Sometimes, half the fun of the journey is getting there. One of these statements that sounds kinda lame, and you wonder whether it's mostly repeated from habit, rather than with any real conviction.
Last night's bus journey reminded me of this statement. It wasn't so much that the trip was fun, but I knew that I was gathering memories that I'd never forget all along the way - even at the times when I was ready to pull my hair out in frustration.
Thailand has an excellent public bus system. Seriously, I've never seen better, and I think you'd struggle to find anywhere with as comprehensive and cheap a system. They run everywhere, at all hours. There are different classes that run with different frequency, depending on the length of the ride. Ordinary busses are as the name suggests - pretty plain and no-frills. You won't find any air conditioning on these ones - basically you've got a seat, and that's about it. 2nd class air conditioned busses are similar to ordinary busses, with the addition of air conditioning. And this place has some of the best air conditioners I've ever come across. Like, pack a jumper on a 35 degree day effective.
1st class aircon busses have a toilet onboard, then there are the VIP busses. These are the ones with nice, comfy reclining seats, there are less seats than the ordinary busses, so more legroom (32 seats on standard VIP busses, 24 on Super-VIP services), a hostess handing around drinks and snacks (included in the price), and an included meal break. But back to that later.
One other addition the VIP busses have, is a television, and DVD player. Oh, and a whole lot of speakers. You know how sometimes you struggle to hear the audio on a bus when it's playing a video? No problems with that in Thailand. There were at least a dozen sets of speakers, fitted into the parcel rack above the seats, so with only 24 seats on the bus, there's a good chance that the speaker will be located directly above your head. Like mine was.
Ahh yes, this had all the hallmarks of being one of those 'getting there's half the fun' trips. Particularly as we'd be covering about 1,000km, and travelling all night.
There is a form of entertainment over here, that I can only begin to describe as the bastard son of pantomine and a drag show. Let me try to set the scene. There are a number of entertainers on stage, and most of them are very obviously men dressed as women. There's a lot of singing (bad singing...), people chasing each other around, lifting (or tearing off) of skirts, and general chaos. It looks as though there is about one page of scripted material, and 2 hours of improvisation. Thousands of people are watching this live.
Me - well, I'm watching it from a bus, painfully aware of the way the speaker above my head is distorting due to being punished by excessive volume. Incredibly, half the people on the bus seem to be able to sleep through this. How, I have no idea. But it looks to be possible.
Thailand, in many ways, seems to be a very loud country. People shout, a lot. When they have the opportunity, they shout into a megaphone. Which brings me to the meal break.
On these long, VIP bus trips, you have an included meal break. Even if that break's at 1am, you'll still get it. These breaks are an experience in themeselves, particularly on the government busses. Tourists do use them, but not nearly as much as the tourist busses, arranged through (often dodgy) travel agents, so you're mostly travelling with Thai's. So, late at night, you arrive at this place, and the first thing you notice are the number of busses already there. There were at least another 30 bus loads of people at this place when we arrived, and more coming all the time. Finding a park isn't the easiest thing to do.
We stop, everyone gets off, then the megaphones begin. We're being herded towards our appointed dinner tables, and the person leading us is determined that we know she's speaking to US! Maybe it simply sounds louder because I don't understand a word being said, so without being distracted by trying to understand the instructions, I've more time to concentrate on how loud these instructions are being delivered. So our group is moved towards the dining tables - and there are hundreds of them, most already occupied. 6 to a table, with 4 or 5 dishes on each table to be shared. It's an incredible system they have - basically, you end up eating dinner with perfect strangers, sharing the food you've been given. I'm not hungry, so don't join in, choosing to explore the rest of the place.
The rest of the place is like a huge supermarket. I guess knowing that thousands of people will be stopping there, selling food's going to be a good proposition. The difference is that whereas at home, everything would be snack food, quick meals, stuff to eat during the journey, most of the stuff here would be taken home.
Still, the megaphones blare. Guiding people here and there, or seemingly shouting simply for the sake of shouting, it's a noisy place. Busses guided to a free space, the din of hundreds of people eating...it's a hell of an experience.
Before we leave, I buy some snacks for the bus and a beer, and sit out the front of the terminal, soaking it all in. Before the bus goes, I've been given an orange, and had a ladyboy fall in love with me, wanting my phone number. I didn't give it to her, although it may have been interesting to see what came of a conversation where neither party spoke the same language.
When the bus pulls out, the video's turned off, the lights dim, and for the first time in hours, silence descends. I barely sleep, yet this silence is like a dream.