The Benefits of Slow Travel - Slow Week


By Tanya Silverman

The long and winding Taiwanese road.

Airplane travel offers its unique elements that a person cannot experience by other means: aerial views, fast speed, convenience, pre-booking, pilot navigation, etc. Though most people don’t find waiting in jetliner taxi lanes or airports all that aesthetically pleasing, the actual ability to fly is definitely a privilege.

Nevertheless, while flying over land, I can’t help but like feel like I’m taking the hasty route by superficially skimming over all the places I pass.

The opportunity to travel at a slower pace, whether it’s in by train, bus, motorbike, or car, offers a more in-touch, comprehensible approach to the surrounding atmosphere. Slow travel also allows you to take your time to get in tune with a given location, culture, and overall experience of a place.

Slow Travel USA

Having lived and traveled along the American east and west coasts, I’ve flown, ridden trains and driven cars across the country. While I’ll admit that most of my coast-to-coast journeys have been by plane, my memory of these five-to-seven hour trips in the air is very vague, especially compared to the other motorized means.

By riding the Amtrak instead of flying from east to west, this three-day journey offers better insight. While the train’s passenger seats may not offer the most comfortable or luxurious slumber — the experience of falling asleep and waking up in random cities mimics an enticing lucid dream.

My first train trip was to visit Los Angeles. After boarding in New York, and settling in a large, grey, semi-reclined, semi-soft seat, I looked out the window as the train took me along the Hudson River and up through the decaying, post-industrial upstate cities. I fell asleep as the train looped down through Ohio, then woke up in the grey, gritty industrial scenery in Indiana. I transferred in Chicago, rode through Illinois, and called it a night towards the Missouri border.

A view of the snow covered midwest from an Amtrak train.

That second night, I perked back awake to for a brief break in Kansas City to breathe in the fresh air and examine the small skyline. After going back to sleep on the train, I fully extended consciousness to the following morning while rolling through the Colorado plains, on through deceptive faraway mountains in New Mexico and uninviting cacti in Arizona, all before approaching the border of the Golden State.

Continuing through the extensive stretches of Southern California’s boxy industrial warehouses, suburban sprawl and lack of pedestrian-friendly city planning, the train eventually pulled me into LA Union Station, where I departed onto the platform, in my final destination, where I was engulfed by a cloud of grey smog.

By heading from the Atlantic to Pacific territories on the tracks, I felt like I got a truer taste of the ecological and architectural diversity of what geographically constitutes all that’s in between.

So, when I was moving from New York to Oregon, I decided to take the Amtrak route once again. Though the first day was the same journey to and through Chicago, much of the second day was spent rolling through northern territories I’d never before seen.

The most memorable stretch was across North Dakota; I recall sitting back quietly, monitoring the flat, white plain as it extended out to an evenly flat horizon against the pale, thin overcast. The subtle sun vaguely showed through the blanket of clouds, and its slight rays cast a consistent, linear reflection to shine along the slightly glazed snowcap. About every twenty miles, there was a single, two-story house with five to ten bare deciduous trees planted around its yard.

Until I had been to North Dakota, I was never aware that a place could be so boring.

Fortunately, the third day of the Amtrak trip went by the Columbia Gorge, alongside the mighty river, massive evergreens, epic rock formations, and trickling waterfalls that compose the border of Oregon and Washington. This segment through the scenic river gorge excited me for all of the Northwestern nature I would get to further explore.

Beyond these laid-out tracks, there is always driving a vehicle across the country, the prime advantage of which being the personal freedom to go your own way in whatever state or city you may find yourself.

If you have time to kill in Virginia, nothing beats steering off the interstate and rolling through the rural hills. If you feel like rushing your way through the giant territory of Texas, it’s quite the adventure to blast your four wheels past the long miles of flat, arid land. You may have to dodge-hop jackrabbits, and you may find yourself to be the only car on the road for hours at a time.

Just make sure you fill up your tank when there are sporadic speckles of civilization.

Slow Travel Southeast Asia

Tanya on the side of the Vietnam road.

Speaking internationally, there are certain locales whose cultural experience almost requires a slower kind of traveler. I spent six months backpacking throughout Southeast Asia, exploring this region through all sorts of means: bike rides around sunny river islands in Laos, strolls throughout foggy tea plantations in Malaysia, subway rides below the immaculate streets of Singapore.

