A Rant About Transportation in Asia

Transportation in Asia was a constant source of annoyance for me. I actually thought and said, “I miss the buses of South America” all the time. This isn’t just for the comfort level of the bus itself or even the bumpiness of the roads – South America had it’s fair share of shitty buses and popping popcorn rides – but because of the way it all works.

For starters, there aren’t really stations. Buses can pick you up anywhere. Most often it’s on a random street corner, sometimes at least near some travel agency offices or a taxi stand. Or they insist on picking you up from your hostel. Why is this a necessary thing? They send a minibus to the hostel which takes an hour to circle town and pick up everyone before going to the big bus. Sometimes it’s a tuktuk that picks you up, once it was a taxi that took us to the wrong station, and once the minibus was the actual transportation to the border for 6 hours.

And on the other side, they can drop you off anywhere too. Finding your hostel then becomes a fun game of ask everyone in sight and hope someone knows at least something helpful, or get in the first tuktuk that seems confident once you’re too frustrated to find it on your own.

Then there’s the reservation system. Instead of going to a station and buying a ticket, you talk to the travel agent (aka guy at stand with bus times) who makes a call then writes out a flimsy paper ticket. Who are they always calling? How do they know what bus and what seat? I want transcripts of these conversations so I can actually try to understand this system. It seems like chaos to me. But then you take the paper slip from the guy and trust that your bus will be at that time and, often, that someone will come get you.

The ride itself is so long because these buses stop so often. Instead of the “bathroom on board we don’t stop till we get there” system of South America there’s a “you can only pee when we tell you so we’ll stop every hour to do so and by the way thirty minutes at this one for food” system.

And that arrival time they tell you? Ignore it. It’d be one thing if all the buses were late, but sometimes they’re early! That probably sounds nice but when you’re supposed to arrive somewhere at 5 am and it’s actually 3 am it really sucks. I’ve wondered more than once how it was possible to make up so much time with all the stops, but then I decided it’s better to not know.

The entire system take a lot of faith. I had to just trust that what this random person told me would happen, and most of the time it actually did. Remarkably. It was a trying way to travel but I survived. I can’t say I’m not happy to be done with it though.

Especially after India. This all came to a head in India, the most difficult place in my trip to get around. First, everything is booked. Unless you plan weeks in advance forget the trains, but it’s not like buses are empty either. Is the whole country constantly on the move? Then once we did get a bus ticket we weren’t even sure it would work out until we were safely on the bus pulling out of the station, and even then there was little relief until we’d safely arrived at the next place. Let me take you through my worst bus experience…

Haridwar bus station

Haridwar bus station

It was leaving Haridwar (Rishikesh) for Jaipur. We rushed to the Haridwar bus station, aka open dirt patch with tons of people loitering everywhere, to find out our bus would actually be leaving an hour later. The man took my receipt and gave me a little yellow piece of paper no bigger than a post-it note. This was my ticket. We tried to wait at a location with the bus in view but quickly were surrounded by a dozen teenage boys asking for pictures. We had to move. This is how we spent an hour, constantly moving around the buses trying to get away from all of the staring people. We were the only white people there, and two blonde girls at that. We found a solo British man and the three of us stood next to our bus waiting to board, trying to ignore the group of men who had gathered nearby to stare. We got on the bus at the original time, then waited an hour and a half for it to leave. We watched full families load into a single sleeper bed. Finally on the road we felt relief, until the rest stop. Not having had a chance to use the bathroom before we left, we had to brave it. If you picture the kind of rest stop in a movie where two American girls would be abducted this was it. It was the most unsafe I’ve felt in all of Asia and I could not get back on the bus soon enough. Kwaz I’m sorry you had to experience this but I’m so happy to have had a friend with me. They never came by our bunk to make sure we were back, at some point the bus just started moving. They easily could have left people behind. Which is why we were shocked when someone banged on our bunk telling us Jaipur was the next stop. How did they even know where we were going? And who the hell was this guy, he wasn’t the one who checked our tickets when we got on. The bus weaved its way into the city and pulled over to drop us off, not at the bus station from which we had directions to our hostel, but in the middle of the Pink City. At 4:30 in the morning. It was dark, we were totally lost, and we quirky learned that nobody in Jaipur is helpful. Quite the opposite. We asked what direction something was to try to find the guest house and after a long walk through the deserted streets gave up and took a rickshaw, which went right back the direction we had come. We had been pointed in the exact opposite way we needed to go. Finally we made it to the guest house after a trip that was a serious test of my nerves.

This, along with a few other bus sagas (remember this and this?), is part of the reason I’m a bit relieved to be taking a break from traveling around Southeast/South Asia. It was a lesson in patience, which I suppose I’ve gained a lot of on this trip, and faith. Lesson learned. Moving on.

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One comment

  1. I remember in thailand you needed someone that spoke the language when you needed to go somewhere. The bus system was amazing for me there, but that’s because a local knew which one i should take, bought the ticket for me, and told me which bus to get on, haha. otherwise it probably would have been a nightmare too.

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