Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[Backpacking Travelogue]: Transport infrastructure, convenience and price

I promised to write a bit about my backpacking trip in form of essays. The first one I decided is also probably one of the easiest ones - transport infrastructure, because there must be quite less of subjectivity involved. Let me segment the transportation on a country-by-country basis:

Singapore: Easily the most developed infrastructure internally, but thats like stating the obvious. What does it hold for people wanting to travel out of Singapore? Its is connected by road/rail only to Malaysia. It has daily two trains heading into Malaysia into cities like Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth. Train is normally easy to get, but it is too slow and is available only for one direction - that of straight north. (Train tickets from SG is charged in SGD while the tickets from Malaysia is charged in RMY for the same amount. Its a ridiculous pricing mechanism of extracting more from Singaporeans.)

Then there are lots of buses criss-crossing into various destinations in Malaysia. My experience is that the bus infrastructure can be improved as follows:
  • There is no central bus stop for all buses. (There is Golden Mile, but too many operators are outside of it.) So, its not like you can go and hop on. You need to call individual operators, figure out which one is having seats and head there. That sounds a little dicey to say the least. The real alternative is to head to JB and then use Larkin as a central bus stop. There is of course the inconvenience of going to JB by the crowded woodlands route, but hey you can't have the cake and eat it too.
  • Its bloody expensive. Buses from Singapore is generally priced costlier than return tickets from Malaysia. There should be some way to address this.
Malaysia: Of all the countries I visited, Malaysia takes the cake for impressing me the most. Getting in and out of Malaysia through road/ferry/train across it's borders with Singapore/Thailand proved to be easiest. Trains have enough capacity that you can walk in and get a ticket. Local transportation in KL and Penang was adequate. All this comes are very reasonable price points.

The buses criss-cross the country, there a few good train options, though the frequency sounds suspiciously less to me. It also has good water and land connections. Local transportation at the cities I have tried - Penang, Butterworth and KL all look good. My previous trips to Malaysia have also left with a very good impression of the country.

The roads in Malaysia are a completely separate topic worth mentioning. The roads, to put it simply, are awesome. I have been on road between various cities in Malaysia - JB, Mersing, KL, Butterworth etc and the roads always impress me. Clean, wide, no-potholes, clear direction are just some of the attributes. Most of the main highways are tolls, but the tolls seem reasonable and definitely worth the quality of transportation you get.

Thailand: For whatever I had heard about Thailand, I found it's transport infrastructure below par. Don't get me wrong - I still had a good time - but it doesn't even get close to the reputation it tries to portray. Firstly, the train infrastructure is ages old. I don't think it is well maintained and with an accident happening too close to me, its wasn't a good feeling. The roads, albeit better than what you find in India, weren't as great as what you find in Malaysia. Also, the section of road I used - between Prachuap Khiri Khan and Bangkok, though it must be a major link, just didn't have that good feeling to it. There were no potholes, but at the same time, they weren't separated from the villages on the way - so they weren't truly expressways and the speed that the bus could catch was definitely less.

The commute infrastructure in Bangkok is completely and utterly pathetic. If you compare it with say Bangalore, which I always thought had bad infrastructure, Bangkok is still far far worse. There are a couple of metro like systems - one the Metro and other BTS. They both are quite costly and don't work with each other. So, you need to get down from one service and then get onto another and end up buying two costly tickets.

The road infrastructure is completely unusable. Even in the middle of any day, you are going to be stuck in a complete-halt-traffic-jam for maybe even hours. And with Bangkok being a very hot city, with most buses still non-air-con, the standing in the traffic can get to you very easily. Though it has to be mentioned that while the traffic is awful, people's response isn't so bad. They don't honk and create a ruckus. They just sit peacefully waiting minutes for next installment of the few meters crawl they shall get. I guess they are all resigned to the reality.

The only silver lining in the entire infrastructure in Bangkok is it's ferry services which goes along the chao phraya river. Get in and get out for a few bahts are pretty good speed. Definitely the service that impressed me the most.

While the infrastructure isn't that great, the thais have a great sense of service. The trains have great service for food and beverages, even alcoholics ones. All the berths have clean sheets and pillows on them with a blanket.

Laos: For a troubled country placed low on most living indices, I expected the infrastructure to be pretty bad. I was pleasantly surprised to find it good. It has good roads on which SUVs, and lots of them ply. Its only fair of you to ask why SUVs in a poor country. Apparently, the capital city has a significant presence of UN organizations and foreign embassies, all of which help in running a SUV economy. Even the local Laotians seems well off picking up their kids in their Air Con cars and SUVs. The roads don't have pot holes and the traffic seemed orderly to me. I guess, the french colonial past has had its good effect.

Walking in Vientiane is a pleasant experience, though the heat can get to you in the middle of the day. Also you can hire a bicycle and ride around. Thats not bad either. In general, I found it pretty pleasant.

Prices in Laos, in general, disappointed me. A short tuk-tuk ride costs as much as a air-con cab in Singapore! I believe I definitely overpaid for my transits across the Thai-Laos-Friendship border and the trip from the border to Vientiane. But hey, its the way it is.

Summary: In all, I have to complement all the four countries that a backpacking trip like this can be planned and executed with little trouble. There is definitely scope for improvement, but in all, south east asia is definitely worth a good long backpacking trip.

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