There comes a time in the life of every traveller in South East Asia when one has to get on the bus.It could be that you can’t face one more round of negotiation with the serried ranks of tuk-tuk drivers, maybe you’re simply curious, or perhaps you’ve just begun to run out of money (that also happens to everyone).
Whatever the cause may be, the manifold pleasures of the air-conditioned car, the rental moped and the three-wheeler have to be abandoned for some reason or other, and there is nothing to be done but gird up your sarong and climb aboard.
Or, rather, as I discovered in Matara, a sleepy little town of just under a million people on the southern tip of the tropical island of Sri Lanka recently, you sort of run and leap aboard in the general direction of the running board. It’s the ultimate faith game, this hoisting yourself into the moving charabanc, as you are relying on being pulled aboard by the gleeful octopus that is the arms of the other passengers.
The reason for this running jump boarding manoeuvre is that Sri Lankan buses are extremely unwilling to stop unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Although the fares and routes and numbers are set by the state, each bus, more or less, is a private company, with a separate owner, so they compete for customers and seek to race to the next stop ahead of the competition to snap up waiting passengers.
This leads to some hair-raising driving on the wrong side of the road, intense two-tone air horn-blasting and a travel experience that is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. All the ex-pats claim to have seen buses going round the S-bends near trendy Mirissa beach up on two wheels.
It’s enough of an experience to make anyone come over religious, and perhaps this is the reason that the panel behind the driver’s seat is not, as in London or New York, given over to safety instructions or advertising, but a large picture of the Buddha, frequently illuminated with flashing LED lights.
The front seats, a notice reminds one, are to be given up if a monk boards the bus. The driver himself is surrounded by religious icons, dangling around him like bauble on a Christmas tree, as he hauls his way up and down through the gears with a purely functional gear stick that is about three feet long, and appears to connect directly to the grinding innards of the engine.
The particular bus that I was riding, the Tangalle—Colombo Express, only stopped at the larger towns along the way, making it a popular ride.
In fact, the bus was utterly rammed. In the West, you would have thought this was some daft world record attempt, or one of those safety experiments where they offer volunteers $10 if they can be among the first 50% of passengers off the vehicle to simulate a disaster.
Here, it’s just how you get from A to B.
Watching the ticket boy go down the aisle, collecting the money, tearing off tickets and distributing change was an amazing sight. His feet didn’t really touch the floor from one end to the other, he just pulled himself like a monkey by his arms down the rail hanging from the ceiling, using the bodies of us punters crammed into the gangway for purchase and lift, reminiscent of the way a swimmer taps nervously off the sea floor as they test whether they can still touch.
This bus was unusual in that it had an asymmetrical layout. There were benches of three seats on the right and two seats on the left. Spread out across most of the three-laps side were tiny Sri Lankan babies and children, who dozed despite the banging dance music that we all nodded along to, which is another essential feature of the Sri Lankan bus experience. It keeps the spirits up.
Asian bus connoisseurs of former years should note that most buses in Sri Lanka, in an effort to attract more customers, have upgraded their already fearsome audio systems to the full audio-visual monty these days, and feature lavish musical presentations by sexy belly dancers on a TV screen bolted to the ceiling. A company called the Ganga Video Team seems to have cornered the market in this area, and you can enjoy samples of their work on YouTube.
The smell of the Tangalle—Colombo Express was almost indescribable. But start with the odor of infrequently washed armpits, add a hint of burning incense stick, stir in an ample portion of curry leaves and leave to mature for a decade, and you’ll have a rough idea of the olfactory experience.
The whole inside of the particular bus I was riding was decorated like an Arabian Palace, with rich velvet curtains and fabric pelmets which not only served to make it almost impossible to look out of the window (no bad thing unless you wanted to have a heart attack on the spot owing to the driver’s apparently suicidal and homicidal intentions) but also, I imagined, were effective odour sponges, soaking up and releasing an astonishing symphony of smell.
Although bus crashes do of course happen, the amazing thing to a visitor is that they do not happen on every single journey. The approved method of overtaking is to just keep going and lean on your horn. The traffic parts as miraculously as the Dead Sea did for Moses.
The main A2 road which traces the southern coast of Sri Lanka is mostly one lane in each direction, but it’s not uncommon to see a bus squeezing its way between a tuk-tuk on one side of the road and a truck on the other. It’s clearly some kind of illusion, a magic trick you have no desire to see repeated, as there is no way it is actually physically possible.
The one thing you will rarely see in Sri Lanka is a broken down bus. I met one expat who has been buying up the wonderful old vintage trucks which ply Sri Lanka’s roads to turn into mobile hotel rooms, and he told me that almost every engine in Sri Lanka is kept in perfect condition. “It’s their livelihood, and every driver is a mechanic,” he said.
Bussing it can be a bit rough and ready, but it genuinely connects you to the real life of people in Sri Lanka. Most tourists visit the country and, bar the odd curry for breakfast, exist in a little air-conditioned bubble that floats atop of, and entirely insulated from, the merest hint of real Sri Lankan life. The bus pops that bubble effectively.
Oh, and did I mention the price? The cost of a ride for a journey which might cost you $10 by a tuk-tuk is a standard 18 rupees on a bus—about 15 cents.
Trust me, bussing it is the only way to travel