Slow and Long: The “Express” bus to Chiang Mai

Having learned train travel is a rather reasonable way to save some bucks and meet interesting people along the way, we continued the economical express with an arduous bus trip from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai. Realizing this was a huge mistake a few hours into the trip, I quickly learned the difference between trains and buses. Designed for travelers, trains are reasonably comfortable and offer sleeping quarters for overnight trips. Contrasting that totally, taking the bus in Thailand involves an unbelievably long and uncomfortably numbing experience with Thai people disinterested in talking, helping or sharing much of anything. Perhaps already too relaxed as a non working expat, it turns out there’s now a direct flight from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai that started some time in 2015 that I neglected to learn about. Starting at 990 Baht, it costs only a bit more than the 13 hour and 20 minute marathon on a cramped vehicle filled with locals that probably never hopped a flight in their lives. Unless you’re interested in immersing yourself fully in local culture, learning a language the hard way or have a strange fetish for long bus rides save yourself some hassle and avoid Sombat Tours, the company most people use when travelling long distances by bus in Thailand.

imageDespite today’s internet usage by the masses, many websites in Thailand contain little English, even after you click on the “ENG” tab, and obtaining pertinent travel information like schedules and prices often proves challenging. Sombat Tours is no exception and you know you’re traveling with the locals when the ticket is written in Thai and they quote the year as 2058. Arranging our transport through the hotel before arriving, we ascertained that they run two overnight trips in a “VIP” bus but we opted for the daytime departure scheduled for 8 AM. Paying no attention to the hypothetical arrival time is the first lesson when once you board what looks to be a luxurious and decent bus, at least from the outside. Unlike many other countries, the large Swedish manufactured bus had no bottom luggage compartment and the attendants standing at the station made no attempt to tell anyone how or where to place your bags. Eventually walking to the bus entrance after seeing a few others do the same, the burly clerk picked up our mid-sized bags that fit perfectly on Train 36 and simply tossed them on two seats like they were garbage. Unwilling to help much, he spoke no English and made no attempt to communicate, simply grunting and muttering Thai words while Diane and I stood there in a state of confusion. Figuring out they leave with your luggage whether you’re on the bus or not, we decided to jump on and the neatly dressed bus employee pointed for us to go upstairs.

imageEntering the bus, you quickly realize it’s not Greyhound or an expensive Chinese tour bus. With about an inch or two of room in the aisles, there’s no seat number signs and each chair is an ugly blend of red fabric designed to bring a chiropractor some new clients. Making it even stupider, each chair reclines a ridiculously long 135 degrees which would make sitting in any other position almost impossible if the bus was full and your front seat mate decided to snooze while fully reclined. Fortunately there were only about six passengers on the top-level, leaving us wondering how they can run such empty buses all the way up the county. Spreading out our bodies and stuff over a few seats, it appeared the long trip might be OK until the clear misunderstanding of “express” came into play. Checking the “comparison of buses” section of their website that definitively shows the difference in service on each bus, the “express” bus has no check marks next to “picks up other passengers”. Less than an hour into the ride, however, the bus stopped at the side of the side of the road in front of an uninteresting storefront and I noticed the little Sombat Tours logo. Quickly realizing why they schedule over 12 hours to drive a few hundred miles, several passengers piled on and of course held tickets for the extra seats I’d already given to myself for what I thought would be all day.

Unhappily grabbing my day pack, sneakers and bags of carry on snacks I’d strategically placed, I grumbled and moved one row up, allowing an older gentleman to take his rightful seat. Speaking the only words anyone said to us during the entire trip, he asked me “going Chiang Mai”? and when I responded he motioned in the seat pocket next to us where I’d left the box of sugary high glycemic garbage they give you when you get on board. Removing the box, I’d only begun to get settled again when the bus repeated this procedure three more times all before leaving the southern part of the country. Beginning to fill in rapidly, I accepted the fate of probably being stuck next to Diane in a state of utter claustrophobia but somehow they all sat further back, leaving one empty seat in both the first and second row so I remained one seat in front of Diane the rest of the way.

