Saturday, March 10, 2012

Honk Honk Hoooooonk – Screeeech – Thud!

Ahhh, the joys of traveling by bus travel in SE Asia, you never know what you’re going to get….

Well, we left home 28 days ago. Of those 28 days, we have devoted some or all of  12 trying to get from one place to another.  We’ve traveled on trains, and we have traveled on planes. However, our primary method of transportation has been by bus.  If we had only taken one of those dozen bus rides at this point in the trip it would be one of the best (or worst) transportation stories I have ever had.  In fact, I have several.

First, let’s explain the options for buses around here:
VIP: Otherwise known as first class, or what would commonly be known as a coach bus in the states:  Big, two-level bus, with air conditioning and seats large enough to be rather comfortable for a fairly long bus ride. There’s usually a footrest and, sometimes, a cup holder.  The only other people found on a VIP bus are fellow backpackers. Obviously, these are the expensive bus tickets. They cost anywhere between $8 and $35 US dollars depending on where you’re going, how long you will be on the bus, and how “VIPish” the bus truly is.  Oh, and these buses usually leave at least an hour late, and passengers should always factor in time for something mechanical to break which must be fixed while in transit.

Mini bus: Just that.  It’s a mini-bus. They are less likely to break down, but they are more crammed full of people and though they are advertised as air- conditioned the driver usually gets really cold really quickly and turns it off.

Local bus or public bus: I haven’t figured out for certain whether or not there is actually a difference between the two. I think they are referred to as local buses and/or public buses simply because they are the buses that the local people or general public take when traveling between cities. I have not attempted to take a bus from one end of the town to the other. So far, we have used only tuk tuks for that.  Local/public buses are crammed full of people. They put more people on the bus than there are seats. Plastic stools are placed in the aisle for extra people, and you can often find families of four sharing a pair of seats. You have no idea how long the journey is going to be, but you safely assume it will be either an hour shorter or at least two hours longer that whatever you may have been told. People’s luggage, packages that need to be delivered, produce and products like tissue paper and dining furniture are carried on the roof, and it’s not unusual to find motorbikes up there, too.

The Chicken Bus
We were on our way out of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  As things developed, we could not get out of the town fast enough. We found Vientiane to be dirty, and slimy, and there were ladyboy hookers on every corner. In fact, Vientiane was the first place I’ve walked down the street alone and actually not felt safe. So, fast forward a bit.  We bought a VIP bus ticket out of town very soon after getting there.  We were to be picked up at 11:30 for a tuk tuk ride to the bus station for our 12 pm bus.  The tuk tuk came on time. We shared a ride with a guy named Justin. Justin is an Aussie who was on his way back to a clinic in the Middle of Nowhere, Laos to find his motorbike.  He’d left it there when his brother was hit by a tuk tuk and flown to a hospital in Bangkok.  Justin was the first Australian we had met, and he seemed pretty cool. He was taking the same bus as we were, just getting out a little earlier. 

View from the back, before the bus was filled.

When we got to the bus station we were informed that our VIP bus had been canceled – oh, swell! -- they could put us on a public bus. There was no air conditioning on this bus and, because it was not VIP, they refunded in kip, the local currency, what would have been $2.50 USD. Yeah, we’d just been robbed, but this uncomfortable bus and its uncomfortable ride was the only chance we had to get out of this terrible town. I guess Vientiane kicked us on the way out.

We gave our bags to some guys who heaved them up to the top of bus. I think they landed somewhere between some motorbikes and a few bags of corn. We got on the bus, and knew it was not going to be a comfortable ride.  The driver said it was five hours, okay… so seven. The bus was nearly full already, and as we made our way to the back of the bus the people looked at us as though they never seen white people in their lives or maybe just never on one of those buses. The first ten minutes were tolerable. We each had a pair of seats for ourselves, they were broken and listing sideways a bit, but at least we had some space, right? Ummm No! Five minutes down the road about 20 more people piled in to the bus. We were a little perplexed by the plastic stools stacked up at the rear of bus when we got on. Now it made sense.  The stools are placed all along the aisle of the bus to provide additional seating. 

