My brief stint up in northern Thailand is now complete. Trekking and elephant riding are all well and good for a time — but let's face it: romping through tropical jungle is bollocks, when compared with lying on a gorgeous tropical beach. And if it's beaches you're after, then the direction to go is south, and the place to find (and there are plenty of them to be found) is a nice, idyllic island. My destination is one such island: Ko Tao. And after the overnight bus that I caught last night, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, I'm now halfway there.
Last night was my first experience on one of Thailand's infamous "tourist buses" — a phenomenon unlike anything else I've ever encountered, in all my varied and extensive long-distance bus travel over the past year. Everywhere else that I've travelled on this trip, tourists take the local buses, the same as does every other man and his dog. Of course, there's usually a broad selection of "local buses" — it can mean anything from a freezing-cold rustbucket crammed with plump highland mothers and their 15 screaming babies, to an air-conditioned bed bus where champagne is served in-trip — but either way, there's nothing special or specific about their clientele.
Thailand has the complete spectrum of local buses as well. The Thai local buses depart from and arrive at official bus terminals; they come in a variety of classes (typically 1st- to 3rd-class); and they're generally considered to be safe and reliable. But tourist buses are different. Minibuses collect you from your guesthouse, and take you to their random (and often seedy) departure and arrival spots; they travel exclusively between the major tourist hotspots nationwide; they can be booked only through guesthouses and travel agencies; and no Thai person would dream of catching one in a million years. LP and most other guidebooks highly discourage the use of these buses — mainly because of their reputation for theft. Nevertheless, they're very cheap and very convenient; and as such, they continue to be extremely popular and to attract hordes of budget farangs such as myself.
The tourist bus wasn't too bad: similar to what I expected, but no worse than what I'd been warned about. A little pickup-truck taxi collected me from my guesthouse, along with about 10 other farangs from their respective guesthouses. We appeared to drive pointlessly in a circle around the old city of Chiang Mai, about 5 times, before they finally dropped us off at the bus. The "bus terminal" was a random petrol station, somewhere in suburban Chiang Mai — fittingly bizarre and seedy. We were meant to leave at 7pm, and by 7:30pm we were on our way: as I understand it, this is ahead-of-schedule by tourist-bus standards.
The bus ride was long, but uneventful enough. I became acquainted with Mark, my friendly seat neighbour. As I was warned, we stopped at a random "restaurant" at about midnight, where for some reason they actually expected us to: (a) be hungry; and (b) be prepared to pay the inflated prices that the restaurant (owned by the bus company) was charging. As far as I'm aware, nothing was stolen from me on the journey. And other than the midnight stop, I slept soundly almost the entire way to Bangkok.
I booked my entire journey down to Ko Tao — two overnight buses, plus a morning ferry — from my guesthouse in Chiang Mai. No doubt, this meant that numerous middlemen took their cut along the way: but what the hell, it was so cheap anyway — let 'em squeeze a few more Baht out of me, I'll still survive. I have 12 hours or so to kill today in Bangkok — last night's bus pulled in to Khao San Road at about 6am, and this evening's bus is due to depart at 6pm. We'll see how the rest of my tourist bus journeying turns out.