Monday, 14 September 2015

Deep vs broad travel

Travel broadens the mind, they say.

But I'm more interested in whether it deepens it.

It's easy to travel 'broad'. To keep travelling, to add country after country to the ticked off list, to "do the circuit". I was going to do that in Laos: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Champaner, the islands. It got cut short by a traffic accident which destroyed a small area of me, and more annoyingly (though less painfully) my camera, necessitating a trip back to Bangkok...

But I digress. That's travelling widely, and fast. At its worst, it becomes "If it's Tuesday this must be Paris." At its best, it gives an appreciation of different cultures and landscapes, contrasted, compared, tasted and savoured. If you spend a week in France, and move on to Italy, you quickly get a feeling for the different national characters. Or if you spend a few days in Venice, a few days in Florence, a day each in Siena and (say) Viterbo, and three or four days in Rome, you get a feeling for the very different periods of Italian history, and the different forms of art and architecture, though maybe not for regional cuisine or landscape.

Travelling deep is more difficult, particularly for people who have only two or three weeks to fit travel into their year. (I'm always amazed by affluent retired people who still stick to the format of the once a year, three week holiday. Why not set off on a real exploration?) But it can be done, and perhaps it should be done every so often.

Travelling deep is, for instance, just deciding to stay put in a small town for a week, or two, or four.  Get to know people. Walk around. Find the small places no one visits, or wander out into the fields. It helps, in fact, if you have a bit of work to do, so that if you have to stay in the whole morning and do a bit of technical writing or fire off a couple of emails, it automatically limits your ambitions.

When you first travel to a country you spend your time getting your bearings. For instance in Thailand, you get a feeling for how a temple is laid out; the outside wall, the ordination hall, the prayer hall; the way the roofs are stacked, the kind of ornament you see (mother of pearl, or lacquer, in red-and-gold or black-and-gold), the sort of chedis that you see, the way the monastic day is scheduled. And that's quite different, for instance, from the way a Burmese pagoda is often organised, with one very large chedi at the centre, and the other buildings laid out in a square or a ring around it.

But when you travel deep, you start feeling the difference between temples that at first would have looked quite similar to you. You feel the differences in atmosphere - the reclining Buddha of Wat Pho is elegant and sqweet and mystical, the Buddha at Wat Kalanayamit is impressive and crammed into a temple far too small for him, the passageways of the Loha Prasat are strangely severe and resonant. You start getting little obsessions - I ended up adoring the little Chinese grey stone sculptures that turned up in Bangkok as ballast in Chinese ships, but struck a chord with the Thai sensibility (or perhaps Thais are just too economical to waste things), and trying to track down more and more of them.

At some point, of course, travelling deep becomes a permanent second home. A year in Provence becomes half a lifetime in Provence, if you let it. But then, that's not really travelling, any more.

Travelling broad gives us writers like Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux or Isabella Bird.

Travelling deep gives us writers like Norman Douglas or Freya Stark or Alexandre David-Neel.

Patrick Leigh-Fermor seems to be both, at the same time.

I travel deep in Bangkok, now. Every time I pass through, I find a new place to go. Last time I was there, I visited a little flute-making workshop in Thonburi and bought myself a rather lovely flute in beautifully figured hardwood - and got given refreshment, and a lift on the back of a motorbike to Wat Kalayamanit. I've bought stationery and hunted down old pens in Chinatown's stores and flea markets, I've visited the delightful little museum of Suan Pakkad, where delicate lacquered pavilions shelter in the shadow of skyscrapers and automatons play out scenes from the Ramayana; I've chatted to the Marine Department pier worker who told me about the Englishman who was the first head of department, and about Princess Sirindhorn whose birthday he was celebrating, and who showed me pictures of his travels around the country, while I waited for a much delayed boat; I've found tiny Chinese temples, and helped feed the turtles at Wat Prayoon with a little girl on her seventh birthday. I've also explored the Korean and Japanese restaurants of Banglamphu and Siam - you may be in Bangkok but you don't have to stay in Thailand, culinarily speaking.

I haven't yet got round to the Emerald Buddha or the Royal Palace. There's time.

And that's the thing about traveling deep. It does take time. And I haven't always got time. I'm hoping to head to South America next year and even though I hope I'll be able to spend a bit of extra time in some places if I like them a lot, I'm going to be striking out on some long journeys, because with the exception of Colombia, it's all new to me, and I want to get an idea of the length and breadth and size and spirit of that half-continent. There is a place for travelling broad.

It's just nice being able to choose.

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