Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Adventures in the Back of the Bus
Adventures in the Back of the Bus - The Thailand Edition.
Thailand proved to be quite adventuresome when it came to bus rides. Here's a recap of my encounters:
The Mini-Bus: In Bangkok, I stopped by a travel agent who booked me a "bus" ride from the city to Koh Samet. Sitting, waiting, I watched large, luxury cruisers pull in and out of the station. This was going to be nice. Around the time promised, the agent stood up, and said "Your bus is here." Innocently, I walked up to the luxury bus which sat directly outside the office. Four hours of this, it'll be a great ride. But the travel agent tapped me on the shoulder. "This, airport. You, there," he pointed across the busy street. My gaze followed his finger and halted at the sight of a minivan - or as he called it "Your minibus."
The ride was long, but fine. I met some great people on that ride down. We quickly bonded over shared stories of Asian travel - and surivial.
Bangkok was hot. Too hot. So hot that I couldn't eat lunch, and instead bought the largest water bottle I could find, and attempted to drown myself in it. This was fine, because the water never actually went into my stomach. No, before it sloshed down my throat, it was catipulted out every pore. But that changed in the bus. The bus had AC. I started to absorb the water, and my bladder began to revolt against me.
Needless to say, I was quite thankful when we parked for a planned pitstop. Apparently, so was everyone else. When I left the curtain-door restroom, I passed a line of my busmates who crawled out from the minivan seats behind me.
Browsing the refrigerators of this 7-11-styled open-air mini-mart, I decided to settle on ice cream. They picked a cold beer, but I had no interest in putting any more liquid in me for awhile. As we were sitting around a teetering table, one of us glanced over at a pile of luggage sitting on the driveway.
"Guys... I think that's our stuff."
It was. Our bags had been dumped at a roll-up mini-mart at least another hour's drive from our destination. Our driver was gone.
"How long do we wait past the time he said he'd be back before we start looking for another ride?"
Minutes crept by. But just about the time we were deciding how we could split a cab 8 ways, our minivan pulled up, and out poured around 20 people. Apparently he decided not to tell us he was involved in a bit of a search and rescue mission.
After he loaded the van back up, we piled in and made it to our destination without a hitch. My new friends continued to the island. I said goodbye, and hopped into a taxi for my beach-side hotel.
The "Taxi": The next day, at check out, I decided to follow my friends lead and head over to Koh Samet Island. The conciere called me a taxi - which was cheaper than the ride the night before, so I was thankful. But what pulled up was a small truck, with a tarp over the roof and minimally padded seats lining the bed's walls. The driver lowered the tailgate, tossed my bag in, and directed me inside. I felt like a refugee.
He knew my plan was to head to Koh Samet, so when he slowed to a stop, he pulled up in front of a pre-destined travel agent, who instantly bombarded me with "Koh Samet Ferry! Buy from us! Koh Samet Ferry! Come here, Come! Where you go?" The driver came around the truck and stood between me and my option of walking away. I put my backpack on, thanked him for the ride, and approached the Ferry-shouters. Their price was fair, so I hopped on the back of the motorcycle-shuttle who drove me down to the docks, climbed aboard the waiting ferry, and made it out to the island with a full day ahead of me, and a new friend Roger with a restaurant promising to store my bags and feed me.
The Bus: On the island, I found another travel agent - my third at this point. She sold me a minibus ticket - I knew what that meant - from the mainland to Bangkok for the same price I paid to get across to the island the day before. What a score! But I played it cool, acted like it was merely an "acceptable" price; I'd learned a thing or two about The Land of Swindlers. Then she asked if I had a ferry ticket yet. I didn't. I half expected her to now double the price, with maybe only a slight "package discount." She didn't. The price she offered was only one fifth of my ferry ride the day before. Altogether, I was paying less than I did just for the minibus from Bangkok to the beach town!
I didn't have a motor-shuttle this time round, so I boarded the ferry everyone else was boarding, and flashed my ticket to a ship hand, "This one?" He shook his head yes. I sat down next to my South Korean friends from the minibus down. They were headed back to bangkok as well. It wasn't long until the captain came around and told me and a couple others that our yellow tickets were actually for the ferry no one was on yet, hidden up at the front of the pier.
I shrugged my shoulders, said goodbye to my friends, and marched my way towards "my ferry." On land, I found the mini-bus load-in, and searched for a bite to eat. I passed a restaurant and spotted another young, solitary traveler, and asked if the food was good. She was finishing her plate, but said it was, so I sat at an empty table to fill my stomach before the trek back.
By the time I finished, the rest of my new mini-bus mates had already piled in. Another giant waterbottle in hand, I set it, and my sunglasses, down to pick up my pack. Sadly, I never picked either up.
I loaded my gear, and crawled and clambered to the only available seat left... the back row. Though I had luggage on every side of me, I took advantage of the empty space, and stretched out a bit. Four hours of this? I could take it.
About 10 minutes down the road, however, we stopped. Did we break down? Another search and rescue? No, even better.
I glanced behind me. Lo and behold, there was the giant luxury bus, just like I'd seen going to the airport. To my excitement, the driver unloaded our gear, and loaded it into the bus. I said goodbye to the world of Thai Mini-Bussing for the last time, and said hello to traveling with style.
Since the luxury liner was already partially filled with other travelers, I decided not to go to the aft or top deck, but move forward. Good choice. I scored a seat in the very front, which allowed me to kick up my feet and sleep for the first leg of the trip.
Maybe a half hour down the road, we stopped at another mini-mart. There, I replaced my giant bottle with a new one, and sat down next to the traveler I kept bumping into. We talked while the driver stalled for time. I knew she wasn't in the premium seats like I was, so I invited her to sit next to me. She introduced herself as Camille, and said she was from Quebec. We passed the time sharing stories of her three months in Bangkok, Laos, and Vietnam; of my 8 months in Taiwan. All the while, our feet up, riding in style. The bus parked half a block from my hotel where we stored our bags then hit the streets for some last minute shopping.
Overall, I have to say my Thailand bus experiences were frankly, less than orthodox. Though, I may have feared for my life in the refugee truck, or thought I'd been stranded by the soccer-mom bus, each trip got me to my destination safely, and on time. I met terrific people along the way, and made some friendships and contacts that will continue long after we've left the Land of Smiles.
Nonetheless, it was quite comforting to be back in my big green bus, after I landed in Taipei and rode home.