastic variety between Asian countries there is an urge to see as much of it as possible.
Getting from A to B, however, is never as straightforward, timely or at all comfortable as you would hope.
But despite this, the rewards are worth it. Yes, knocking sweaty knees with disgruntled locals and terrified tourists, sleeping on your valuables or covering your fleshy bits so as not to tempt the naked erections of train perverts (true story, see below) are all necessary evils.
It’s worth pointing out that while I have personally tried each of these modes of transportation, any of the embarrassing stories you read here probably happened to someone else.
1) Indian Trains
Indian sleeper trains are like freight trains in both length and comfort. Snooze on the rat infested station platforms for around 6 hours and one might turn up, though the 15mph trundler will still take another 20 minutes to come to a complete stop.
Here, you can expect an explanation of the weird, blotchy stains that mottle the carriage sides, as men of all ages will clamber out of the carriages or up from their makeshift platform beds to mark their territory on the sides of the train.
The stereotypical image of teeming carriages spilling passengers beyond the walls to cling to any part of the train they can lay their hands on for 9 hours is not too far from the truth, particularly around Diwali and other festival periods that call for mass intercity migration. You can expect up to 400 people for each 150 capacity carriage and many more that will fail to squeeze on.
“if you can make it to the finish line without a stranger’s naked penis resting casually on your shoulder like a friend of mine had, you’ve did well”
Booking a bed probably won’t help, either. You will still have to fight among a melee of passengers who have already claimed the bed you have paid for. Eventually, you will be too tired to argue and will sleep face to face with an old man from Kolkata, drifting off to the gentle chorus of close proximity farts, burps and snores.
To top it all, you can expect to regularly wake in the night to the staring eyes of someone who has opened your small modesty curtain just to take a peek.
You will arrive 5 hours late and severely bloated from holding in your gut demons rather than having to face the horror of a hole that passes for a toilet.
Still, if you can make it to the finish line without a stranger’s naked penis resting casually on your shoulder like a friend of mine had, you’ve did well. Weird that she refused to take it as the compliment that was obviously intended…
2) Indian/Thai Elephants
What’s more exciting and exotic than a ride on the back of an elephant? No wait, not exciting and exotic… what are the words I’m looking for? Fucking terrible. That’s it.
If you still can’t picture it, head to Jaipur, India and see the endless line of fretful elephants, de-tusked and depressed, carting fat tourists up the hill while they fan themselves.
“There is nothing wrong with riding elephants per se, just do the research guys”
Or head to the mountains of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where you can pay a premium to sit on a tame heffalump that still shows the scars of being brutally domesticated with pickaxes and sticks.
There is nothing wrong with riding elephants per se, just do the research guys. Riding them bareback is cool. Illegally capturing wild elephants, sticking a spine-breaking sofa on their back and making them cart tourists around all day is not.
The quintessential Asian get-around is the ever present and ever pressing Tuk-Tuk, aka Rickshaw, aka screaming death cart. Pick up one of the handmade miniatures made from beer cans on every street in Thailand and you have a pretty accurate scale model, both in looks and performance.
The Tuk-Tuk can be a lifesaver when stepping out into a new town at midnight and having no idea where to go. But more often than not, getting in one means embarking on a game of Tuk-Tuk roulette – only 1 in 6 drivers will actually take you where you want to go. More than likely, the driver will take you to his friend’s jewellery shop or a ping-pong show.
“Pop pop! Ping pong?” Goes the opening gambit, followed by a menu of just what you can expect to see flying out of a middle aged woman’s vagina.
It’s good to see where the priorities of a Tuk-Tuk driver lie.
Luckily, if you aren’t encumbered with heavy bags, the Tuk-Tuk’s open sides is easy to do a runner from if things turn sour after the third time shouting “Just take me where I asked to fucking go!”
A visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia wouldn’t be complete until you take a tour of the city on the ubiquitous cyclo. For a mere $1 you can pretty much go anywhere on these charming little traditional two-seaters.
This is great until, 5 minutes into the journey, you realise that the wheezes of exertion from the 60 year old bloke that is carrying the weight of 3 people plus bags are building to a near heart-attack crescendo.
Tip well, these guys earn it.
