By Jillian Meyer
Reading time: 4 minutes
You know those moments that you stop, look around and ask yourself, how did I get here? Yeah, well, let me tell you about one of mine. It was dark, dirty, cramped, bumpy, with no end in sight.
Backpacking has its allure, and my wanderlust was no different than many of my generation. I quit my good job, packed my things, moved out of my New York apartment and, to my parents’ dismay, said, “I am moving to Berlin!” I decided to take advantage of this transitional period, and I made a few stops along the way. I started in Hong Kong, went through Malaysia and then continued on through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal.
There was freedom in traveling alone and opportunities to meet cool people along the way. I learnt how to be independent in different cultures, I did and saw a lot of exciting things and I, of course, ate my way through every city. Asian cuisine will never be the same. Being a backpacker I always looked for the cheapest way to get around, so the night buses, for me, were a two for one deal that wasted no time. Riding the night buses, I covered ground while not having to find accommodation for the night. The best part was when I woke up I would be in a new city.
Everyone who has ever taken night buses through SE Asia knows that flexibility and low expectations are necessities. Generally, I was given a little horizontal pod to sleep in. The kind where I could barely sit up straight, I could only lay as if I were placed in a coffin and even then my feet were more than likely to hang out. Once I was placed in a two-person cabin of sorts where I had to lay shoulder to shoulder with the person that was assigned to the bed next to me. There was no possibility to sit; I could only lay down. I hoped and prayed, and in the end I was fortunate that the person assigned to ride next to me was another young, solo, female traveler from South Africa. THANK GOD!
Aside from the actual space allotment, I never did solve the mystery of the continuous random stops along the side of the road; somehow the bus driver just new where to stop. He would pull over and all of a sudden locals would step out, open the storage compartment under the bus and start loading unmarked bags onto the bus. My guess… produce? At least the thought made me feel better. Often the storage would fill up and our bags would end up lying in the aisles under our feet.
There was one bus ride that took the cake. I was suddenly woken around 4am in an unknown town in Cambodia. I was en route to Vietnam. I had no idea I had to change buses let alone where I was. I grabbed my backpack, got out with a handful of other tourists and was told to wait for the bus to Vietnam. Well, one of the busses broke down so it never showed. There was one bus. All of the seats were filled. The drivers casually opened the door that led to the storage under the bus and motioned us in. In broken English they told us this was our way to Vietnam. I looked around. There were a handful of people including three other young girls that I joined forces with along the way and a middle-aged couple. The debate began. Do we get in, or do we stay in this unknown town with no idea when the next bus to Vietnam comes through? Fuck it, I decide to get in and the other girls follow. At the last minute one local man jumps in.
To recap, there are four female tourists and one local man at the bottom of the bus, sitting on what we are told was the mattress the bus drivers normally slept on inbetween everyone’s luggage in complete darkness on our way to Vietnam.
To clarify, this wasn’t the typical storage area. We had an actual door we walked through, hunched over, but then it opened up to one large space that was the width and almost the length of the bus. We eventually settled into a somewhat comfortable space to try to sleep the hours away. The first part of the journey was spent depending on the light from an iPhone. This was eventually abandoned to complete darkness for battery’s sake.
Somewhere around four hours later we stopped, the door opened and we crawled out of the darkness into the daylight. To get into Vietnam we had to walk over the border. It was only then that we realised how filthy the space under the bus was. Bags were being beaten to release clouds of dirt and that same dirt not only coated me in a fine layer but also filled my nostrils.
I was in disbelief but there was no one to complain to; it would fall on deaf ears. After all was said and done, we made it over the border into Vietnam. I had made it to my destination. I will never complain about a bus journey again.