We pile our bags on a little side street in downtown Bangkok. It’s 8pm, the city’s lights are waking up, and busses fill the street. A double-decker bus drives by, inside on the top level a man is singing karaoke to the rest of the travelers. We’re waiting for bus #3, our nine-hour overnight ride to Chiang Mai, a rural town in northern Thailand.
We can’t find our bus.
Mike and I are sitting on the stoop of a closed shop, the dozen pieces of luggage and gear scattered around us. We are drinking a beer and appreciating the calamity of the moment: unsure of where we’ll be in the moments that come, what it will feel like, and how we will be getting there. It’s one of the best things about traveling — the constant uncertainty, the focus on the moment, the near-to-nothing being granted — if you can learn to appreciate it. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste. It’s my coffee. It’s my wine.
After some confusion and stress, we learn our bus has already arrived. It’s been waiting for us.
We don’t know what to expect inside. The conditions of the bus, the seats, the air, the noise. We’re hoping to sleep, but first we’re hoping the seat recline functions. I can’t help but think back to the bus I rode from Cairo into the middle of the White Desert (the half-day of one-hundred degree sun, the broken air conditioning, the overcramped seating, the failing engine).
We pile into the bus and find that we have a private room in the front half of the lower level. Eight seats all to ourselves. I wouldn’t have hoped for anything better. The seats recline. It does get better. And there’s air conditioning. I could die happy on this bus.
The bus jerks into gear. A strange smell sweeps through our cabin. We might die on this bus.
Most of the crew is asleep within the hour. We rumble our way out of Bangkok onto a highway, and outside of the occasional jolt and shake, the ride is uneventful. My face and chest are cold, but my seat and legs are sweating. It’s a confusing sensation, and for a moment I’m worried I’ve caught a travel bug from the water. I keep eating the goddamn ice, I think-yell to myself. I need to stop eating the goddamn ice. I ask around, I’m not the only straddling the two temperatures. The air conditioning is blasting from above, while a large gap in the bottom of the door lets hot air flood in around our feet. It’s the bus, not a bug. I’m gonna keep eating the goddamn ice, I think as I nod off.
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I wake up as we pull into a travel plaza for a break. It’s a few hundred meters long, all open air, and has nearly every snack and food item I’ve seen in Thailand, all packed into a truck stop. There’s a large fishtank that has four sad fish swimming around. A bank of 80 urinals serving as the “men’s room,” also in the open air. We have a few minutes to stretch our legs, refresh, then we’re back on the bus for the second half of the haul.
I reblanket my face. Sorry, legs, it’s time to sweat.
The bus comes to a halt a few hours later. It’s 6am and we’re in Chiang Mai. It’s another sunny, beautiful morning. The streets are empty but for the new travelers and a few motorbikes. We can’t get into our room until afternoon. Time to find a place where we can bunker down until then. Time to explore.