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Can Europe’s ‘Flight Shaming’ Movement Work in Asia?

I did a double take as I scanned the departures board at Bangkok’s Krung Thep Aphiwat railway station. Unfortunately, I had not made a mistake — my first taste of flygskam really was going to start with 21 hours on a train.

Though it might sound like a tasty Scandinavian snack, flygskam is Swedish for “flight shame,” a movement that encourages people to ditch air travel to save the planet. The movement is said to have contributed to a downward trend in flying in Europe, although the post-COVID-19 travel boom is pushing back against that.

But could flight shaming work in Asia? I decided to find out on a journey from Bangkok to Singapore, a distance of about 1,800 kilometers that would take two and a half hours by plane.

In Europe, taking a high-speed train can result in similar or shorter journey times, especially when transit times to out-of-town airports and gummed-up security checks are factored in. But there was little chance of that on this trip — even after 21 hours of traveling, I would still only have reached Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.

Once I crossed that, I would have to get a taxi to the railhead on the other side. Then, after an eight-hour layover, I would catch a second train all the way down the Malay Peninsula to Johor Bahru, a further 16 hours away, before finally hopping across the narrow strait that separates Malaysia from the city-state of Singapore.

Views from the train as it passes through central Thailand, top, and the country’s south.

But slow travel offers advantages beyond its green credentials. For a start, you get a real sense of the distances, landscapes and cultures that separate your departure and arrival points, offered up as a gently rolling narrative. As I got underway, the expressways and high-rises of Bangkok gradually dissolved into villages and temples, then buffalo-specked rice paddies, glistening in the afternoon sun. By the time the sun had risen again, thick jungle had taken over as the backdrop and the temples had been replaced by mosques.

The majority Muslim population of Thailand’s deep south has long sought more autonomy from the rest of the predominantly Buddhist country, but the struggle has turned more violent in recent years. A few months back, a train was blown up by insurgents, and an army patrol along the line had been attacked shortly before my journey.

I would have been oblivious to these events at 30,000 feet, but at Hat Yai Station, the gateway to the restive south, nervous-looking, heavily armed soldiers patrolled the platform. Two of them joined my carriage for the rest of the journey to the border.

Top: Scenery in southern Thailand. Bottom: Soldiers at Hat Yai Station. The struggle for more autonomy among the majority Muslim population of Thailand’s deep south has turned more violent in recent years.

Happier cultural context came aboard in the form of mobile buffets as food vendors clambered on at each station to speed-hawk their areas’ culinary specialties, eclipsing anything I had ever been served up by in-flight catering. Similarly, my layover at the Malaysian railhead beat a soulless airport coffee shop hands down, as it included watching a cricket match and chatting with the locals about the effects of recent rains and provincial elections.

Train travel also has a voyeuristic appeal thanks to the separation it enforces from the outside world. The fact that you cannot just stop and interact with those outside, and vice versa, means you can get away with much more staring. This separation also ensures that train tracks do not foster development as roads do, which means that passengers get to pass through the kind of remote country they would never otherwise see.

Pushing on down the length of the Malay Peninsula, I absorbed the relaxed pace of small villages and markets, bicycles and farm animals, before a seemingly endless procession of oil palm plantations brought home the environmental impact of this crop’s cultivation in a way that no statistic or report could have managed.

Top: A Malaysian oil palm plantation. Bottom: A view of Singapore from southern Malaysia.

As we finally pulled into Singapore, the city-state’s hyper-organization and clinical sheen rattled my senses, loudly proclaiming its status as the region’s precocious outlier in a way that had never happened when I arrived by air.

Yes, it had taken 2.5 days rather than 2.5 hours, but I was no longer seeing the journey as a means to an end, rather as part of the destination. After all, we seek out new places because of our innate curiosity, our craving for the stimulus of something different, so why not make the journey a part of that too? It is another reason why taking the plane can be a real shame.

Source : NIKKEI Asia