The chatters and shrieks of ten year olds flow from the windows of my bus as we roll through the Vietnamese countryside. The floor is stacked several boxes high with ceramic tiles and a kitchen sink is blocking the isle, so anyone wishing to pass must shrewdly shuffle around the corners or jump over the beast. I can’t decide if it’s a school bus or a hardware store delivery van. We just stopped to pick up more passengers and a thirty something lady slipped into the seat next to me, placing her hand on my leg. Awkward.
While I am debating whether to casually move my leg over or wiggle it a little, she looks down, acknowledging the position, raises her hand and replaces it, now grasping my knee. She clearly wants it here...maybe its my new $8 Ferrari brand jeans? Irresistible. Oh, and did I mention someone just started playing the Titanic soundtrack? Thank you Vietnam, my heart will go on.
How did I become part of this bus circus anyway? It all started with my Halong Bay trip. After an excruciating van ride packed to the brim with tourists locals and luggage, a few run ins with rude tour operators and a hilariously awkward evening on a boat with two Chinese couples, five German guys and a very young Vietnamese girl coupled with an old fat Dutch man (sex tourism anyone?) I found myself wandering around Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay.
Me and a fellow German were shuffled around the island for a day hiking through a national park and wandering around town. When it was time for us to get back on our junk boat for the night the tour guide put us on an unmarked van which dropped us at the harbor where we were instructed to wait for said school bus turned Home Depot delivery truck.
After driving for an hour through the countryside, dropping the school children at their respective homes and delivering the building materials, the German guy and I were the only people remaining on the bus. Much to my surprise we actually made it to the harbor where we waited another hour with a collection of tour guides and boat captains, the German feeding them rum shots all the while, shooting the breeze and waiting for our boat to arrive.
Once again, much to my surprise, a boat emerged from the foggy bay to pick up the two lone tourists waiting at the harbor. The name of the boat was Halong Bay Party Cruiser, which I must admit, did live up to its name. My new tour guide—this time a more amiable and energetic character—kicked off the evening with a Backstreet Boys karaoke debut along with some sort of tai chi flailing arms dance moves. It was stellar. After that the four dollar bottles of vodka started rolling and we sang the night away. This country never ceases to amaze me.
It is no secret that the Vietnamese favor their own people, and rightly so. I would equally favor an American, but when it turns into a Robin Hood act, taking from tourists and giving to the Vietnamese, it becomes a problem. A few days ago I was riding in a tour van packed with 20 tourists, luggage and all. There was not much space, and the four hour ride was going to be less than jovial. A few miles down the road the driver pulled over to pick up a few local women hitching a ride; only one problem, there were no seats left. The tour guide asked three of the tourists the get out of the van, giving their seats to the Vietnamese women and assigning the tourists to the portable fold down seats in the aisle.
If you want to pick up hitchers with your full tour van, whatever. I know this would never fly in a Western country, but being it was Vietnam I could let it slide. Forcing tourists who had paid anywhere from $60-80 for the tour to give up their seats to freeloaders? Unacceptable. I don’t care which country you’re from—Eastern and Western alike, that is just bad customer service.
To make things more exciting, the ladies chattered on their cell phones the whole drive and had an especially loud conversation with each other when the tour guide was trying to explain the day’s itinerary to us. After the four hour journey, we were an annoyed bunch. This, however, would not be my only aggravating bus adventure.
The bus anger was left to brew in my mind for a few days, coincidently perfectly preparing me for a scrimmage with an evil bus driver the following week. I had booked a sleeper bus to the north of Vietnam . It was a bunk bed set up with overly reclined bus seats and I happened to have prime pick of the territory, being one of the first people on the bus. Remembering advice from my travel mates, always sleep on the bottom, I settled on a nice bottom bunk in the middle of the bus. As I approached the seat the bus driver ran at me pointing to the top seat saying I must sit there. I refused, inching closer to my beloved bottom bunk. A British girl next to me—also headed toward a bottom bunk—exclaimed, “why do you always make us ride on the top when the Vietnamese get the better bottom seats? Tell me! Why can’t I sleep on the bottom?”
This tipped the driver off. He turned into something resembling an angry monkey, howling and flailing his arms, all the while ignoring the British girl’s inquiry and yelling at us to take the top seats. This was my breaking point. I had dealt with enough rude people in this country and wasn’t about to tolerate one more.
“Ever hear of someone named Rosa Parks?” I asked. He stared, confused. “Didn’t think so. Well I’m about to rock your world.”
I turned to my bottom seat and plopped down. The driver grabbed my arm threatening to yank me from my seat, and I screamed in protest, “I can guarantee you I paid more money for this bus ride than any Vietnamese person, and I will sit wherever I damn well please.” I shoved my ticket in his face exclaiming, “show me where it says the seat number! Nowhere! You can't tell me where to sit, then.”
