Bus travel is most people’s idea of a nightmare. A million strangers (though in the West it will rarely exceed 79, for “health and safety” reasons) imprisoned in an area with a floor-space only marginally larger than a public toilet cubicle, in motion. On paper, suicide.
My love of bus travel, as I’ve already harped on about, extends as far the ease with which I can eavesdrop. Living in a country where my ability to understand the language mirrors my cat’s ability to understand the concept of not destroying the furniture, my listening skills are somewhat redundant.
But another recent trip to Southeast Asia, my favourite of all the World’s playgrounds, reminded me that a dirty bus ride transcends language barriers and offers a far more real, unapologetic view of a country. So in addition to my early Bus Chaos Memories of Central America, Thailand and India (cat-sized cockroaches; chicken claw tortillas; being ditched at the side of a road somewhere in southern Mexico around 2.30am and leaving the map on the bus), hilarious Indo-Bus Memories of Sumatra and Java (adding an extra 7 hours to our already-12-hour journey by riding around cities actively seeking customers; bus drivers drug-dealing whilst thinking no one would notice) I now have a new cache of Bus Memory Gold to wheel out the next time anyone wants proof that luxury travel is overrated.
Mien Tay Bus Station, Ho Chi Minh City
The never-ending circus that is HCMC’s south-serving bus station meant the 3-hour wait to embark on an ultimately futile journey to Phu Quoc for some diving set the benchmark for you-wouldn’t-see-this-in-the-West entertainment. Most notable was the gang of enthusiastic Vietnamese “lads” gathered on the forecoourt whose leader spent a good 20 minutes demonstrating the physical form of his rooster. Not a euphemism; an actual bird. Then, horrifically, he tried to pour a bottle of moonshine down its gullet. The rooster was having none of it, so the geezer took it by the neck, forced open its beak and used his own mouth as a funnel. After that, he picked the bird up, stuffed it into a rope bag and slung it onto the back of his moped, proving to me that cock-fighting is alive and well in South Vietnam. Unlike that poor rooster.
GST Bus Station, Phnom Penh
As if the dodgily-subtitled, sex-filled Chinese drama playing on this privately-owned station’s TV wasn’t entertainment enough, a rat the size of Blue (she of Operation 17-Toes) scuttled in, heralding an altogether more violent scene. Sensing the presence of vermin, an employee attempted to head it off at the pass but the rat carried on and pounced up the stairs. The guy pulled off his flip-flop, brandished it and, like a modern-day gladiator, followed it up and into battle. Much banging and shouting was heard before the rodent hopped back down, with the now-sweating bus worker in hot pursuit. Alas for the rat victory was short-lived: it was soon Death By Havaiana, and Husband and I got to watch as it was beaten to death with the flip-flop in the middle of the station. Afterwards, the man, put the murder weapon back on his foot and unceremoniously kicked the body to the door, before picking it up and flinging it onto a pile of trash. Job done.
Somewhere on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
We stopped at a bus station in the hot afternoon sun. Snacks more substantial than the wares of the aggressively-enterprising fruit sellers clustered round our chariot’s door seemed like a good idea. That plan was short-lived: a perusal of the stalls revealed offerings that included long curried birds-claws, crisped-up spiders and maggots marinated in some sort of chilli-based dressing. Insects are acceptable fare the world over, but not with the carnivorous flies that were swarming all over them. A non-wearing woman had a plastic bag tied to a stick and was diligently swiping them away. A futile endeavour. But also, WTF? No live insects on the dead insects? About two hours later, on the same bus, a little boy in the seat next to us vomited all over himself. Those flies probably had something to do with it…
Anyway, did I mention we’re planning a trip to Northern Vietnam, Laos and China next year? We’re buying Minsks.