Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Bangkok bus journey

Years ago I spent a year living in Bangkok as an English teacher (I will be writing a separate blog on this at some point in the near future, check back on my blog for updates). My journey to work involved catching two buses.

The Bangkok bus system is pretty bewildering for any newcomers, most of the buses still only display destinations and mostly in Thai. There are no timetables at the bus stops so catching a bus can be pot luck, you really need to know what bus to catch beforehand. Fares differ depending on whether you catch the small buses, standard non air conditioned buses, air conditioned buses, minivans, songthaews (pick up trucks with two benches in the back). The drivers and conductors don’t speak English, which is only a problem on the air conditioned buses where the fare changes depending on how far you’re travelling……you get the picture!

Once you’re on the bus the journeys can be “interesting” to say the least, depending on many variables:

- The driver, many fancy themselves as the next Michael Schumacher and think nothing of cutting across 4 lanes of traffic, or pushing their rickety old bus to its limits. Many of them are perfectly good drivers, so you never know!
- The type of bus you end up on. Each route usually has at least two different types of bus operating on it. You might end up on the standard non air conditioned bus, very uncomfortable on a really hot day, with the windows open you get a nice taste of exhaust fumes too! As they’re cheaper they also get very crowded and you can expect to stand for most of the journey, if you’re really unlucky you may be standing on the steps into the bus! Air conditioned buses on the other hand are a haven of cool! Because they’re that bit more expensive they generally don’t get too full.
- The time of day and traffic. Bangkok’s traffic is infamous and of course buses are subject to this as well. Being stuck on a bus with the windows open in the middle of rush hour is never much fun!
- Who you sit/stand next to. As with any country in the world, Bangkok’s buses have their fair share of oddballs!

Which leads me onto my story…

Once you know your way around the system, most bus journeys in Bangkok are as dull and uneventful as a bus journey anywhere else in the world. One morning I was just on my way into work as usual and hopped on the small, green, non air conditioned number 77 bus from home. At the next stop on hopped a group of young Chinese tourists, 2 men and a lady, hopelessly lost they came straight to me! The only problem was they didn’t speak a word of English, only French! I don’t speak a word of any Chinese language and very little French, just what I can remember from school! I managed to establish that they had lost their passports and were in search of the Chinese embassy. However it’s very difficult to describe directions to people in a language you don’t speak and in a city that they don’t know! So I agreed to take them straight there. Now, the Chinese embassy is along the new underground train route, however this was in the days before the underground was open. So we had to hop off the bus and onto the Skytrain to Asok station and then a taxi (since I didn’t know which bus to take!). I deposited them outside the embassy and then realised that, apart from taking another taxi I had no idea how to get to work! Although I knew generally where I was in relation to work, I didn’t really know how far I was or which bus to get. As I had an hour before my first lesson I thought, let’s just get on the first bus and see where it takes me. We approached the Lat Phrao junction and I knew where I was, “please turn right, please turn right”….the bus turned left. Off I got at the next stop, crossed the road and waited for a bus back, at this point I knew which bus to get. At this point I still had half an hour to make it to work, no problem I thought as I got on the next bus. Bus gets back to the Lad Phrao junction and whack…. straight into the back of a limo with blacked out windows. Out gets the burly driver (complete with black suite and shades) and proceeds to argue with the bus driver. After a few minutes somebody gets out the back of the limo to see what’s going on. It’s at this point that I spotted the Chinese flag on the limo, it was none other than the Chinese ambassador (as he shouted at the bus driver as if that would change anything!).

The driver made a quick phone call and minutes later a police car rolled up. They detained everyone on the bus to provide statements, including me even though most Thai police officers don’t speak English. All this on the day that I’d forgotten my mobile! They interviewed everyone else first and a good hour later got to me, decided they couldn’t be bothered and sent me on my way! Frustration was not the right word by this point!

I found a pay phone and called work to give my excuses and got a taxi!

Fortunately this isn’t an everyday experience on Bangkok’s buses, I was clearly having a bad day. But the Skytrain or Underground are preferable and more comfortable if they go where you want to be.

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