As there are so many places to see, and it often takes time to get from place to place, I found that effectively exploring Southeast Asia for a few months at once (as opposed to in shorter spurts over the course of a traveling life) was a wise decision.

Some countries in this section of the world are made up of islands, such as the Philippines, in which you’ll probably end up in a slow-moving boat at some point. Once you’re out of the water and want to explore inland, such as hiking around a volcano, brace yourself for some bumpy 4×4 rides through rocky jungle roads.

Indonesia, another Southeast Asian country composed of hundreds of islands, also requires patience (not to mention a less-than-sensitive stomach) to travel around by bus or minibus. At times, the vehicle will not depart until its entire seating is filled. Even when it’s seemingly full, don’t be surprised if they will fill its interior beyond this initial reach, squishing extras into any imaginable makeshift seat, and even having any excess passengers ride on the top, or on the side, of the vehicle.

Driving (slowly) on through the winding, hole-ridden jungle roads in Sumatra or Java, don’t think you’re going anywhere quick, especially if an intense tropical storm breaks out. Also, don’t be surprised if vendors hop on and off to try to sell water or snacks while the vehicle is still in (slow) motion.

Back on continental Asia, the most mainstream form of travel in and around the country of Vietnam is by low-powered, semi-automatic motorbikes, and this makes for quite the adventure! Cars by comparison are present but not as common in this nation and buses are oftentimes very touristic as local bus lines may give special inflated prices to foreigners.

Motorbikes in Vietnam, on the other hand, are easy to locate, purchase and take care of–facilitated by the abundance of maintenance stands and inexpensive labor all throughout the country — but difficult to accelerate effectively.

City road in Vietnam.

However, the highest speed for many Vietnamese roads may be at 40 miles per hour, so you’ll have no choice but to take it easy and enjoy the scenery.

Driving your motorbike southward down the long country, you can start off in somber swamplands and rice paddy fields in the lowlands, then venture up into higher altitudes to swerve around through hilly coffee plantations, then back downward to the flatter areas to navigate, and occasionally get lost in, dragon fruit farms.

When you need a rest, little cafes are scattered all throughout the roads, towns and cities, so you can dismount, stretch, and sip on some (authentic) Vietnamese coffee or fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice.

Though you should pack light and try to keep it simple, there are some essential pieces of equipment to carry on a Vietnamese motor-trip. Among them, a folding paper map, a point-and-shoot camera for scenic breaks, a snug helmet, and a face mask paired with sunglasses to guard the dust.

After several rounds of riding through the congested roads and clustered traffic circles of Saigon, we decided to sell our dear motorbike, and then board a bus off to the border of neighboring Cambodia.

Though even by bus, traveling around Cambodia requires time, as many roads there are incredibly dusty in the dry season, which only become excessively muddy in the rainy season. While I encountered a few brave travelers who had bought high-powered, worked-up motorcycles and attempted to rush hundreds of miles at a time throughout Cambodia, they were never too embarrassed to show me scrapes and gashes from their wipe-outs on the weathered dirt roads.

Try to Travel Slowly-And Take Breaks

Travel itself is not just about traveling. An important benefit of taking it slow around unfamiliar territory is that once you find a place you enjoy, or you just need a break from constantly being on the move, you can take a breather by settling in a place temporarily until you feel like picking up and moving forth.

Taking a break on the side of the road in Taiwan.

Only when you decide to stop and stay in a single town or city do you can get a real chance to take it in. Spending a week in Bangkok, rather than just a layover night before hauling over to the beach, grants the chance to get lost in the urban alleyways, ride a boat down the river or up a canal, take a tasty cooking course, and bump around through a bustling Buddhist market, all before making their way south to decompress on a pristine tropical island. Along the way, you may even pick up a word or gesture of etiquette in Thai.

Slow travel is definitely a privilege, and there are countless reasons that could keep a person from going on one of these trips, be it time, health, work, school, kids, pets, obligations, funds, or any other form of binding responsibility. Brief vacations, all-inclusive resorts and pre-packaged tours fit better with many mainstream lifestyles. Further, there’s always the difference between traveling somewhere and living there, not to mention living somewhere and growing up there.

Travel, for all it’s worth, is a great way for restless adventurous and curious individuals to go about their interests, tastes and education. For people who are able to set aside the time and resources for an extended period to travel, such a kind of journey is a unique experience that allows a deeper understanding of the places they go during that time; not to mention the effective memories and impressive references the trip will eventually entail.

All photos courtesy of Tanya Silverman.