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Ironically, later in the trip when it seemed we’d be so close to Chiang Mai that it made no sense to pick anyone else up, a last batch of passengers got on and simply filled in any available seat leaving Diane stuck with a seat mate and rendering the assigned seat on the ticket as totally useless. Obviously, I either misunderstood what “express” meant or the person writing the English translation on the website uses a different meaning for “picks up other passengers” than me. Keeping this in mind, I suggest looking for more internet reviews before undertaking a long journey and fully understanding the Thai versions of amenities and procedures.

imageTreating passengers to a flat screen television in the front of the bus and speakers conveniently placed every two rows is another fun future of this endless excursion. Unless you enjoy cheesy Thai variety shows that blast on for hours at the highest volume possible, I suggest bringing ear buds and fully charging your devices before hopping on the bus. Thinking I’d have at least 8 hours of music on my premium Spotify on a fully charged phone, I fell asleep listening to some of my 58 hours of tunes that always keeps me entertained on trains Atlantic flights. Unfortunately, we stuck a SIM card in my IPhone So I’d always have internet service in Thailand which had to affect my battery service somehow and I watched sadly as it went under 40% in less than a few hours, forcing me to use the ear buds as weak ear plugs that blocked out the ridiculously loud Thai entertainment they all seemed to love. Naturally, they eventually showed two different American movies including San Andreas but of course the volume was so low nobody could hear it and even those that could would have to understand the Thai language anyway.

Later the bus stopped on the side of the road and the motor shut down, making the bus uncomfortably hot. Nobody on the bus stirred or even cared and eventually the guy next to me went down to check it out. Soon another bus pulled up and the ominous sound of the hood opening didn’t seem promising. Shortly after, the guy came back on the bus and I jokingly asked “is the bus broken” to which he replied “yes, broken; they fixing“. Mysteriously, the engine started up again and we were on our way after about ten minutes. Assuming this happens all the time they probably service the bus about once every blue moon.

About an hour after the short breakdown, the bus pulled into a parking lot and the quiet crowd of Thai passengers filed out so fast the bus was empty within 30 seconds. Realizing we hadn’t used anything but the little dirty bathroom on the back of the bus, we searched for a toilet but by the time we finished our business, everyone disappeared. Since every sign was in Thai, we didn’t really how to redeem the lunch coupon so we found the restaurant and discovered most everyone had already eaten their meal. Recognizing one guy from the bus, we figured it must be the right place so we handed the coupon to the cafeteria staff and pointed at some rice and something that resembled Thai style chicken.

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Eating quickly, we noticed nobody said anything about how long the stop was and Diane opted for another bathroom break. Almost panicking, I heard the bus driver start the motor and he appeared ready to leave so I barreled into the women’s bathroom like an idiot foreigner and told Diane we had to leave. Now. in a very “un-Malaysian” style, the driver began merging into the road but unlike Penang bus drivers that cut off everyone and always act like they’re six hours late, the driver patiently waited about three minutes until there was finally a break in traffic considered safe enough by Thai bus driver standards to merge into the road. Frustratingly slow is the best way to describe the driving style of private buses in Thailand.

imageAlready past the scheduled arrival time of 8:30 PM, we passed through another five or six one lane re-paving detours which are beautifully lit once darkness arrives and finally pulled into Lampang, the last major stop before Chiang Mai. Despite being only 60 km away, a new group of passengers piled on the bus and a few others got off, leaving me once again wondering by they call this an express bus. Completely out of patience and entering the 13th hour, the road began twisting through the mountains and we realized Chiang Mai was finally within reach.

Stopping three more times along the superhighway to let off passengers, the bus finally pulled into the Arcade Bus Station about an hour and 20 minutes later than the scheduled “arrival time”. Finishing what seemed like the longest ride ever, it felt like we drove to Europe and I was almost expecting to see a French café emerging but instead there was only the modern strip malls that weren’t there the last time we visited Chiang Mai. Fortunately, I saved just enough power to shoot an email to our Airbnb host who was waiting at the station for over an hour. Located in Hang Dong, a suburban enclave about 30 minutes away, she drove quickly unlike the bus driver and the pictures below show the house (more on that next post)

Summarizing, I’m glad we experienced something new and realizing there’s often many times you have to take the bus with locals in certain countries, Asia usually has lots of other relatively low-cost options. In case you’re wondering why we didn’t take the train, it actually takes longer because you’d need to end one ride in Bangkok and then hang out in the train station all afternoon until the Northern route departs hours later. Another option is taking a bus to the airport and flying but I failed to do my homework again and didn’t realize shuttle buses offer several daily departures.

imageTrying to keep within an established budget for the first full year of expat life with no income but also travel I can’t say it’s the stupidest trip I’ve ever arranged since it is so cheap but it will definitely be my first and last long trip on a Thai bus. My advice to anyone contemplating travel by bus in Thailand: Have one less Starbucks, eat in one night more and do almost anything else required to save enough cash and turn a 13 hour trudge into a one hour plane ride.

Cheers for now. More about our week in Hua Hin and newest exploratory experiment in Chiang Mai to follow