No. 3: “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

Travel Blog  •  Terry Ward  •  05.29.06 | 12:58 PM ET

imageTo mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1975
Territory covered: India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Japan

“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” So begins what is arguably Paul Theroux’s most universally beloved travel tome, The Great Railway Bazaar—a book that beckons train enthusiasts, lovers of literature and armchair adventurers as easily as the seasoned traveler.

The great American author set off from London in the early 1970s, determined only to ride the rails east. “It was my intention to board every train that chugged into view from Victoria Station in London to Tokyo Central,” reads Theroux’s first page introduction. But before the journey begins, even a reader new to Theroux realizes that this voyage, like all true on-the-road awakenings, has more to do with the people one meets than the places one goes. “I sought trains; I found passengers,” writes Theroux. The book unravels more as a series of vignettes than a traditional travelogue, and can be read as such as Theroux rolls along the great rail lines of the time—the Khyber Pass Local, the Delhi Mail, the Grand Trunk Express to Madras and Burma’s Mandalay Express, to name a few.

Perhaps the most resonant passages are those from Vietnam. The author’s visit to the south of the country straddled the insecure years between the 1973 ceasefire and the 1975 withdrawal of U.S. troops. To see glimpses of ordinary Vietnamese life through Theroux’s vigilant eyes transcends history and time, making the dead weight of bloody war fall momentarily silent to the relentless pace of culture and man. (A postscript to his Vietnam chapters, written in April 1975, explains that nearly all the towns Theroux wrote about had since been destroyed and many of their people killed.) If the best travel writing transports the reader, then Theroux remains the master. Few authors affect us like the very trains Theroux writes about—blurring the peripheries at times to focus on a single, exponentially elaborated detail, then letting the world in and pulling the reader hypnotically along.

Outtake from The Great Railway Bazaar:

It was a single-line track, but squatters had moved their huts so close to it, I could look into their windows and across rooms where children sat playing on the floor; I could smell the cooking food—fish and blistering meat—and see people waking and dressing; at one window a man in a hammock swung inches from my nose. There was fruit on the windowsills, and it stirred—an orange beginning to roll—as the train sped by. I have never had a stronger feeling of being in the houses I was passing, and I had a continuous sense of interrupting with my face some domestic routine. But I was imagining the intrusion: the people in those poor houses seemed not to notice the strangers at their windows.

For more about Paul Theroux, read an interview with him on Salon or visit his Wikipedia page or his personal Web site.

Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

3 Comments for No. 3: “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

Sheila Scarborough 05.29.06 | 10:09 PM ET

Wow, thanks for this.

My Dad is an enthusiastic traveler and railroad buff, and I remember as a preteen when he bought and read this book.  He loved it. I shall have to go see if he still has it on his bookshelf (bet he does) because now I think it’s my turn to enjoy it.

Nail Salon 02.29.08 | 1:58 PM ET

Ya, you can’t find books like that anymore. The books now are all fluff and no original content.

Joe Beall 05.27.08 | 5:11 PM ET

After I read his book, I was inspired to follow his lead, and try it for myself, to breathe in that experience for such an adventure. I was in my 20’s then, in the Navy and stationed in the Philippines at the time from 1980-82. I took that memorable trip on the train intentionally, along with the locals and their chickens and pigs in 2nd and 3rd class cars, from Singapore up through Malaysia and into Bangkok, stopping and staying along the way as my curiosity and fancy dictated, 4 days in Singapore, 4-days in Kuala Lumpur, 3 in Penang and Phuket. I cherish those experiences and pictures still etched in my memories. I met many interesting characters, and saw many amazing cultures things, like going to another planet, and precisely like the book lead one to believe it would be!

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