On Buses

I’ve spent a lot of time riding around on buses on this trip. Particularly in Laos where I took an eight-hour bus to Phonsavan, and a nine-hour bus away from Phonsavan. So I think I’m in a position to make blanket curmudgeony statements: bus trips in Southeast Asia are totally annoying.

Sure I’ve been on some nice buses… the few times I splurged on a VIP air-con bus in thailand were very pleasant (they have stewardesses who serve snacks and drinks! on a bus!). But on the whole buses in this part of the world are hot, loud, and populated by other people, dammit.

There’s always Smoking Guy who smokes despite the clear no-smoking signs and rudely scowls at and ignores the entreaties of any offended westerners. There’s always Throat-Clearing-and-Spitting-Out-the-Window Guy who does that constantly the entire ride. There’s always a group of Loud-Talking Old Guys who cant seem to stop yelling at each other. And there’s always Sitting-Next-To-Taylor-Despite-All-The-Other-Open-Rows-and-Snoring Guy, who’s obviously my favorite.

Plus buses always load up on passengers and deliveries to a ridiculous extent, trying to squeeze every last kip out of each bus journey. This is what a typical bus aisle looks like in Laos:

Laotian Bus Travel

…filled with boxes that you have to climb over to get in and out of your seat! And the last two rows and bathroom are totally crammed full of boxes too. Not to mention the baggage area under the bus, which has no space for actual baggage.

Another fun quirk about asian buses is that it acceptable to litter out the window. Done with your bottle of coke? Throw it out the window! Empty bag of chips? Defenestrate! On a boat? Throw it in the water! The same thing actually happens in many of the Eastern European countries I’ve visited. I think it’s a trait of developing nations—in places where there’s no municipal garbage collection, the typical disposal method is to burn garbage in big piles. But with a lack of better options, and no fines for littering, people seem to revert to their default, most self-serving behavior, which is just to throw their crap wherever they want. I actually have wondered about this a lot—is the only reason that I dont litter in the US, and actually find it extremely repulsive, that I’ve been subjected to years of “Dont Be a Litterbug” campaigns as a child? Is it because I subconsciously know that it’s illegal and I’ll be fined? Or do I have some more enlightened moral stance—an ability to think outside myself and see how my actions affect everyone else’s enjoyment of a place? I think probably not, and put in the same position as a typical southeast asian person, I’d probably revert to littering with the best of ‘em.

Anyway, the result of all this is the beautiful Southeast Asian landscape is covered in garbage. Especially the roadsides. So you always have a lovely view of a garbage dump from the bus window.

Another bizarre (and troubling) bus phenomenon is the guns. This one’s peculiar to Laos I think—on both long-distance buses I took in Laos there were various passengers carrying guns. Not hunting rifles—like serious, Kalashnikov-style assault rifles:

Scary! All carried by young men who strap them to their backs under their “US Army” jean jackets. Especially scary since the highway from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on which I was traveling has had a few robberies in recent years that left tourists dead—the US State Department has a travel advisory for Rte 13 in Laos, which is right where I was! But nobody else seemed to pay any attention to the enormous weapons on the bus. The Smoking Guys and Loud-Talking Guys paid them no mind. So I tried to ignore them too, even when a gun guy was sitting right behind me. I decided maybe they’re for protection. Or maybe they’re a delivery or a gift for mom or something. I dunno. Maybe they just really like guns. Obviously nothing came of it, but it sure made for a nervous couple of all-day bus rides.

But by far the most grating thing about bus travel for me is that on every bus you are forced to listen to whatever the driver wants on the overhead speakers. At high enough volumes that my trusty iPod cant overpower it. And as you may imagine, bus drivers in Laos are not in possession of the most discerning of musical tastes. It’s always, always the most terrible, sappy asian pop music ever created. And usually the driver just has one CD, which he repeats for the entirety of the nine-hour bus ride. I really dont have a very high opinion of southeast asian popular music (i think most of it comes from china, actually), because I’m a snob.

Some buses are a bit better and show movies, if they have a TV. Again, you’re forced to listen to it—buses never have headphone jacks like planes. But at least the movie selection is bewildering enough to be amusing. It’s like they bought some VHS tapes in 1985 and havnt ever bothered to refresh their library. Actually that’s probably exactly what happened. So on this trip so far I’ve seen The Gods Must Be Crazy, Heaven Can Wait, some Steven Segal movie, and The Bad-News Bears. All dubbed into some language (chinese?) with local subtitles. Still annoying, but at least weird.

I think I get annoyed by all this because of a basic cultural difference. Asian and western senses of appropriate public behavior, particularly with regard to personal space and comfort are just extremely different. We are used to a lot of comfort, and expect to maintain a little personal sphere of quietness where you dont have to pay attention to anyone around you (or at least I expect to). So when that’s intruded upon it seems rude and selfish. Like every other person is so inconsiderate for doing whatever they’re doing that imposes their behavior on us. They’re so self-centered for not thinking of how their actions impact my happiness! Of course I think a Southeast Asian person would see it exactly the opposite way—that I’m the self-centered selfish person for wanting to remove myself from my surroundings and not be bothered by anyone. Personal space does not exist here, and people are not used to having it. You are always, constantly interacting with other people and there’s no escaping it.

The buses really arnt that bad here… but they sure are fun to complain about, like a good self-centered comfort-loving American!

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