Planes and Trains (and food poisoning)

In the past few months, whenever I share my summer plans, people have loved to warn me about the dangers of overland travel: the sketchy border crossings, higher crime rates, potential for visa complications, etc. All things considered, as I reached Phnom Penh (my final city) yesterday, they probably have some merit. Entering Thailand via train left me in a station with no wifi, water, food, or aircon for five hours. At the border with Laos, there were literally more goats than immigration officers and I had to pay an extra 15 USD for my visa due to currency issues. And most recently, I spent a 34-hour train ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh on the top bunk of a *triple-decker* bunk bed (in the space, unfortunately, for a very modest two-level bunk bed), which better yet was in a train carriage room for 6, which I shared with at least 5 members of 3 generations of a family.

While some of these experiences seem like unnecessary trouble compared to relatively affordable budget flights around Southeast Asia, I actually have the most regrets about the one journey where I chose air travel: Vientiane to Hanoi. I chose to fly for visa reasons and because the alternative was a 24+ hour bus ride (prior to this summer, I had been on several less-than-luxury overnight busses, none longer than 12-ish hours and many which I was not keen to relive). But of course, when I got food poisoning from a free pastry on Lao Airlines I regretted my choice to break the commitment to overland travel. [a side note: I was pranked because I’m vegetarian and nobody warned me there would be meat in said pastry, 0 out of 10 on the TripAdvisor that is actually just a list of things I have personal vendettas against, and as a result I think I will continue being vegetarian for the rest of my life. You’re welcome, environment].

The applied reality of this situation was that I got sick on the street in the middle of the Old Quarter my first night in Hanoi, naturally minutes after meeting up with a friend from YNC who was the first familiar face I had seen in weeks.  After a few days of recovery in my hostel, I compiled some takeaways:

  1. Never trust a free pastry. (something here about no such thing as a free lunch?)
  2. We should all go meatless. (something here about other Travel Fellowships?)
  3. IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, overland travel is a great way to experience going between places.

As I reached my final city, Phnom Penh, yesterday I actually grew nostalgic for all of the overland travel of my summer. I left YNC on the 10th of May for an expedition with the student org GOYAC traveling from Singapore to Krabi, Thailand by bus and train. Only a couple of days afterwards, I started this Travel Fellowship, which has taken me on busses and trains from Singapore to KL, KL to Bangkok, Bangkok to Vientiane, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. This summer, if nothing else, has made me an advocate for the overland route. It’s more cost-effective, environmentally-friendly choice with good views and memorable (if not always enjoyable) stories. However, for me the most important aspect has actually become the feeling of physically knowing how much space I am traversing. I feel like this is a bit too much of an abstract concept for me to intelligently describe, but it has to do with scale and probably perspective. Although 34 hours was definitely pushing it, I’ve grown to like long train rides because I like feeling far away from something — and at some point feeling far away from everything — before getting to know a new place.