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No plane, no problem in South East Asia...

Ewan Kingston

2nd November, 2009

Ewan travels south through Laos and Thailand, discovering a landscape that speaks of the awkward throes of industrialisation...

After an extended stay in China, my pace needed to become a little more urgent. Luckily, although a lot of travellers take flights even within Thailand, it's not actually hard to travel right across South East Asia without flying. Visas or visa exemptions are available for the majority of travellers at border posts in Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Buses ply long distances between major towns regularly. Take your pick from colourful, uncomfortable slow local buses or a bit of luxury with VIP style coaches. Travel by day, night, or both. I didn't use any trains, because of their typically higher footprint, but they are an option in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam as well.

Using just buses, I traveled 3000km of road to get from China to Malaysia in just over a  week, This included a 4 day stopover in Laos' regal Luang Prabang, but for the rest of the time, I was, shall we say, on the buses. I made a few mistakes: wasting time hopping borders on local buses instead of getting efficient through-tickets; thinking it was possible to enjoy a short stay in Bangkok; accepting a counterfeit note in a Malaysian border town. But these were small hiccups – overall, it was amazing.

I'm not fooling myself that I know these countries in any genuine way, but just from a bus window one can see how each country has its own blend of modernity and tradition, religion and secularity, industry and nature. And then there's the people. In a lunch stop at a hilltop cafe (sitting under the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh) I met the very friendly Dok. He knows the buses well - he often travels from Thailand to service all the escalators and elevators in Laos (a grand total of six).

Sometimes fellow passengers can be surprisingly frank. Lamai, a young Thai woman, confided to me that she thought her European expat boyfriend she was on the way to meet in Phuket was being unfaithful, and eventually, after many conversations on her mobile, decided to turn around in Bangkok and headed back to her village.

Often there's no chance of conversation, but beyond the window lies fascination. I watched the biome change from temperate forest to tropical rain forest, buildings change from bamboo to concrete to glass and steel. Ive seen the fields of corn back in Yunnan change to teak, then to rubber, to palm oil, accompanied by the ubiquitous rice. I've seen people toiling in the fields of these crops, with rotary hoe and rice thresher, buffalo, and hand tools too, and highlights include seeing children playing and waving. 

Crossing borders is also interesting. Crossing from Laos to Thailand for instance, I am hit by an almost physical sense of rush. The population density, the pace of commerce, the exploitation of the environment were all stepped up an order of magnitude by just crossing the Mekong.

My mind flits back to a riverside conversation in Luang Prabang. with Mike, a sustainable development educator. We agreed that us foreigners can easily romanticise the village life, just seeing the cute bamboo huts and lush jungle, not the threats of hunger and sickness. It's still sad to see people anywhere assume that cars and new clothes will make them happy. 'You can't tell people what they want' sighs Mike.

Well, I know I want to move the slower way.

CO2 Emissions - Kunming to Penang via Laos

Mode Journey Emissions calcs Total emissions
Sleeper coach
Kunming - Luang Prabang 1012km x 35g CO2 per passenger kilometre 35 kg CO2
Coach Luang Prabang
390km x 29g CO2/pkm 11 kg CO2
Coach Vientiane - Udon Thani 90km x 29gCO2/pkm 3 kg CO2
Coach
Udon Thani - Bangkok 654km x 20g CO2/pkm 13 kg CO2
Coach
Bangkok - Hat Yai 932km x 29g CO2/pkm 27 kg CO2
Local bus Hat Yai - Padang Besar 52km x 107g CO2/pkm 5 kg CO2
Shared car (2p) Padang Besar - Kangar 31km x 107g CO2/pkm 2 kg CO2
Coach Kangar - Butterworth 154km x 29g CO2/pkm 4 kg CO2
  TOTAL 3315 km 100 kg CO2

Equivalent emissions if I had flown direct:

2198km + 9 per cent routing addition x 98g ppkm (short haul) x 2.5 (RFI)  =  587 kg CO2 (?) 

Note on the data:
I managed to find out how much fuel the buses used on the 1st and 4th legs of this journey, and from this figured out a per passenger kilometre figure. For the Chinese sleeper coach heading through the mountains of Laos it was 35g, for the economy coach in Thailand it was a low 20g. The fact these are close to 29g gives me confidence I can keep relying on Defra's Emission Factors, when I lack better data. 

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