Airplanes are among human’s greatest inventions. First, they’re efficient. They’ll get you halfway around the world more quickly than it takes the earth to spin the same distance.
Second, despite modern popular opinion, international air travel is still romantic. I challenge anyone not to get goosebumps when the little beep boop prompts you to fasten your seat belts. Personally, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is pure, uncut nostalgia transporting me back to daydreams of the friendly skies. For those 10 hours, the only thing containing your raw anticipation of the adventure ahead is a pressurized, aluminum fuselage.
But like any good romance, you can’t have just one. There’s a great big world out there and a whole host of means by which to see it. So I’m going to lay out a few options for y’all. Some conventional, some not so much, but at the end of this little rave, I’ll guarantee you’ll be sparked to get multi-modal.
When is the last time you described the speed at which you were traveling in terms of knots? Distance over nautical fricken miles. See that? We just turned a trip into a voyage.
There are plenty of ways to sail. What traveling by cargo ship affords you is the chance to get industrial with travel. Toss out the lobster dinner aboard the Caribbean Dutchess and sub in the sweet aroma of crude diesel. You won’t be crowded out by the tourist horde. These ships are typically crewed by 10-15 folks from all walks of life; Filipinos, Russians, Indians.
I had the pleasure of taking a Maersk container ship with my buddy from Miami to the Panama Canal. We were allowed to wander the deck, the crew took us on a tour of the engine room, we heard some crazy sailor stories (that I’ll not repeat here) in the mess room. The best part, though, was hanging out on the bridge.
We were given the choice which shift to observe and we opted for the overnight slot. For context, these ships run with minimal lights. They have those red and green navigational lights, but the bridge is lit as dim as possible to maximize the crew’s night vision. The result on a clear night sailing the Caribbean?
Stars so dense and so bright it’s impossible to focus on just one. The Milky Way, a cloud of stars and planets streaked across the sky, can be seen with the naked eye. Shooting stars, satellites. The night sky was a living, breathing thing and I was a tiny, jaw-dropped speck.
Coming back into the bridge, the navigator would take his time to talk to us about how sailors of old used the sky like a map to make their way across oceans. It took a few nights to sail the voyage, and I was enthralled each one of them.
At the time, I was working for Maersk, but there are plenty of Googlable options for the savvy traveler to find their way aboard one of these adventure vessels.
Every young kid has had at least a passing attraction with trains. The whistle, the chugga chugga, the conductors and their hats! But here’s the thing: as an American, trains were totally unacknowledged by me beyond that boyhood fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine.
We don’t (but should) have much respect for Amtrak ‘round here. It took me moving to the land from which Thomas hails (the UK) to truly appreciate how modestly practical the train is. It’s truly the hassle-free, pragmatic, people’s solution to distance travel.
No taking your shoes off to pass security. Plenty of legroom. No ears popping. Slow accelerations and gentle stops. If you need to nap, the train will literally rock you to sleep. It’s as if someone hybridized a mother’s cradling arms with mass transit.
…’Course not all train experiences are created equal. You could find yourself in a harsh, clanging box of sweaty people in god-knows-where Southeast Asia. But even then I’d argue that encounter has its merits.
Grab yourself a window seat, open it if you can, sit back and watch the epic landscape roll by. Rarely are we presented with the time to be introspective without distraction. On rails, a quote from one of my favorite movies is epitomized:
How can we ever have time if we don’t take time?
Trains, in all forms, are that ideal opportunity.
One hundred furious, nimble, and utterly terrifying CCs; two four-lane streets intersecting without any sort of traffic signal; eight white knuckles; and, one barely hanging-on, Snapchatting sister on the back. We were two foreigners whizzing through the rush hour streets of downtown Mandalay. Somehow we managed to make it to the U Bein Bridge alive.
If you want 35 mph to feel like 70, you need to look no further than your local moped corral. Live life on your own time; no schedules to follow. Go where you want; no bus routes to stick to. Parking? A cinch. A moped gives freedom few other modes of transport can afford. However, because you’re the one piloting this wondrous machine, it makes it significantly dangerous.
So here comes Kyle’s dad-mode speech: Don’t rent one. Don’t drive one without a valid license. Don’t even think about one unless you’ve had a serious motorcycle safety course back home. And you’re not allowed even a sip of a drink within 25 feet of one.
That ride back from U Bein Bridge was just as exhilarating as the ride down, except it was now nighttime. And the headlight was fading, and the power too… What the heck? We completely slowed to a stop. We were outta gas in the middle of nowhere.
Top tip: Most mopeds don’t have gas gauges. After bartering with a Burmese man on the street, we were able to obtain a bit of petrol in a 500 ml water bottle. Back in Mandalay, that four lane street turned into a walking night market, but mopeds were flying up and down the aisles alongside pedestrians. It was an absolute circus. My sis and I resolved to grab dinner and close the chapter on our moped adventure for the rest of our time in Burma.
In my experiences throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia, this is hands-down the most cost and time efficient way to travel. You may get why it’s cost efficient, but did I just see you raise an eyebrow at its time efficiency? Allow me to enlighten you.
It may take you nine hours to get from A to B by bus versus 90 minutes by plane, but the overnight bus is nothing short of a mobile hostel. It’s a real life manifestation of Little Nemo’s bed whisking you away to far away places. When you wake up, you’re at your destination and you have a full day ahead of you to explore. Can’t do this on a plane. Taking the red-eye may get you there sooner, but you’ll be so groggy and you’ll need to sleep in ‘til noon killing half your day.
Besides, some of these overnight buses require a route change along the way. If you have trouble sleeping, the people watching at bus terminals is legendary. Satiate yourself with a 3 am churro in the Mexico City Norte station. Practice your sleepy, broken Spanish with a cowboy on his way to work at a ranch in Durango. Wonder where that flip-flop wearing gringo is off to. When it comes time for your connection to depart, the sun rises, and gaze out the window and watch the busy city wake up in the dawn light.
Decidedly less exhilarating than a moped, and a little like the train. Remember when I said the quote about taking time? Well cruising on a riverboat seems to GIVE you time. Myanmar. Same trip with my sister. Either the trip was advertised as four hours, or I convinced myself it was so I could get my sister onboard with the idea. What it ended up being was no less than nine hours down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan. Slow going that it was.
This particular riverboat was a tourist boat. So it was outfitted with lounge chairs, had a nice breakfast bar, etc. Damn did we take advantage of those chairs. A slow rolling cruise in the sun. Never napped better. Chatted up a few of the middle-aged European tourists. We took countless photos of the river’s shore. I finished a book. We started playing hangman. About four and a half hours in, clearly past the four-hour cruise I advertised, my sister asked me, “So we’re pretty close right?”
“Should be just around the bend,” I responded, “Pumped to catch those temples tomorrow, yeah?”
It wasn’t just around the bend. What it was was a test of patience and a test of our ability to entertain ourselves. We already went through all of the tourists to talk to. Tic-tac-toed ourselves to death. But looking back on it, it was a unique trip. Few people visit Myanmar even fewer travel by riverboat. It was nine hours of time I’d never ask for back.
…It’s up to you what you want to see and how you wanna get there. But before you hop on that plane, give a thought to that ship, gondola, canal boat, and donkey-pulled rickshaw. Guaranteed you’ll have reason to fall in love with each one and get to know a side of a country that few may share.