“When are we going?” I asked the bus driver, pointing at the 3:15 displayed on my phone, “You said two o’clock!”
The driver just smiled and held up his hands, fingers splayed. I wondered what it meant. Ten? Ten what? Minutes? Ten o’clock? When we have ten passengers? Or was he just motioning to me to hold on and be patient?
Patience is one of the biggest requirements for anyone travelling in Asia. In this part of the world where incomes are so low, bus drivers often won’t leave until the bus is full, no matter what time they’ve told you it’s supposed to go! This can leave you either waiting in a bus station for hours on end, or sitting in the bus fuming while it drives endlessly up and down the streets of the same town, picking up a passenger here, a family there, a package or a sack of cargo somewhere else. Only when all the seats and the aisle are jam-packed full of people and cargo will that bus actually depart and you’ll finally be on your way to your destination.
Of course that doesn’t mean it’s finished. The bus will still stop, or at least slow down, for every single person standing along the side of the road who MIGHT want to go in the direction the bus is going. Full is not a word that exists when it comes to public transportation in this part of the world.
And then, of course, the bus arrives where people are going and they have to get off, which is a whole other set of stops.
Meanwhile you’re sitting in your seat thinking, “Can’t we just GO?” or “WHY are we stopping AGAIN?” and getting increasingly frustrated by the fact that your quick three hour bus trip has actually turned into a five or six hour ordeal and that you might not actually have time to visit that temple you’d planned to see this afternoon.
This is where the patience comes in. Travelling in Asia without it would drive you crazy pretty quickly, and not just because of buses stopping an endless number of times. Let me give you a few other examples.
The area outside of Deqin, Yunnan province in China is incredibly scenic. The town of Feilai Si, 10km away, has stunning views of Meili Snow mountain and the surrounding range, and from there you can go to Yubeng village, at the foot of the mountain. To get here you need to get a bus from Feilai Si to a small village called Xidang, from where you walk up the hill for about 1000m, and then 600m down the other side. With such a hard climb ahead of us (starting at nearly 3000m altitude, so not to be taken too lightly), we wanted to get an early start.
The bus left at 7:30 and finally (after the usual stopping to pick up people) at around 9am, we stopped to buy tickets. The ticket office was just before a bridge, but before we even got that far we were stopped in a long line of traffic. After a few minutes, it was obvious that we weren’t going anywhere, so we got out to see that on the other side of the bridge the road was blocked by a landslide. A couple of bulldozers and backhoes were clearing it, but we were told we’d be stuck there for 2-3 hours.
The biggest question here is, why did the ticket office sell us tickets when clearly they KNEW the road was blocked and no one was getting through? But that’s an issue for another day.
Finally, two hours after we’d stopped, the landslide was cleared and we were finally on our way. Unfortunately the 11:30am start to our climb was certainly not the early start that we had envisioned and put a fair bit of extra stress on us to keep moving!
Earlier on the same trip, I was in the small town of Mrauk U in Burma, and was trying to leave. However, the problem with Mrauk U is that it’s a very long way from just about anywhere, so the only ways in or out are via Sittwe by plane or boat and then a 6-7 hour boat ride, or a 14 hour bus ride to or from Magwe. Except that nobody really wants to be in Magwe; it’s only a junction town on the way to other places, which are at least another 4 hours away.
I had arrived by boat and so bought a ticket for a 20 hour bus ride to Mandalay.
The bus was scheduled to leave at 9:30am. I was told that I should be at the bus station early, by 8:30. Due to my hotel then slightly screwing things up with my transfer, I was there by 8:00.
At the bus station, the guy told me that the bus would arrive sometime between 9 and 9:30, and would leave between 9:30 and 10. I was plenty early so I went for a walk and a cup of tea.
At 9am I arrived back at the bus station, and I sat down to wait. And I waited, and waited, and waited. I wrote in my journal, I reviewed some photos. I took new photos, of nothing, because at the Mrauk U bus station, there is NOTHING. I played Sudoku on my phone, I talked to the bus company employee and used his map to show him where I’d been in Burma. I stared blankly out the door, losing myself deep in thought. I jumped up at the sound of a bus pulling in, only to discover that it belonged to a different company, or that it was going to Yangon instead of Mandalay. I watched the cows grazing on the scrubby grass outside.
Finally, at about 11am, the bus arrived. I ran for it, anxious to get on and into the air conditioning, and to be on my way.
It left at 11:15 or so, and headed right back into town, where it pulled into a rest area for a 30 minute break. It had left Sittwe early in the morning, and had been delayed, so the people who had come from there were really ready for a stop. I was not.
Finally, the bus departed, and passed right by the hotel I’d been staying in. I looked at my phone: it was exactly noon, more than four hours after I’d left it. And I still had a 20 hour bus ride ahead of me.
On another occasion, I was on a bus that was racing along the road between Ye and Mawlamyine in Southern Burma. I was happily staring out the window and listening to my music, when we hit a bump. But this wasn’t just any old bump; it was big and we were going way too fast for it. The bus bounced, lurched to one side and made horrible crunching and cracking sounds. My heart leapt and in my surprise I may have shouted a bad word or two, and as the bus then screeched along the road at a precarious angle for what seemed like a very, very long time, my heart started pounding as I wondered if we’d ever be able to stop.
We did stop, eventually, and because the door was jammed shut by the crooked, broken wheel, we all climbed out the windows onto the side of the road.
I was one of the last ones out of the bus, and shakily stumbled to the side of the road to sit down for a minute. Another bus came along, also on its way to Mawlamyine, and I was told by another passenger that I should get on it. It was then that I realized that my bag had been in the compartment under the bus, and that I should probably inquire as to its whereabouts.
By the time I located it (someone had taken it out of the compartment and left it on the side of the road) the other bus had moved on, and I went back to my spot in the forest amongst a group of novice monks and other bus passengers.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before another bus came along, and I was able to get on and be on my way to Mawlamyine. Many of the other passengers followed, and at a stop further up the road one of the vendors who spoke surprisingly good English said “Oh, your bus had a problem”. Yes, that’s how you could describe it, a ‘problem’. I just have to wonder what kind of consequences the driver faced.
The reality is that anything can happen when you’re traveling. Buses break down, drivers need breaks, roads get blocked by construction or accidents or landslides and really, everyone’s just trying to make a decent living by transporting as many people and as much cargo as possible, which sometimes means cutting corners, causing more problems and frustrating the passengers. But hey, it’s what you have to deal with if you want to travel in Asia!
Now take a deep breath, and just be patient.
Have you got any stories of travel requiring infinite amounts of patience? Tell us in the comments below!