The Nightmarish Night-bus to Chiang Mai

Note from the author:

I have to first apologize by saying that the title “series of unfortunate events” does not mean that my journey to Thailand was a negative one. It merely states the fact that many unfortunate things happened to me, some of the things were out of my control, a lot of them were. But in the end, I walked away– rather limped away– with insight that will forever change me into a better person. Please bear this in mind while reading. Here is my journey up to Chiang Mai. 

My days in Bangkok came to an end somewhat abruptly. There were a few ups and downs during that time. I lost my camera, phone –I lost a sizable amount of cash due to tourist traps, and an AMT ate my credit card. But on a positive note, I found my passport, I got to experience a lot of Bangkok– the street markets, the kind locals, amazing temples, and the incredible night-scene. Something else happened that was also pretty awesome. I spent Christmas with a couple people I had only just met, and developed a brotherhood with them that seemed almost fictional.

They did so much for me, it made saying goodbye that much harder.

“Come to Phuket man”, they would encourage me.

“It’s gonna be so much fun. We’re gonna sip martini’s on the beach and go to the full moon party!”, they said quite convincingly.

But I had made prior commitments to see a friend from America, a friend that I was very much looking forward to seeing. My mind considered both possibilities, and at their extremities — both seemed completely plausible and worthwhile. But my commitments to see my old friend outweighed the exciting, last-minute chance to go to Phuket with the friends I had just made.

It was a tough choice, but one I ultimately stand by.

I waited for Dev to call a taxi outside the hostel where we met a few days prior. He would wave down a taxi, make sure he was getting a good price — and if not– he would send them away. I waited there looking at the sign of our hostel. It’s motto: “Where journey’s begin”. I pointed this out to him, and we laughed for how true the words were.

Finally the taxi came, and it was time to say goodbye. “Have fun in Phuket”, I said. “We will. Have fun in Chiang Mai!”, he said back to me.

“Until next time!”, he said as the taxi drove away.

Now I was on my own. I had no phone, but I had my Mac, a book, cash and of course my plan to meet my friend. I headed for the bus station. There I discovered a long line of people waiting to board. I made conversation with two people who were sitting outside the travel shop. The guy had bright blue eyes and blonde hair.

“You going to Chiang Mai?”, I inquired.

“Yupp. I’ve lived there for a year now. It’s an amazing place”, he said enthusiastically.

“Awesome, I can’t wait to see it!”, i replied equally enthusiastic.

He told me that he practices Muay Thai, has been for years now. He loves the people there for they are the kindest he’s ever met– and everyday he keeps discovering new things to do there. My optimism peaked in anticipation of this new chapter of my journey. I noticed the girl next to him was looking a little bashful, so I included her by asking if they’re siblings.

“No, I’m his girlfriend”, she said a bit embarrassed.

“Oh, sorry! You don’t look similar; it’s just you both have similar beautiful blue eyes”, I say trying to be diplomatic

“Oh, thanks. We’ve gotten that before, it’s okay”, she said.

As the line to board the bus got longer and longer, I wondered how pleasant my ride to Chiang Mai would be. Finally it came time to board, and I found my seat near the back. I sat next to a quiet asian guy. Since it was such a long bus ride, I started the conversation by introducing myself. I learned he was from Singapore, he dances professionally for his church, and that this was the “longest trip of his life”, that is 12 hours on a bus.

“It’s a long trip, isn’t it?”, I said. “Hopefully we can get some shut-eye on the way.”

Unfortunately, I would not get very much sleep that night. The seating area was tight– I mean reeeally tight. The lady in front of me kept putting her seat back thinking I would eventually magically find room for her. I don’t think she understood that i’m 6 foot 2, and sitting in such a tight space was akin to Guiness World Record breaker Yogi Coudoux fitting into a tiny box.

“Could you make room for me”, she said somewhat frustrated with me.

“Not really, it’s kinda tight here”, I said.

She cranked back her seat anyways, jamming her seat into my bare knees. I realized that she thought I was lying about how much room I actually had. It was like we were playing poker, and she kept calling my bluff — only i was revealing my hand, namely my knees. What else could I do? Occasionally, she would call my bluff, again jamming my knees — but to no avail.

A few hour went by. Although it was hot outside, the air conditioning in the back of the bus became so intense that I started to shiver. I then realized that I quite possibly had the worst seat on the bus. “I would never book a cheap bus ticket ever again”, I thought to myself. At this point, the lady’s seat was quite literally crushing my knees making it nearly impossible to sleep.