Michelle, Justin and I quickly surrendered our seats and opted to share some space at the very back of bus where a straw mat was laid out to make for a rather clean place to sit and offered a little extra personal space, too.  There was even enough space to play cards there on the floor. This will be okay, right? Wrong again. Another few minutes down the road and about ten more people got on the bus. No more space for cards. Now we’re sharing our “money spot” with five more passengers. Even better… we quickly realized our spot was directly over the buses engine, a location that does not make for a cooler ride.  

on board the Chicken Bus. This picture does not show how full it truly was.,. or how bad it smelled

I honestly can’t remember how many times the bus started and stopped in that first hour, but it was a LONG hour. Every time the bus stopped moving the breeze dropped, and it would instantly become 90 degrees inside and, within seconds, I was covered in sweat.  After the bus had finally been moving for about an hour the breeze brought some relief.  Things improved and, except for the lack of a space for my legs, the ride became tolerable.

There were a few cargo exchanges along the way, a motorbike off here, more corn came on there. It was amazing how those guys got such heavy things on and off the roof of that bus so quickly. What I honestly cannot understand, however, is why anyone would choose to ride that bus when they had a motorbike to ride.

The experience on this bus can and will always be referred to only as “The Chicken Bus.”  I tried to count the people on the bus at one point, and I got to somewhere around 70. There were 40 seats on this bus. Oh, and the other fun thing about this ride was a particular cultural element that is very unsettling at first but which I now have gotten used to:  The locals could not stop looking at us!  I couldn’t tell whether they had never seen white people or if they were simply intrigued by backpackers on the bus or what. It was weird, and I couldn’t stop singing Outkast’s “Rosa Parks – Everybody Move to the Back of the Bus.”

Luxury local bus:
The day after the Chicken Bus we were forced to take yet another local bus. The VIP bus to take us out of The Khek was full and we were running out of time, spending it all on buses or waiting for them.  So as much as we were not looking forward to taking another Chicken Bus ride, especially overnight, we really didn’t have too much choice.  So… we got in a tuk tuk and went to the bus station to find a public bus to Pakse so we could get to the 4000 Islands, our next destination. 
It was 9:30 pm.  Supposedly, there was a bus leaving at 10. We got in a tuk tuk and made our way to the bus station. When we got there we asked the fellow standing there “Bus to Pakse?” He replied, “Pakse!” with a smile as he was pointing to the bus right next to us.  We fumbled around a bit, thinking we were in a hurry. The workers were trying to send us in to the bus when we weren’t 100% sure it was going to Pakse, and we didn’t yet have a ticket. 
I cannot recall exactly what all went on during the three minutes consumed getting out of the tuk tuk, buying our tickets and lugging our giant bags on to the bus.  Whatever it was, I do know this: it was VERY entertaining to the locals.  At first I wasn’t so sure of taking my big bag onto the bus with me.  When they insisted, however, I realized that by doing that it couldn’t accidentally go flying off, or be accidentally taken out at the wrong stop and perhaps disappear forever. I was just fine with it. 
awe look, it's Katy and Michelle in the back seat!

So there we were, on a local night bus to Pakse. It is supposed to get us there about 6:00 am.  Both Michelle and I secured our money and passports under our clothes and proceeded to fall asleep on top of our day bags. Believe it or not, we both actually slept.  We slept until 4:00 am at which time we were abruptly awakened to find we had arrived in Pakse two hours early and, for some reason, the bus would not be going all the way to the bus station. Great! Now we’re in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night!  We started walking down the road in the direction of the bus stop. About 500 meters in to our walk a tuk tuk conveniently drove by, picked up and took us to the bus station. The station wasn’t open, but the toilet was free (no attendant in the middle of the night), and we managed to entertain ourselves playing card until people starting showing up a few hours later.
Lonely Paske bus station
Happy to see daylight in this place!

