Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?
In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.
Kathmandu street scene
Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.
On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.
Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata
Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.
The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.
Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.
A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam
Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.
Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.
Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?
Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.
Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River
A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!
Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.
A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.
A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang
It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.
Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok
Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.
A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.
Longtail boat engine
Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.
A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok
To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!
Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department
Baby biker, Koh Lipe