“Excuse me, could you put your seat up”, i said kindly, but sternly. “You’re crushing my knees”.

I can’t believe you have no room back there”, she said a little pissy.

She then reels her seat up to a rigid 90 degree angle.

“Crisis averted”, I thought to myself. I think a few years ago I would have let that slide. But every person has their limits, and people gotta stand up for themselves. As you get older, you realize that communication really does solve most problems. But it didn’t solve my problem of discomfort for the duration of that trip. Despite having a little bit more leg space, I felt caved in, I felt cold.

I remembered my deepest, darkest fear: being ensnared in blankets by my neighbors. They were just playing around, you know — boys being boys. But it actually traumatized me and potentially triggered my fear of tight spaces. I remember the two of them wrestled me with blankets, trapping me under the clothing and leaving me helpless. Their laughter filled the room in equal measures to my panic. My cries to be set free from their sick joke added to the humor. Eventually, they let me go. But still, for whatever reason –being helpless, being at the whim of someone else, being smothered — all of these things became things I would detest in my adult life.

A funny thought to have before passing out. I got a total of two hours of sleep, drifting in and out of consciousness. I saw the morning light start to rise. I knew that I was about to arrive in Chiang Mai, finally.

When we got out of the bus, I realized immediately that it’s much colder in Chiang Mai, particularly in the morning compared to Bangkok. It is quite a few miles north, after all. I began searching for my luggage, but I couldn’t find it. I then remembered that one of the guys put it on the other bus before departing. You see, there were two buses that left for Chiang Mai, and they put my luggage on the other bus.

I tried to explain this to the bus driver, but he didn’t understand me.

“My luggage is on the other bus”, I said more sternly.

He just looked at me, shook his head — and moved on. He literally wouldn’t give me the time of day. I then asked the other passengers if they know where the other bus was. “What other bus?”, they said puzzled. “Oh, right. You should ask the bus driver, he speaks English”.

“No, he doesn’t”, i said to myself.

“Well, good luck!”, the passenger said to me as they headed off with their luggage.

I then walk around the bus terminal for a few hours in shorts and a t-shirt searching for the other bus. I went to the reception area, and I tried to tell them my situation.

“Excuse me, my luggage is on the other bus. There were two busses that left from Bangkok”, I explained.

“Where you go?! Bangkok?!”, she said with a loud voice.

“No… I came from Bangkok; I’m looking for my luggage”

“It’s over there, just walk over there!”, she said.

Most people were quite useless in helping me find my luggage. No one could understand what I was saying. Whenever they heard my words, they would just ask for my ticket which showed the bus I rode, but not the bus where my luggage was stored. I waited in that parking lot for 3 hours, sipping my little coffee, just hoping I would see a bus that looked remotely familiar. Eventually, the original bus I rode came back and was boarding for Bangkok. This time, I would draw a picture for the bus driver. I would put on my teacher-hat and explain to him my dire circumstance. And I did. But he still didn’t understand.

I became aggressive. I had enough things go wrong this trip– I realized I needed to show that I was really in a desperate situation here. Every time the guy ignored me, I would come right back with the picture and explain that “There were TWO buses. Where is the other bus?!”. Nothing. He didn’t understand a word I was saying.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more desperate in my life. Luckily, an angel intervened.

He noticed that the bus driver wasn’t understanding anything I was saying. I explained my situation to him –and like magic– he translated it to the bus driver. Finally, he got it. I write down the bus number and they point me towards the terminal across the street. They even send a guy to escort me, who really just hobbled on one leg. We walked together, slowly. I had to walk beside the guy, who had a stub for a leg. It took ten minutes to the bus. He yelled out to the driver of the bus for a backpack.

“This one?”, he came out revealing my bag.

“Yes, yes!!”, i say like a mother who has just discovered her lost son in the supermarket. “That’s my boy”, I said with drama.

I thank the man who hobbled me to the bus, and bypass him by running. “I’ve wasted enough time here”, I thought. I call a cab heading for my hostel –and get the heck out of that bus terminal.

I learned a valuable lesson on that day though. I learned that having a phone in a foreign country is essential. If I had google translate, all my problems would have been solved instantly. I felt the desperation many expats must have felt before all of our convenient inventions of smart phones and translation apps. This feeling, although quite horrific, in retrospect can be respected. I will never take for granted the hard work of translators or the conveniences of our modern society.

That man who spoke Thai and English literally saved me from losing my luggage. He is an angel. Now I understand the painting titled “Babel” from the day before. The angels of this world are translators.

God Bless translators!


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