Needless to say, he relinquished. This was the first time I had succeeded in a long list of struggles with the locals and it felt good.
Any time you're looking for a true taste of local flavor, I would recommend taking a ride on the local bus. I must warn you, it's not for the faint of heart, and the results are either elating or steam coming from the ears maddening, but nonetheless, I guarantee it will be a memorable experience.
The buses of Bangkok are a species all of their own, coming in all shapes sizes and colors, melding together into a secret sort of code which indicates the cost and destination of the bus. Once you get past the secret code business, each bus is assigned to two numbers (the specific meanings of which still remain a mystery) placed strategically along the front or side of the vehicle, making it a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the correct bus. This just made the challenge of navigating through the city even more exciting.
My misadventures on public transport started as a youngster, at the age of five to be precise. I rode the school bus to kindergarten each day. Eventually the route got overloaded and being the last stop, I was frequently re-routed, shuffled onto an alternate bus, or-worst case scenario-picked up in a sketchy brown striped suburban owned by the school district and transported to school. It wasn't uncommon for me to accidently board the wrong bus or for the driver to forget about my stop altogether, forcing me running to the front yelling at him to let me off. I hated the school bus. It was hot, the kids were loud and I somehow always got the worst seat next to the fattest, smelliest kid.
When I got over my traumatic Lil' Tyke bus misfortunes, and before my driving days, I began riding the city bus to my job. It had a tendency for being late or straight up not showing up at all and I had a track record of catching the wrong bus, or missing my stop; a fatal combination. One day I got so lost on the bus, that I had to call my mom to leave work and come rescue me. That was the end of me and the bus.
On my very first day in Bangkok I was feeling particularly savvy and decided to take my chances on the local bus directions my guesthouse had provided from the airport. I caught a bus filled with fellow Thai travelers and airline employees-this was much too far from the beaten Western backpacker route-and was transported to the local bus station. There I boarded bus 252, as instructed by my online directions with a slew of locals who didn't speak a lick of English.
"Get off at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road, after about 45 minutes on the bus," read the directions. I reread the sentence. What was 89/56 supposed to mean? Was it 89 or 56? Make up your mind people! I wasn't about to take my chances guessing on one or the other and spending the rest of the day intimately getting to know Bangkok and the other 36 numbers between. I showed the address to the bus driver, who looked clueless, responding that the bus didn't go there. Luckily, I was still at the bus station, so I flirted with the idea of getting off the bus and searching for one that could guarantee me a stop at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road. But, once again remembering no one spoke English, I decided to take my chances with 252.
As the bus departed the terminal, I started timing the ride. Just as promised, 40 minutes into the journey I saw the Sukhumvit Road sign, and increasing numbers every block. Perfect! I screeched with joy motioning for the driver to stop as we approached 89. I happily departed the bus, and saw number 56 on the opposite side of the road; there was a method to their madness after all. Within a few blocks I was inside my guesthouse, thoroughly impressed with my local bus navigational skills.
Map Reading Gone Wrong
During my second visit to Bangkok, I was feeling restless for an adventure and set out to find the Vietnamese Embassy via local bus. The route appeared pretty simple on Google Maps and I could get there without having to transfer buses. I scribbled down the address along with a quickly drawn map of the bus stop and set out on my adventure. The bus came just as I arrived at the stop, and I boarded it confidently as if I had been riding these busses my whole life. I was soon on a journey meandering through the side streets of Chinatown. I was trying to follow the route outlined on the Google Maps page I had saved, but nothing seemed to match up.
I strained my eyes to catch street names as we whizzed by swerving tuk tuks and vendors pushing carts of fried rice, traveling further and further away from the center of Bangkok. I knew I was lost, but I didn't want to admit it to myself or my fellow Thai passengers. I shyly asked the ticket collector about a specific street we were meant to cross and she along with five other eavesdropping passengers exclaimed, "ooohhhh" in their best we feel sorry for this tourist tone of voice, "wrong way, get off GET OFF!"
Their urgent cries startled me out of my seat and I was ready to jump off the bus, belongings in hand, as if it were a ticking bomb about to blow. The driver slowed down just enough for me to jump from the moving vehicle before speeding off again. I was left in a cloud of dust and bus exhaust as locals leaned from the bus window pointing and yelling for me to cross the street and catch the opposite direction bus.
I waited at the stop recovering from local bus gone wrong. Ten minutes, thirty minutes, no bus. Was I at the right place? Had I misunderstood the locals? Frustrated and anxious to get to the embassy, I began to walk in the direction my local bus had come from. I soon found myself wandering through the same circular streets in Chinatown and knew it was time to ask for help.
