A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about buses

Night moves


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

During the planning stages of this trip, I was quite taken with the idea of using sleeper trains for some of our long-distance hops. What could be better than sweeping gracefully through the countryside, sipping a nightcap in the dining car and then retiring to bed to be rocked gently to sleep by the swaying carriage. Yes, I thought, this would be a civilised way to arrive somewhere. And then I remembered that this is Asia we are talking about.

Our first night train was the 21:00 Padatik Express from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Calcutta. This being India, I did wonder what hurdles we would have to overcome to get ourselves on board. We arrived at NJP in good time, armed with a print-out of our pre-booked reservation for two berths in first class. I was fully prepared to brandish this in the face of any uniformed jobsworth who stood between me and my train. But in the course of four hours at the station, my heart rate remained steady and my blood pressure normal. At the ticket counter, we were told that the reservation receipt also constituted our tickets. The train appeared on the departure board as expected. We parked ourselves in the 'military waiting area' and nobody moved us on. Even the local beggars, missing various limbs and crawling around the concourse like spiders, left us in peace. By this stage I was completely disarmed, almost willing for an obstructive minor official to pick a fight with.

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4

The Padatik Express ready to leave on Platform 4


Loading the luggage car at NJP

Loading the luggage car at NJP

We moved to the platform half an hour ahead of departure and found the train waiting for us. A list of passenger names was pasted next to each carriage door, and if your name wasn't on the list, you weren't getting on. We had to walk the whole length of the platform to find the single first class carriage, past third class, second class (seats), second class (sleeper, non a/c) and second class (sleeper, a/c). Miracle of miracles, our names were on the list. What's more, we seemed to have the four-berth compartment to ourselves.

My disappointment at the lack of a dining car was forgotten when a man appeared to take our dinner order. The menu options were chicken or vegetable (no further details were provided, but you can take it as read that it's going to be curry). We ordered two vegetable dinners - he brought one of each. Strangely, I found his incompetence reassuringly Indian.

I switched off the irritating rattle of the ceiling fan, only to find that it was masking the equally irritating hum of a badly-maintained a/c unit. This could not be switched off. My hackles were briefly raised, but I was distracted by the sensation of movement. The train had left on time! With nothing left to rail against, we settled down to sleep. It felt like a sleepness night, but I must have drifted off at some point because I dreamt that someone was running their fingertips across my stomach. In the morning, we discovered evidence of a mystery occupant in the compartment. I had stowed a piece of cake wrapped in foil in a storage pocket on the wall next to my bed. The foil now had a mouse-sized hole in it, and half the cake was missing. Evidently, I had not been dreaming. (We later discovered that only first class carriages come with complimentary rodents. The riff-raff in second class get cockroaches.) Although we arrived in Calcutta an hour late, Indian Railways had provided a disappointingly stress-free service. We disembarked and strode out onto the street, where we were promptly fleeced by a taxi driver. Ah, the real India again!

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse

Bangkok's Hualamphong station concourse


Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

Our compartment on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express

The Thais also do night trains well, even more so than the Indians. The Bangkok to Chiang Mai Special Express service was extremely comfortable, even in second class, and mercifully rodent-free. It even had a dining car, but the waitress service made us lazy and we ate our dinner and breakfast in our seats. At bed time, a bustling, cheerful woman turned up to convert our table and seats into fully made-up beds, with curtains for privacy, within two minutes. Ok, the train was more than an hour late in arriving, but I'm prepared to forgive the Thais seeing as their main railway line north has been flooded for much of the past three months.

In India we shared a carriage with well-dressed businessmen, in Thailand with Western families on their holidays, but in Cambodia we joined the backpacker set for the night bus from the coast to Siem Reap. Signs all over town in Sihanoukville advertised the bus, using words like 'express', 'comfort' and 'luxury'. It had a toilet, a DVD player, air-conditioning and seats that looked vaguely bed-like. On the other hand, the Lonely Planet warns against road travel by night in Cambodia, and a quick Google search turned up some terrifying accounts of bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel and near misses with sleeping dogs in the middle of the highway. It sounded unmissable, so we bought two tickets.

We boarded at 7:15pm and discovered a problem straight away. The 'seats', which looked like a cross between bunk beds and sun-loungers, were designed for locals. For anyone over 5 foot 6, it was impossible to find a comfortable position to lie in. A second problem lay in the state of the road. Granted, it was surfaced, but the Cambodians have a habit of laying strips of raised tarmac across the highway every few hundred yards. In the bus, it felt like crossing cattle grids at high speed, making sleep impossible. We were the cattle, and we were on our way to market.

I half-remember the unwelcome stops during the night: dinner in a dead-end town at 9:30pm; midnight in Phnom Penh, to decant the bewildered farangs making the 18 hour journey to Ho Chi Minh City; and breakfast at the god-forsaken hour of 4:00am. Shortly after sunrise, we were deposited at the bus company's Siem Reap depot. The gates were locked behind the bus until everyone had bought a tuk-tuk ride into town, at non-negotiable rates. This of course provided an opportunity for more fleecing, but your money goes a long way in Cambodia and we were ripped off to the tune of a dollar. Would I do the night bus again? No, once was enough, thanks.

And so I'm left with a paradox: the night trains of India and Thailand were disappointingly dull, and for that reason I wouldn't hesitate to use them again.

