Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Death Buses: Extreme Travel in Thailand

I didn't want to leave Nakhon Phanom for Bangkok, but decided since I had to do it, I'd take a VIP bus back to the capitol, with a window seat and a daytime departure so I could see the area that I love right up until I entered the central plains. The cost was almost as much as a budget air ticket but the weight of my bag, bulging with small presents and dirty clothes, would change that equation--plus my trip in general was cramming me into far too many economy plane seats.

At the bus station, I learned that the VIP buses left only at night. "But," the clerk told me, "there is an ordinary bus to Bangkok that leaves in the morning."

I've done inter-city travel on ordinary buses before, but never a long-distance trip. "Is there air conditioning?"

"Oh, yes," the clerk assured me, "but no bathroom."

"So I'm going to be on a bus for twelve hours with no bathroom?"

"Yes, but it makes many stops along the way."

On the morning of my departure, I looked for the small orange bus that I thought would take me through northeastern Thailand but was directed to a large double-decker where I was on the upper level. There had been many highway tragedies on double-decker buses but I consoled myself with the memory that my bus trips from neighboring Mukdahan to Bangkok had gone through terrain that was unmenacingly flat. As long as the driver was well rested, we should have a fighting chance for a placid, uneventful ride.

Which we did, until we passed Udon Thani--then the bus began to negotiate dramatic curves that snaked unmistakably upward. The road was a simple and narrow country lane and when we passed slower vehicles, speeding into the area for oncoming traffic, the process was a diverting one. The curves became more frequent as the climb went higher and through the roadside greenery I had a spectacular view onto the countryside below. This wasn't what I'd bargained for and as we passed temples, I swiftly asked every Buddha I could see to ensure that our brakes didn't fail and that no curves were taken in a precipitous manner. The national park on a small mountain that we traveled through was an attractive one but all that I paid attention to were the Buddhas.

The trip was actually more comfortable than many VIP buses had given me in the past. There was no inedible "free" food handed out by an attendant, the TV screens remained miraculously silent for the entire journey, and the stops provided the necessary bathroom breaks with a chance to buy water and snacks. Best of all, our driver erred on the side of caution, for which I was profoundly grateful. There was no time that  the bus tilted ominously as it rounded a corner. I'd experienced that on other trips and never wanted to repeat that sensation again.

In the week before I left Bangkok, there was a horrific bus tragedy that killed children on a school trip from the northeast to the coast. Since I returned to the States, there have been at least two more. I'm willing to bet that these accidents all involved double-decker buses.

I'll travel in Thailand again but never on one of those buses. They're designed for within-city stop and go travel, not long journeys overland on country roads and certainly not for mountain roadtrips. Trains are slow and dirty but their safety record is far better than the more comfortable buses. I'll take that...I hope you will too.

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