If you have all the time in the world, what would you do?

I’d like to take the train from Brussels to Russia, travel across the latter on the Trans-Siberian Railway, then board the ferry at Vladivostok to Hokkaido where I’ll go hiking in the mountains, eat plenty of sashimi and soak in onsens (hot springs).

The first time I took a train, I was 23 and it was a short trip between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Guangzhou train station 2004

My travel companion warned me to be vigilant at the train station in Guangzhou as petty theft was prevalent. I felt anxious the whole time I was there as well as a little overwhelmed by the large number of people around me.

It was only in my late 20s that I discovered the joy of train travel (thanks to AB). Our first trip together was to Puglia in the south of Italy where we travelled by train between unfamiliar towns and cities like Ostuni, Lecce, Polignano a Mare, Matera and Bari.

Lecce-Ostuni train

Since then, I’ve had the chance to travel by train around Europe. I’ve yet to do so in other parts of the world and would like to do so some day.

I just finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux.

Paul Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar

This is his first travel book and is based on his four-month journey from London to Southeast Asia, and back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The year was 1973 and he was 33.

“The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.”

Hangzhou Railway Station2 - Fuji Superia 200 - Lomo

Reading the book, it felt like I was travelling with him. It was fun listening in to the conversations that he had with random strangers that he encountered on the trains. I enjoyed his evocative descriptions of the places he passed through, sharp observations into different cultures and keen curiosity to understand and experience what’s going on around him.

I found a recent podcast recording of a discussion with Theroux on The Great Railway Bazaar. This provided further insight into his inspiration for writing the book as well as his experience from this journey.

Apparently he doesn’t take photographs when he’s travelling. Someone in the audience asked him wouldn’t it have been helpful to take pictures to help with remembering physical details from the trip. His answer was a firm “no”.

He explained: “If you take pictures, you tend not to look very hard at the thing that you’re taking a picture of. If you don’t take pictures, you look very hard and you remember much more of the experience that you’re looking at.”

This made me pause for thought. Is he correct?

On one hand, I wouldn’t remember certain aspects of some trips if it weren’t for the pictures that I’ve taken. On the other hand, if I hadn’t be distracted with taking photos, maybe I would have remembered them just as well (albeit different details)? Seems like a chicken-or-egg dilemma!

I’m reminded of a trip to Siem Reap in 2004. We were up early to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. I took a few photos knowing that what I had captured on film will not be as spectacular as what was to be unveiled before me.

Angkor Wat - sunrise 2004

I set aside my camera after those token shots, sat back and admired the view as the dark sky transformed into a vivid display of crimson and purple with the temple in silhouette. It was quiet around me. A Japanese couple took a sip of hot tea from their thermos flask. I thought to myself that the next time I’m here, I’ll pack some breakfast to enjoy alongside this beautiful moment.

I think that this experience exemplifies what Theroux said. Had I been busy taking photos – adjusting the exposure and composition – I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed nor remembered that sunrise as much.

What about you? Do you agree with Theroux’s point of view about (not) taking photos when travelling? 

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27 replies on “Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar

  1. I’m really glad I took photos. It’s just lovely to be reminded of good travel experiences and sights! I read Thereoux’s bk. twice and then I think niece took to it also.

  2. I didn’t travel by train until my early 20s either — but I was an instant convert! To my mind, it remains the most civilized way to travel. As for Paul Theroux’s distaste for taking photos during his travels: “To each his own,” I say. But for me not taking photos would be unthinkable. For me, photography actually enriches the experience of travel because it compels me to truly examine scenes/moments and ask myself why I’m drawn to them. It forces me to look at the tiny architectural details, for instance, that most casual tourists miss. And maybe most importantly, it provides an opportunity to interact with others, either because I’m asking to take their photo or because I’m swapping photo ideas. Plus, it’s nice to be able to come home and share the highlights with others! Thanks for a wonderful and thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Heather, I agree with you on all points. I’m usually rather hesitant to take photos of strangers and wish I would be more daring and ask. I also like travelling by boat (not cruise ships), though these are slower and offer a different perspective from travelling by train and overland.

