The five basic rules for bus travel in South East Asia
There are many ways to get underneath the skin of the country you're traveling in, but one of the most effective ways is to spend your time using local public transportation. My motivation for traveling as the locals may have been economic, but the result is a crash course in local culture.
No matter what your guidebook tells you, catching a bus/ train/ bemo/ tuk tuk or motorbike is never easy, and will certainly leave you tearing your hair out in frustration at least once. The problem is not a language barrier, but a cultural one.
To survive, there are five basic rules that you should follow:
Rule 1 - Be patient
Whoever said that patience is a virtue has never tried to catch a bus in Bangkok, where it's an overwhelming necessity. It doesn't matter how well you've planned, how many people you have asked, or even if you've somehow managed to get a ticket in advance - you will inevitably end up waiting anywhere between one to 24 hours. If you're lucky, you end up waiting in some charming village with lots to see and do. If you are like me, you end up stuck in some grubby little backwater where the locals can smell desperation and bleed you dry for some mediocre rice and undercooked chicken.
Rule 2 - Always ensure you have packed anti-diarrhea medicine
See above, re: undercooked chicken.
Rule 3 - Ask questions
There is a tendency, particularly strong in Malaysia, to neglect to mention facts that are pertinent to your travel plans. When asking for a bus ticket from A to B, and being told you need to catch a connecting bus from point C, you are likely to find on arrival that the counter assistant has neglected to tell you that buses no longer run from point C at all. Likewise, if you ask for a timetable for a bus, it might be worthwhile asking if all, or in fact any, of the advertised buses will actually be running on your day of travel. Invariably, they won’t be.
Rule 4 - Forget queuing
Here we have one of the fundamental cultural differences between the British and Asians:
They don't honor the queue system.
Mere words cannot describe the feelings of indignation, outrage and injustice caused when 20 locals barge past the invisible queue you have believed yourself to be at the front of for half an hour. The system, so revered in the UK, of waiting your turn, is culturally defunct here - so you have to shed a lifetime of conditioning and suck it up: it's everyone for themselves, so start pushing.
Rule 5 - Dismiss logic
At home I was so used to the simple comforts of a straightforward public transport system. The buses follow a timetable - or at least attempt to. There are designated bus stops, set fares, and simple, easy to read maps, outlining the routes.
Cast all these things from your memory. It's better to have never known that such a system existed than to daydream about the simplicity of catching the # 22 at home.
I'm not sure how the locals know where and when to get buses - perhaps they are born with a special sixth sense that allows them to sense how to get their desired bus; maybe there's some underground communication channel that's closed to foreigners; perhaps they simply guess and get lucky. Whatever the case, rest assured, nothing is going to work for you.
The bus you want will probably change route daily. It's very likely that it will be traveling in the most counter intuitive direction possible. Often you will discover that a bus will not leave until it is full (by which I mean that people are hanging out the windows and strapped to the roof). Or you may find that instead of buying a bus ticket, you have privately chartered a whole bus.
Enjoy the Journey
They say that life is about the journey, not always the destination, and I can safely say that's true. The simplicity of an air-conditioned tour bus can never compete with the accidental adventures and the characters you meet if you go it alone. I have met countless individuals who have enriched my travel experiences. I have found myself stranded on beautiful deserted islands and stumbled across villages off the beaten track. Most of all, I have had insights into the psyche of each country I’ve visited.