5) The Trusty Scooter
Ah, the scooter/moped. Powered by the same engine they put in hair-dryers, this always available and unbelievably affordable mode of transport is not just the cheapest option in the long run, but by far the most liberating and fun.
The only real way to discover a new city or explore mountains and rice paddies is to head out solo, away from the standard tourist trails, and embrace your two-wheeled freedom.
“They’re powered by the same engine they put in hair-dryers…”
Your hired scooter probably doesn’t have a working speedometer and the mileage will have been broken since it topped 200,000 kilometres, but the first time you hit the Hai Van pass in Vietnam or head out with no real goal but to drive around town, you won’t care at all.
Don’t be afraid to try one. The chaotic roads of Hanoi and the pot-hole riddled dirt-tracks of Cambodia seem to make sense when you do. Even the families of 5 crammed onto one bike don’t seem too daft when you have experienced it yourself.
Just don’t get too cocky and join the plethora of dumb backpackers who sport the infamous Thai tattoo (see above).
6) Dodgy Overnight Bus
Travel anywhere in South East Asia on a budget and you will find yourself taking several overnight buses. Book with a travel agent and you will be able to upgrade to the ‘gold package’ for twice the price, just to end up on the exact same bus as everyone else with a free-for-all seating policy.
If you are lucky you will get a reclining seat, a bottle of water and a quiet ride. Not so lucky are those who end up on a karaoke bus, which will blast 15-minute karaoke epics through tinny static speakers for 12 hours, despite no-one singing along.
“A friend of mine who was forced to make an adult nappy out of his beach towel halfway through a 14 hour trip.”
Some will have toilets, most will rely on overpriced service stations at a rate of one stop every four hours. Stock up on Immodium because unless you are willing to only eat Lays crisps and Oreos for the duration, the service station food will give you the shits.
You really don’t want to end up like a friend of mine who was forced to make an adult nappy out of his beach towel halfway through a 14 hour trip.
7) Dodgy Overnight Boat
Can’t afford the extra £10 for the fast boat? See how you feel by the end of the slow boat.
You will rock up at the harbour for the 9pm departure and chirpily say “Oh, that looks alright actually. I’m glad I didn’t shell out like those other saps”.
By midnight, you will still be waiting to depart and your face will have sank almost as much as the now overloaded boat has. The crew will still be piling mopeds, island supplies and, bafflingly, more boats onto what you thought was bed space, despite water now breaching the windows of the bottom deck.
“If you’re a fan of petrol fumes, sleeping on hard wood and sharing one shitty toilet between 200 people for 12 hours this is for you.”
Still, if you’re a fan of petrol fumes, sleeping on hard wood and sharing one shitty toilet between 200 people for 12 hours then you got your money’s worth.
Now Mpora would never condone drug use but this seems like the sort of situation where a couple more Immodium wouldn’t quite cut it, and an over the counter valium would come in handy…
8) Walking everyfuckingwhere.
S’good fun. For added fun, travel with a girl who will pack heavy and give up at some point so you get to carry two bags while she complains about how her legs hurt.
9) Rubber ring
Last time you were drifting in an inner tyre on a lazy river, didn’t you just think “This is awesome but it really needs beer”? I know I did.
BOOM! ‘Rubber ring pub crawl’. Definitely up there with ‘chocolate flavoured sexy time’ and ‘free bar and buffet’ as four of the most beautiful and dangerous words that can be combined.
“‘Rubber ring pub crawl’ are four of the most beautiful and dangerous words that can be combined.”
Well, hit up the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng, Laos during any of the seasons that it hasn’t been shut down due to excessive injury and death and you can have just that. Most people will tell you that the magic has entirely left with the tightened law enforcement in the area but every now and then a few bars still sneakily open for trade.
Horror stories of people drifting too far down river and being eaten by monsters are all true.
10) A Minibus “That Seats Eight”
Well, that’s what you booked with the tour agency. Unfortunately, ten people will squeeze in before your pick up and more will pile in along the entire journey.
Just when you feel like it would be physically impossible to add even a small child to the overcrowded and overpacked sardine tin on wheels, the driver will pull over to pick up a man and his goat.
The best way to appreciate personal space is to sacrifice it all. You will never breathe as deeply as when you have just emerged from the bus-sauna in which your spine was bent into the shape of a pretzel while a Cambodian man’s armpit sweat dripped steadily onto your head.