Mar 8 • 10M

Couchfish: The Wheels Go Round And Round

Who doesn’t like bad bus stories?

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Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
Episode details

I’m a little out of sync this week thanks to some internet draaammmaaaaassss, so this is the free-to-read issue today rather than Friday.

A few years ago a friend and I were surfing at Seminyak in Bali and, not paying attention, got sucked out towards Java. By the time we finally made it back to shore, we were up near Old Man’s in Canggu and both felt like very old men. We collapsed on the beach, and tried to push the five kilometre walk back to the board rental place out of our minds.

After a few minutes, a couple of Indonesian women—tourists—wandered over and said hello, then asked if we were ok. It turned out they’d been watching us paddle and were curious why we were paddling in the middle of the ocean. It seemed a fair question. My friend, forever the clown, said we’d paddled over from Java—which, to be honest, felt true. Sitting together, we made small talk, local meets tourist stuff, and I asked where they were from. Padang, in Sumatra, they said. Neither of us had been there, and said so, and they replied saying they’d never been to Bali before either.

Time for some more offerings. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’d guess they were in their 20s and they seemed well-travelled, so I was a bit surprised they’d never been before. When I asked after why, they said it was too far, and this was when it came out that they’d come to Bali by bus. Well, buses to be clear, but buses that took a combined three days to cover the 2,500 kilometres. Suddenly our five kilometre beach walk didn’t seem so onerous.

Today on Couchfish I’m leaving Lake Toba but also Sumatra, and hopping across the archipelago to Java. Don’t fret, Couchfish for paid subscribers will be back to Sumatra later! As I’m lucky enough to have never caught a bus from Lake Toba to Jakarta, I thought I’d write about five bus trips to pass the time. As with the Lake Toba to Jakarta run, these trips are not all mine.

Plenty of time to learn how to say Oaxaca

This is my all time fave, courtesy of two British women I drove across the US with in 1992. Their travels in Mexico had been a challenge, worsened by their utter lack of language skills. Their first stop had been Tijuana, from where they wanted to go to Oaxaca. The plan was to start at the bottom and work their way back to the States. Being backpackers, they took the cheapest bus they could find, and understood the trip would take a day.

Somewhat amazed I wasn’t on this. Photo: Adam Poskitt.

By their accounts, the bus was beyond awful, and within hours they were counting the minutes of the hours to reach the magical 24. Twenty six hours in, they found a passenger with English and asked when they would arrive in Oaxaca. It turned out they were not even half way—the bus took two days, not one, and in the end took two and a half days. Morale of the story: Learn your numbers.

Getting bagged

The run from Meiktila to Kalaw by local bus is a fun one, well, fun in the sort of way you don’t tell your Mum about. The bus was not great inside—with seats for people half my size and already jammed with boxes of who knows what. No problems, the second said, jump on the roof. And so it was I spent an afternoon on a Burmese bus admiring the sights from up on high, with fresh air and space to relax. I was so relaxed in fact, that when I jumped off it was a good five minutes before I realised I was packless. My backpack, you see, was still on the roof.

Passing traffic en route to Kalaw. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Never fear, a friendly local intervened, onto the back of his bike I went, and off we shot. Did I know where the bus was going? No. Did my new friend? No. Kalaw ain’t a big place, and yet in no time at all we found the bus, leaned to on the side of the road, sort of in the middle of nowhere, a bunch standing atop looking in all directions. They saw me before we saw them and when we pulled up there was much clapping and cheering. Fun times.

C is for cargo class.

Leaving Ko Pha Ngan after a stint on Ko Tao and bound for Bangkok, I decided to buy a through-ticket on the island. The agent gave me a choice of VIP, first and second class, with the latter being the cheapest. So, of course I went with second class—how bad could it be? On arrival at the travel agent clearing house in Surat Thani the bus pulled up—it was big and shiny—almost luxurious. The VIP passengers boarded, then the first class, then there were three of us left, two British women and me. We were in the cargo bay.

There’s always a cow

The backpacker bus was about halfway from Mumbai to Goa and it felt like we’d been in the van for about 800 hours. It was night time and I was a row or two back from the driver, sleeping a sapping hell-sleep as my watch span backwards. The horns and headlights, the sudden veers of the bus, my head cracking against the glass, all working to wake me over and over. I woke with a start and my blurry vision crystallised upon a cow on the road as the bus lurched and braked hard.

There’s always a cow, though this one was in Laos. Photo: Samantha Brown.

We hit the cow and the bus lurched further, onto the shoulder, then tipping like in the movies. That slow tip where you’re not sure if you are going to go, but deep down you know you will, and we did. Off the road, onto the side of the bus, but thankfully not over. Glass smashed, people screamed, the engine clunk-clunked then stopped where a grunt. It wasn’t till we were all out, perhaps twenty of us, and all ok save some minor cuts and abrasions, that we realised the crew and driver were gone. We never saw them again, and it was another five hours to dawn.

Bulldozers are multi-use

We were in Sangkeng, a nondescript town in Sulawesi, half way between Bira and Rantepao before a stint on the Togeans—yes, the plane crash trip. We’d hired a car and driver for the run because the kids were still young—that’s my excuse anyway. Sitting in a coffee shop, a French woman with two kids, barely above babies, caught my eye and said hello. She’d been in the wilds for a while, and was up for some chit chat. She was heading south from Poso, a little-visited town over the mountains to the north. The road was legendary—and not in a good way.

A Sulawesi cow. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Seeing her kids I assumed she was in a car and asked after the road, however it turned out she wasn’t in a car, but a local bus. The road? It was even more legendary than I could imagine, she said. It turned out half of it had washed away and a bulldozer was pushing buses up a bad stretch of it—with the passengers on board.

She had that look of someone who’d been travelling in Indonesia that bit too long, but the trip had left even her shaken. Her gaze was blank and distant as she told me about the bus slipping and sliding towards the precipice, people praying and wailing. Yes, it was quite a bit scary, she said.

Got a bus story? Please share your tales of woe below.

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