One long journey from one country to the next:
Getting from Si Phon Don, Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia took quite a bit longer than expected.  (See a pattern here?) The first two-thirds of the journey took place on a VIP bus, but it still was not all that comfortable.  The bus left about 30 minutes late. Not too bad. The bus was pretty full -- only one seat per person, but it was comfortable, so all was well.  The road seemed to be rather smooth, still a good thing.  But it didn’t take long before it got exciting.  
We got to the Cambodian border within 30 minutes.  It took only an hour for our “cruise director” to get everyone’s passports through customs. That’s right, “cruise director.” It seems every bus we take has a person, sort of random in appearance, who is in charge of what’s going on aboard the bus.  This person knows how many belong on the bus, where we’re supposed to get off and what our bags look like.  After acquiring another new, fancy, hand-written visa and a couple new stamps in my passport we were off, steaming through Cambodia. Our bus driver was blowing his horn constantly. Horn honking seems to be the thing to do in SE Asia.  You don’t slow down or get out of anyone’s way, you just blow the horn so everyone knows you’re coming through.  The bad thing about the horn honking is when it’s followed by longer and louder honks, a sudden screech of brakes and finally a thud.  Yes, 20 km in to Cambodia was the “honk – honk -  HHOOOOOOONK -- SCREEEEEECH thud.” I have no idea what collided with the bus that morning, but I can only hope it was cow, because it did not slow us down one bit.
Okay.  Fast forward a few more hours. The bus is stopped on the side of the road. I don’t even know how long we were stopped before I realized people were starting to get off the bus, maybe 30mins or so? I followed suit to see what was going on outside. Oh, and what do you know… There’s no front right tire on our bus!  That’s okay.  An hour and a half later we had a much-relieved cruise director a sweaty sidekick and a bus that was running again. 16 hours on this trip would have been okay, even with an hour at the border and a two hour tire fix.
But we were not on this bus for 16 hours. We were only on it about 10 hours until we were dropped off to board the connecting bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  As soon as we were off the bus it sped away about the same speed at which it had hit that poor cow several hours earlier.  Unfortunately, we were not connecting on a VIP bus as promised. Instead, there was a local waiting for us.  Michelle boarded first, finding only three empty seats for ten of us. Our big bags were to fit inside, too.  After butting heads for a bit we lost the battle for a paid-for seat on the VIP when they convinced us that this bus would be leaving soon for Siem Reap.  If we chose not to ride it, so be it.  There would be no more buses.  So we got on.  The driver brought a few chairs on board and there we were again, packed in like sardines for the final five hours to Siem Reap.
Cruise Director
Friday morning pit stop
This morning we traveled from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. We consciously purchased a local bus ticket after having lost out to the VIP fare scam.  Knowing by now that locals usually leave on time, we thought we could tough it out for six more hours at the back of the bus. On time pickup? Check.  On time departure? Check. Air conditioning?  Well kind of.  Katy and Michelle at the back of the bus?  Where else?  

It was only 25 minutes into the ride (exactly 7:35 am on my watch) when, out of nowhere, we heard a loud hissing sound accompanied by a thick, foul-smelling odor coming out from under the seats at the back of the bus. Our response? We could only look at each other and laugh. After all, this really wasn’t all that surprising a situation.  Within seconds, the local were racing off the bus, so we though it would be best if we followed.  It was still early in the morning, so it had not quite reached 96 degrees Fahrenheit yet. But it was mighty hot in the sun. We made our way over to a shady spot under a tree, a spot we shared with a monk, a soldier and three locals. A few months ago I would have nervous about something like this happening to me, but today it seemed to be pretty par for the course.  Much to our amazement, another bus came for us 52 minutes later.  Everyone piled in and we proceeded on an uneventful, though extremely sweaty, ride into Phnom Penh.

View from under the shady tree wondering if another bus will come for us.

What have I learned about bus travel in SE Asia?
Expect the unexpected.  Expect to be stopped on the side of the road for a minimum of one hour.  Bring lots of water and wear dirty clothes because you will sweat out every ounce of what you drink. Mostly, bring a good attitude and a sense of humor. And bring a deck of cards.

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