  3. Taking photos is vital for me. Some years after journeys to same or similar places pictures (with date and time) help me to remember place, situation, and atmosphere. Alternatively one could write a travel diary but that would be much more time consuming as every destination has so many things to offer.

    1. Nowadays, I try to make notes when I travel but mostly it is to record certain details or information. Funny enough it is often the photos that remind me how I was feeling about a place or moment.

  4. I travelled by train (steam) at a very young age in the 60s. Thoroughly enjoyable. I commuted by train for a large part of my career and loathed it. But one of my best journeys was Delhi to Jabalpur on an ‘express’. For long periods I sat on the steps of the door into the carriage – nobody worried about health and safety – and watched the world go by. I took a few pictures perhaps but not many. I like to visit places twice. I think you get so much more out of them the second time and maybe the answer is go once with camera, once without.

    1. I’d love to travel by steam trains though I think there are not many of these that continue to run a ‘regular’ route (versus a special route for tourists). Sounds wonderful, you sitting on the steps of the train car, watching the world pass by…

      I like to re-visit places that I like. I think it would interesting to see how I’d perceive and experience the same place again. Sometimes, depending on the time that has passed since the previous visit, the surroundings may have changed. Or, maybe I have changed.

      P.S. Paul Theroux retraced some parts of this journey 30 years later – the result being Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

  5. I use photos the same way others use notes; they help bring back memories I would have otherwise lost. But that’s just me, I do understand the dilemma and I do try to catch a bit of both (not being a photographer i.e. not spending any time adjusting helps). I like the idea of travelling by train – we were just discussing with K right after our trip to Krakow, how nice it would be to organize a trip to Eastern Europe by train…

    1. Yup, I use photos for taking notes. I used to take a lot more pictures (of the same thing) in the past. Now I am satisfied with just capturing a shot or two – if it is for records – and enjoy the experience itself. Ooh, would be fun to travel to/through Eastern Europe by train!

  6. Train travel is definitely underappreciated in the United States. 🙂 I have had conflicting thoughts of Theroux’s statement. I think it depends on what I’m taking photos of. Sunsets, which I tend to take billions of photos of with wild abandon, are probably better enjoyed without photos. If only because I can never quite capture what I’m looking for. The world looks completely different through the confining lens of a camera. But, at the same time, memories can be lost forever without a photo. There are many times when I forget what happened, only to be reminded because of a single snapshot that I took. So, what I’m trying to say is. . . I don’t know. It goes both ways?

    1. I’d say both ways work, depending on the situation. I also wonder: what we see/capture through the camera lens is usually only part of the entire picture. By choosing to photograph a certain aspect, are we not already choosing to remember/forget a selected part of the experience?

          1. Ooooh, thanks for the ted talk (I love them). So…the takeaway– don’t lie? Or that it doesn’t matter because our memories are all false anyway? 😀

  7. Loved this post 🙂 I think Theroux is right, to a certain extent, but I only tend to take a photo when something strikes me interesting. I’m already looking very hard before I take the photo.

    1. That’s a good way to go about taking photos. I’ve a short attention span and find many things (maybe too many) to be interesting, so sometimes I end up taking more pictures than I’d have liked to!

  8. I’d travel to all spots in Italy for food and wine. sadly money is just not everyone’s luxury. and I’m no exception. sometimes it’s better without the camera when there’s a companion makes everything seem better. I do agree to some degree.

    1. I’d love to return to Italy for a few days if not longer. Always a pleasure to explore and, the food, mmm, mama mia!

      Another nice thing about having a travel companion is that he/she may not see the same thing as you do. Which can make for engaging discussions 🙂

  9. I loved this post. For me, it’s got to be a balance.

    I so agree with Heather that photography can provide a different lens or a motivation for scrutiny and interaction. I think it’s all about being aware of how you use these tools and how they affect your experience. Because we don’t all react the same way to holding a camera, the answer will vary from person to person.

    1. Thanks Bronwyn! Agree that it does depend on how we use what we have. For instance, I’ve used a selfie stick with my family when we were travelling for a group photo in an unusual location but I wouldn’t use it for every single instance.

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