JOHN ROBBINS is a staff reporter for the Cleveland Press, who recently completed a year of travel in Southeast Asia as an Ogden Reid Fellow.

THE great distances that separate the cities of Southeast Asia have been conquered by the ship and the airplane. For the stray, autoless visitor it’s the little distances that prove a problem. The half mile from one’s hotel to the downtown shopping district or to the inevitable famous local temple often seems to stretch farther than the 500 miles to the capital of the next country.

A hike in the heat of the day is no fun, and in any case most Southeast Asian cities are too spread out to make walking worth while. Taxis, save in a few centers like Singapore and Delhi, are rare. Except in Saigon, where the meter rates haven’t kept pace with the galloping inflation of the piaster, they are also expensive. Public transportation poses a language problem; a bus with its destination marked in Siamese doesn’t satisfy the needs of an American visitor to Bangkok.

An individual style of solution to the problem lies in the jeepneys of Manila—war-surplus jeeps transformed by their Filipino owners into brilliantly painted and decorated little jitney buses. Each one is just large enough for eight passengers. Unfortunately, no jeepney is tied to a given route. If the driver decides in the middle of his trip that a new direction would be more profitable, off he dashes toward his fresh goal, speeding the innocent foreigner to some unexpected and distant quarter of the city.

Manila residents consider the jeepneys their major traffic hazard. In 1948 a police traffic commission withheld from banning them only because experts advised that the jeeps would certainly go to pieces within a year or eighteen months. Now, six years later, there are more jeepneys than ever honking their way through the crowded streets, all still capable of hackle-tingling speeds.

Among the rest of the monsoon lands the most common form of intracity transport is the trishaw, a combination of tricycle and rickshaw. It assumes various shapes and it’s known by various names, but in some form it is an omnipresent part of the Southeast Asian scene.

In the typical version the passenger sits in a sort of buggy seat. A convertible top can be raised over his head as a shield against either sun or showers. In a monsoon rainstorm, canvas front and side curtains can be buckled in place to keep him dry in a steamy, mildewed, blinding way.

The position of the pedaling coolie varies. In a “peddicab” on Taiwan he sits just ahead of the passenger. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the “cyclo,” more commonly known to French soldiers by the affectionate name of “pousse-pousse,” is built to hold the passenger in front with the pedaler pushing from behind. Poussepousses in Saigon have been motorized. From the passenger’s perch in a position roughly comparable to that of the front bumper on a car, 30 miles an hour seems a terrifying speed. In Tai Ninh the cyclo passenger sits in a kind of bathtub on wheels, towed behind a normal bicycle.

In Cambodia, Malaya, and Burma the trishaw is built like a bicycle with a sidecar. No one in the three countries could supply an answer to the question whether one leg of the pedaler of such a trishaw becomes more developed than the other from pushing such a lopsided machine.

Most highly developed of all the trishaw family is the “betjak" of Indonesia. Although it is designed on the lines of the pousse-pousse, with the passenger riding ahead of the pedaler, the gaudy red betjak of Djakarta is a far cry from its drab, run-down cousin in Hanoi.

The betjak boys decorate the backs of their buggy seats with murals, attach chromium and nickel ornaments to every corner, and name their machines after their Javanese lady friends. They even fly foxtails, in the manner of flivver drivers of the gay twenties. Sometimes a half dozen float from one betjak.

Just under his floor board every self-respecting betjak boy strings a thin strand of rubber, stretched the width of the machine. As the betjak moves along, the rubber hums in the wind, rising to a crescendo as the pedaler builds up speed, perhaps to shoot across a bridge over one of Djakarta’s noxious-smelling canals.

Standards of trishaw comfort vary from country to country. The buggy seat is usually wide enough for one husky European man (the term “European" in Southeast Asia generously includes such odds and ends as Americans and Australians) or two petite Annamese girls. But the luxurious motorized “samlors" of Bangkok are broad enough for two Europeans to fit without crowding in the shiny red or blue plastic seat behind the driver.

The tiny wooden sidecars of the trishaws in Rangoon, on the other hand, are a tight squeeze for anyone, no matter how narrow his hips. When two passengers ride they sit back to back. Worst of all are the exotically shaped sidecars of Mandalay, tipped upward for no apparent reason until they look like miniature rocket ships about to take off for the moon. Even the people of Mandalay appear to suffer as they drape their legs uncomfortably over the edge.

The coolies who do the pedaling, whatever their nationality, tend to be a cheerful lot. Most of them are in the age group that the title “boy implies, but the term of address is still used if the pedaler appears to be nearer sixty than twenty. Their standard costume is a pair of khaki shorts and a ragged shirt. Like the rickshaw boys whom they have supplanted, they develop strong legs with pronounced varicose veins.

The rewards of their labor are low. The cost of a trishaw ride in any country seldom runs higher than ten cents a mile, and most of the boys rent their machines from some central agency which charges them as much as a dollar a day. Boys lucky enough to own their own trishaws often economize on living costs by forgoing a home and sleeping in the buggy seat.

The trishaw, because of its speed, has almost completely replaced the rickshaw all over Southeast Asia. An additional factor may lie in the psychological reactions both of the coolie and of the passenger. Because he has been at least partially mechanized, the trishaw boy needn’t feel so brutally relegated to the animal level as his predecessor. And, to most Americans at least, traveling by trishaw doesn’t cause the feeling of shame that sitting in a rickshaw did while a fellow human being ran his heart out between the shafts.

A still older form of Asian transportation, the litter, is now found only in Hong Kong. Seventeen of the ancient palanquins are all that are left. They wait patiently at “litter stands" at the foot of the steep alleys rising behind Queen’s Road. Only two sorts of passengers seem to make use of them: aged Chinese merchants, solemn and stately, who look completely in place swaying along on the shoulders of four husky coolies; and groups of tipsy American sailors, singing and shouting self-consciously, and looking more than a little out of their element and out of their era.