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged night trains india cambodia thailand buses Comments (0)

A tale of two buses: a white-knuckle ride in Nepal


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

If your bus is Arughat bound
And there's an ocean of mud on the ground
Abandon your seat
And resort to your feet
Else your trousers will surely be browned

Bus travel in Nepal is not for the faint-hearted as we've discovered on our previous trips here. And so it proved again this time around with our journey from Kathmandu to Arughat Bazar. Our experience has taught us some of the unwritten rules of bus journeys, and as we sped towards the bus station in our hotel taxi I ran through them in my head:

  1. It doesn't matter where or when you board the bus, there will always be someone sitting in your seat.
  2. It doesn't matter how far in advance you book your ticket, you will always be sat near the back of the bus or on the roof.
  3. Your bus will break down at least once during your journey.
  4. Journey times include an allowance for breakdowns.
  5. Your bus will have been designed for half the number of people it is carrying.
  6. There is always room for one more person on the bus.

We arrived to be met by Ram, our trekking guide, and some of our porters. Our first bus was a Toyota minivan which seemed to be in reasonably roadworthy condition. We climbed slowly out of the Kathmandu valley on the highway to Pokhara. This is the best road in Nepal but it is difficult to average more than 30mph. Not that this stopped our driver from trying. Once out of the Kathmandu traffic we only had the long-distance buses and trucks to contend with, and the driver began to practice some of his more audacious overtaking moves. Nepalis drive on the left, but this rule is only casually observed when approaching a slower moving vehicle on a blind bend. Nepal could do with some of the fantastic road signs we saw last year in Ladakh, such as "be a Mr Late not a Late Mr", and "be gentle with my curves". We picked up more passengers at several places en route, so by the time we had swerved off the main highway, crossed the Trisuli river, and arrived at Dadingbesi, we were jammed in like the proverbial sardines. The white knuckle ride was over for the time being. We retired to a roadside cafe for lunch and waited for bus no. 2 in the sticky heat.

The second bus was a different animal entirely, a large blue and white Tata vehicle with monster truck tyres. With hindsight this should have given us a clue as to the condition of the road to Arughat. Ram announced that he had our tickets so we boarded the bus and took our seats near the back (after evicting the two Nepalis who had decided to claim them for themselves).

We watched as more and more people congregated around the bus; this was clearly going to be another sardine can. Not only that, but all the gear and food for our 15 day camping trek somehow had to be squeezed on board. Boxes were stacked in the aisle to shoulder height and bags were stashed on the roof (along with several of our porters). We each had a bag wedged between our legs, and boxes on our laps. And just when it seemed as though breathing in and out was going to get difficult, we were off.

For the first few minutes, we enjoyed the passing scenery and the cool breeze on our faces. Despite the cramped conditions, perhaps this wasn't going to be too much of an ordeal. Then we hit the first muddy ruts. The monsoon rains had turned the poorly drained stretches of road into a quagmire with deep tyre ruts. And each time we hit one of these patches we were pitched and tossed around like a trawler on a squally sea. The bus lurched from one side to the other as the tyres struggled for grip in the glutinous mud, giving those of us in the window seats a close look at the huge chasm beyond the edge of the road. What started as mild panic soon became sheer terror and my thoughts went from "that was a close one" to "you've got to be kidding", to "ohmygodwereallgoingtodie"! Goodness only knows how the porters on the roof were managing to cling on.

The newly-resurfaced Arughat road

The newly-resurfaced Arughat road

After two hours of this torture our nerves were shredded and we decided that we'd had enough. We extricated ourselves from our seats (a process which required the skills of a contortionist) and continued down the road on foot, guided by Ram. He took us down to Taribesi, a one horse town next to a bridge over a river, and promised us the road would improve beyond this point. Such was the painfully slow progress the bus was making, it was another half hour before we heard its tooting horn. Shortly after, it came hurtling triumphantly across the bridge and stopped to pick us up.

Walking is not only safer, it's quicker too

Walking is not only safer, it's quicker too

From this point things got worse. We started up a steep incline, but a rocky gully that cut across the road proved too much for the bus which got stuck. Everyone disembarked to inspect the problem. The front axle and the chassis were at wildly different angles, and one of the rear wheels was spinning in free air. Nepalis relish these kind of situations, and 30 minutes later, all four wheels had been reunited with the road and were were back on board.

The last-but-one nail in the coffin for the Arughat bus

The last-but-one nail in the coffin for the Arughat bus

We continued to climb the hillside (the road was just as bad as before) until we reached a flat stretch where the mud looked deeper and gloopier than anywhere else. There was no way round it, so the driver got out and walked ahead to pick his line. Back in his seat he revved the engine and we surged forward, but it was immediately obvious we weren't going to make it. We were stuck again, and this time, no amount of Nepali resourcefulness was going to free us.

With the light fading, we made the decision to find somewhere to stay the night, accepting that there was no way we were going to reach Arughat. Our bags were offloaded and we walked a short way to a small hut at a crossroads. The resident family let us camp in their front yard and fed us dinner. We went to bed under a tree full of snickering monkeys, which somehow summed up our day.

The next morning we awoke, counted our mosquito bites, and watched the monkeys descend from the tree and scamper into the nearby fields to wreak havoc. We continued the final few kilometres to Arughat on foot. As we neared the village we heard a familiar tooting horn and were surprised to see the very same bus we had abandoned the night before with a fresh load of wide-eyed white knuckled passengers, and a smug looking driver. It seems we had underestimated Nepali resourcefulness after all, but at least we escaped with our lives.

The tragic footnote to this tale, is that around one week later, Ram heard from his wife that the Arughat bus had overturned and fallen off the road, killing the 13 Nepalis on board. Most would have been on their way home to celebrate the Dasain festival with their families. We were right to resort to our feet...

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:30 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking buses monsoon Comments (2)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]