I read the sequel to this book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a couple years ago and wanted to see what the original was like. In The Great Railway Bazaar Theroux travels by train in 1975 across southern Asia, Japan, and back by way of the (then Soviet) trans-Siberian express. As in the sequel, many of the places he travels through seem perfectly awful and only reinforce my conviction that I will never go there myself (India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Siberia, etc.). Much has changed since 1975, of course. India has gotten more awful (if that is possible), Afghanistan has been in more or less continuous war, Viet Nam has (mostly) recovered from its 30 years of war against foreign invaders, Iran has become a harsh theocratic state (as distinct from the harsh secular state that it was in 1975), the Soviet Union is long gone. And it is these changes (and others) that were a big point of interest in reading this older book: a reminder that time heals and destroys.
Theroux seems a much cockier individual in this earlier book. If he is to be believed he had no fear in challenging the stupid beliefs of others, and didn’t mind being rude while doing it. So, good for him. On the other hand, his prejudices come through pretty strongly; or perhaps they aren’t prejudices but merely trenchant comments based on personal observation.
Anyway, it’s an interesting book, but not one likely to induce any desire to recreate his trip on your own.