In the early 1970s Paul Theroux took four months off his day job to travel by train from London to Japan and back. He was in his early thirties, a published but not very successful novelist, “living on the margin” (his own phrase) as a jobbing journalist. The resulting book, “The Great Railway Bazaar,” (1975), is a classic, one of the best travel books of all time, and one which doubtless lit the fuse to many a backpacker’s adventures over the following decade.
In 2006 he did it again. You can’t (shouldn’t, mustn’t) try to visit in the past – the attempt will produce shock, despair, horror, and an overwhelming sadness that you could ever have been so young. It had been thirty-three years, and much had changed. Iran was now out of bounds, and modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which he saw on his first trip, were not so much adventurous as foolhardy. He detoured round them to the north, through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia. From there he flew to India, where he took up the thread: Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, up to Laos, down to Malaysia and Singapore, Vietnam. A brief jab at southern China (a page and a half), then on to Japan before the Trans-Siberian across Russia and back home in time for tea.
Theroux wishes to see what’s become of the world: “the reader … has grown more preoccupied with what’s become of Theroux.” In 1973 his marriage was collapsing and his career as a writer was uncertain; by 2006 he’s happily remarried and secure in his reputation, to the extent that the he can call on the likes of Arthur C. Clarke (in Sri Lanka), Pico Iyer (in Nara), and other contemporary giants without fear of rebuff. Otherwise he’s much the same: vivid descriptive passages, minimal historical background, encounters with locals and with other travellers, delivered often with sardonic commentary. The last are, as ever, the most rewarding. Mr Kumara, retired clerk of Sri Lanka, “has many interests.” Like what, asks Theroux. “Palmistry and numerology. I make predictions.” “What’s your best prediction?” “That Franklin Roosevelt would be assassinated.”
Or the horse’s arse (Theroux’s phrase) in Vladivostok, a “honking Englishman” who “doesn’t mind the corruption” in Russia and advises his Russian companions to throw Putin out and bring back the Tsar.
I only wish that Theroux would give me more of this and less of his thoughts on practically everything. “Other writers have a voice; Theroux has an attitude.” (I wish I’d said that).
Politics is more in focus than in the earlier book: Theroux compares and contrasts dictatorships (Turkmenistan is “a tyranny run by a madman,” Burma is simply a tyranny, but one that has failed to squash it’s peoples’ spirit, Singapore is the most invidious of all, destructive of both freedom and individuality – he comes in for some Singaporean nastiness during his visit).
Squeezed into the Ghost Train is Cambodia. (Chapters 22, Slow Train to the Eastern Star, and 23, The Boat Sontapheap to Phnom Penh). Cambodia had been off the map in 1973, but now the swings and roundabouts of history, which once removed Iran, had now removed Pol Pot. “The Cambodian nightmare had ended, but there were plenty of people who said that Cambodia was still tyrannised and hopeless.” Theroux takes the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, which marks the end of the line. (Not for much longer: Theroux doesn’t mention it, but there are plans to plug Cambodia into the all-encompassing Trans-Asian Railway in the not-distant future).
He walks across the border and takes the bus to Siem Reap. The trip takes six hours, and would have taken twelve in the wet. In a noodle shop, waiting for a flat to be fixed, he sees a poster of an adult holding a child’s hand and the warning that SEX WITH CHILDREN IS A CRIME. Bad vibes. The landscape reminds him of Africa: bad roads, rusty bikes, sunshine, battered fields and broken huts, weariness. In the evening people are putting out lights to catch cockroaches and crickets to eat, and the only paved road is the one to the airport.
He learns that the bad vibes feeling is not imaginary: old people’s faces are wounded, fatigued, resigned: a look of terror. Later, in Phnom Penh, he reads Philip Short’s “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” and learns that Khmer Rouge torture centres and killing fields line the road he travelled.
In Siem Reap he stays in the Green Town Guest House for $10 a night. “If luxury is a high degree of comfort, this counted as luxury.” He’s still oppressed by a sense of haunted ghostliness, in SR itself but even more at Angkor, brooding among lianas and dark trees, with tourists in silly hats scampering and yelling in the ruins, above them the smiling faces of the gods, “serene at first glance, softening almost to mockery, becoming ambiguous.” The Khmer themselves are beautiful and dignified.
He takes the boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, crossing the great lake, so broad it constitutes a tea-brown ocean. Taking the advice of a fellow traveller he sits on deck rather than inside – there’s only one way out, which will be unpleasant if the boat capsizes. Out in the lake they pass floating villages, self-sufficient and far from government – “government in Cambodia had brought nothing but war and destruction; left to themselves, in the middle of the lake, the Cambodian people were functioning perfectly.”
Phnom Penh has “a scruffy, rather beaten-up look”, the look of a city that suffered some form of extreme punishment. There is poverty, but without squalor (unlike India, which Theroux detested). There is gracious architecture, and Sihanouk’s successor, Prince Ranariddh, lives in the royal palace. (Don’t blame me, I’m just reporting what I read). Phnom Pehnites are direct and demanding, but capable of graceful gestures. They have few delusions, they lack the geniality of the Thais, the dreamy obliqueness of the Burmese, the practicality of the Singaporeans. “With good reason, they had lost hope in the promises of government and justice.” (Which is a classic statement of the noir ethos, by the way – perhaps Theroux should have made a call on Christopher G.Moore while he was in Bangkok).
He visits Sharkey’s, where “big ugly Western men drank beer and played pool in the company of small pretty Cambodian women, who pawed them and poured their drinks.” In a bookstore he finds a pirated copy of “The Great Railway Bazaar”, and is amused (the bookstore clerk is terrified). He visits the Killing Fields and S-21, and notes that Pol Pot had the Khmer smile. “The more I knew about Cambodia’s infernalities … the more haunted the country seemed and the sadder I got, until, like many fed-up and disillusioned Cambodians I’d met, I just wanted to go away.”
The oddest thing about these Cambodian chapters is that trains aren’t mentioned, not at all: no Bamboo Railway, no railway to Kampot – yes, it wasn’t operating in 2006, but surely worth a mention for the events of 1994, given Theroux’s fascination with KR horror. There’s not even a note on the lovely Art Deco Phnom Phenh Station: it was the birthplace of the KR (they held a conference there in 1960) and the scene of the first big KR leadership jamboree after the fall of the city in 1975: surely worth a note in a book about the ghost trains of Asia. And King Ranariddh? Come back, Mr Theroux, let me show you round.
(Available from Monument Books, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, $15.50)