I approached the friendliest looking man on the street and was soon surrounded by four Thais chattering and offering me their best local bus advice. Before I knew it, I was on the correct local bus, headed the correct direction and was at my stop, the embassy. Success never felt so sweet after a day of navigational strife. I eventually re-read the Google Map depicting the local bus route I was meant to take, and to my amazement realized I had forgotten a minor detail; Thais drive on the left. Silly me, I had caught the bus on the wrong side of the road. Looks like I won't be repeating that mistake any time soon.
Backpacker vs. Bus: The Ultimate Showdown
After a voluminous victory and major mishap, I was ready to go all or nothing with this bus game. This time the target seemed simple but Google as I may, I could not find an address, website or location description for the mysterious place I was headed. Sai Tai Mai-the bus station for long distance buses was off the tech radar. Google aside, this challenge was strictly between me and my information gathering skills from the locals, and I was determined to win. I armed myself with a photograph of the alleged Sai Tai Mai, a phonetic spelling and was off.
Luckily, the first lady I spoke to gave me everything I needed; the bus number, the location of the stop and Sai Tai Mai written in Thai. I waited at the bus stop with 20 Thais. Soon their busses came and 20 new Thais appeared. Locals and bus drivers alike had assured me I was at the correct bus stop, but bus 740 was nowhere to be seen.
As this cycle continued my anxiety grew. I was always the last one standing, surely someone else had to be waiting for 740, right? Another woman waited at the stop with me for 20 minutes and eventually ran into the street, flagging down a cab to take her to wherever she was going. Maybe I should follow suit. Maybe I had been too rash with my bus skills and was stubbornly waiting for a phantom ride. My mind ran through the taxi vs. bus scenario, then, there it was. A seven faintly emerging from the throng of traffic, a four, and a zero! I ran to the door, anxiously boarding the vehicle and shouting, "Sai Tai Mai," to be confirmed with a hurrah of "chais, yes" from the passengers. Triumph was mine. I had come full circle from my elementary days and defeated the ominous local bus system of Bangkok. Maybe the tables had finally turned and the bus gods were looking favorably upon me, or maybe I had just finally become bus smart. Either way, I ended up with a few funny experiences and I'm sure the locals got a good laugh at the tourist trying to ride the local bus.
If I could have spent a month in Dubrovnik, I would have. It was such a striking city with loads of wonderful travelers and new friends! When the evening came that I had to leave for Split I was quite sad.
I hopped on a 6P.M. bus and braced myself for the four hour journey. Most of the drive was along the coast which was lined with hilly islands and small villages. I watched the sun set over the islands for the first hour of the trip and was completely awe-struck. I made the decision then and there that I WOULD return to Croatia at some point during my life and spend a few weeks exploring the islands and small villages and driving the coast.
A quarter of the way into the trip, once I had settled into my seat and was enjoying some good old road trip music, I noticed an intensifying smell of burning wood combined with incense wafting into the bus. At first I didn't mind, it jut smelled like a wood burning stove on a crisp winter evening-kind of festive.
Eventually, the smell grew stronger and stronger, so I opened my air conditioning vents to full blast to combat the scent. Finally, I decided to turn around and do a little investigating and I noticed the whole back of the bus was covered in a white haze. Everyone had become very irritated and was restlessly adjusting their air vents and looking around for the culprit.
Let's be honest for a moment. I know I'm not an expert on Croatian culture or anything, but who would feel the need to bring incense or burning wood, whatever it was on a public long distance bus? Really? By this point the only person enjoying the bus ride was the one smoking.
Finally, the bus attendant addressed the situation and mystery person extinguished mystery burning object. Success! Well, at least for an hour or so until someone lit a cigarette...ON THE BUS. Sometimes you just can't win!
I arrived in Split and got settled in my hostel just in time for bed. The next morning, I set out to do a little exploring on my own. There is a huge hill in town and I decided to climb to the top to take in the view of the city. It was about a million degrees, but I put my mountain climbing skills to use and took a long water break at the top!
I was wandering around the hill when I stumbled upon a brother and sister from Taiwan. Vincent has been living in New York for the past couple of years and Nicole is studying in Germany, and they met up to take a Europe road trip for a few weeks. We really hit it off and decided to grab lunch together.
We stopped at a local spot that was recommended to me, and just as we sat down, a Croatian man they had met the night before showed up. We all enjoyed a nice lunch of grilled fish (whole fish, skin, tail, head and all) and luckily Peter, the Croatian, was there to show us how to properly cut the fish in order to remove all the bones at once.
The whole day turned out to be a big coincidence, but that's the thing I love about traveling! At home, I would never go up to random people and start talking to them then have lunch together. When you're on the road, there are no barriers and travelers are like a big community always excited to meet one another!
My new friends! Nicole, Peter, me and Vincent.
The Split harbor
The bell tower in Split...trying to be artsy!