Thailand is a nation of people continually on the move with all this movement helped on its way by a superb transport network. Whether it be by rail, bus, plane or increasingly by car, most areas of the Kingdom are easily accessible. Excluding other means of private and public transport, it’s the Bus that seems to be the prime people mover.
Of course Bus travel comes in various forms. In big cities like Bangkok, bus travel is identified with the jungle like nature of the daily commute. Bored passengers, silent drivers and with conductors incessantly clicking their ticket cylinders to attract attention or maybe trying to stave off boredom. At the other end of the bus spectrum are the air-conditioned “VIP” style buses that ply the long distance routes. More comfortable to be sure, but a tad boring.
The happy medium in this mode of transport is the country Bus. On a country bus you may still be simply commuting, but at the same time you become part of the rich fabric of rural life. No more big city anonymity, on a country Bus you are definitely part of the scene. Although the air-conditioned buses are gradually dominating the market, for short and medium trips the local buses still are popular.
The buses themselves tend to be old. With sturdy steel bodies and on some of the older ones still having timber floors they travel down rural roads and highways constantly on the lookout for passengers who seem to hail the bus where and when they feel like it.
In some respects country buses are similar to ocean going trawlers – except instead of netting fish they net people. The chief “fisherman” is the busboy, who seems to spend most of time clinging to the side of the bus shouting and alerting prospective passengers that the bus is coming. Although the bus timetable is fairly “elective”, deadlines still have to be met and as such passengers don’t dawdle getting on the Bus. On a couple of occasions I’ve been to slow and have almost been catapulted back onto the road by the rapidly accelerating Bus.
Once on board, you discover that the Bus wasn’t designed with comfort in mind. Vinyl seats without much legroom and in the middle of the day they can be furnace hot with the only relief from small ceiling fans. But these are minor irritations and well compensated by other factors. The first of course is the human factor.
On a country Bus you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life. Farmers, traders, school children, servicemen returning from leave and of course Buddhist Monks. Constantly chattering and smiling it makes for a relaxed and entertaining trip – even the drivers look much happier than their counterparts in the big cities.
The second compensation is food. On the air-conditioned “VIP” Bus, the food on offer tends to be a snack in a Styrofoam box together with a watery soft drink. In contrast on a local bus you often encounter a wide range of wonderful food. Once the Bus has stopped in small towns it is often met by a stream of local people hawking freshly cooked food. Everything from chicken, sticky rice, fruit, sweets, fresh coconut milk and soft drinks.
Complimenting the local bus network are the smaller Sorngtahews that ply the smaller routes between towns and villages. One of their prime roles is transporting children in the mornings and afternoons to their schools in local towns. In the afternoons when you see the kids piling into these vehicles and quite often sitting on the roof due to overcrowding, you see another aspect of rural life.
In all the years that I have traveled to Thailand one trip on a local Bus always sticks in my mind. About 14 years ago , our holiday in Thailand was drawing to a close and we faced the inevitable flight back to Australia. We boarded a local bus that was surprisingly going all the way to Bangkok. It was late at night and I felt that it was going to be five hours of boredom.
As usual, I was wrong. Mali and I were befriended by the busboy and two of his friends who lightened the trip. They insisted that I share their take away meal of chicken and sticky rice and washed down by an endless supply of fresh coconut.
Three big boned Isaan Country boys who through their natural friendliness and sense of fun turned a journey that could have been boring into one that was truly memorable.
Only in Thailand!!!