Solo Travel Tips: How to Catch a Bus in a Foreign Country | Myanmar
I love catching a bus in a foreign country! Somehow, the sights, sounds and smells of the landscape feel more vibrant and awakening. I feel alive!
Woosh, the scent of a produce market. Cruddle cruddle, wheels against a gritty dirt road. Clunkle, clunk, screeech… the old gears change releasing the perfume of burning oil and exhaust. Still, taking the local bus as a solo traveler can be a challenge, especially if you don’t know the language.
Reasons I love bus travel
So far I’ve traveled by bus through almost all the countries I’ve visited in the past four years. I love it. It gives me a chance to reflect on the culture, observe how locals live their daily routine and experience a city’s streets. Some like to escape that experience … not me.
A taxi will shoot you straight to your destination, but with a local bus, there’s an air of mystery as to whether you’re going about things correctly. One or more missed stops can throw your route off. This ultimately turns a lot of tourists off to bus travel. Depending upon the country’s infrastructure or potential language barriers, taking the bus to get around might not always comfortable, time-efficient or easy.
But don’t let that intimidate you. Just follow my tips and plan ample time to getting to your location. Some countries have challenged me, but have also given me the best memories.
6 Tips to Catching a Bus in a Foreign Country
With developing countries or rural cities, the foremost hurdle is that you may not always have English bus signs to help you get around. Instead, you must rely on your travel instincts.
1. How to find a ‘bus stop’ if you don’t see one
Sometimes there are no obvious telltale bus stop signs. How do locals find the bus?
Visual cues can be a pod of people waiting or standing around on the side of a street. Even if there are bus signs (like the photo below) if it’s in a foreign language, you may mistake it for something else.
Tip: Ask a local.
That’s almost always gotten me an answer, a finger point in a direction or at least a shrug, which means… ask the next person. Officials like police men or bus attendants are helpful if they’re around.
This ultimately turns a lot of tourists off to bus travel.
2. How to Hail the bus
Yup, hail. In some countries, you have to wave the bus down or enter a bit of the street to show your intention to catch it. Only then will the bus driver pull over to pick you up. If you’re a shy type, this may feel difficult for you, but it’s the only way you’ll get a bus to stop for you. I was in the Nepal countryside waiting at a non-descript- but presumed- country bus stop, but the bus kept whizzing by me without stopping. I stood at that bus stop for an hour, clueless as to why no one was stopping for me. Only when I saw locals waving the buses down did I realize the bus doesn’t make a stop unless you want to get picked up.
3. How do you find the right bus and the correct stop to get off at?
Tip: Have your guesthouse write the address or bus numbers for you… in the language of the country.
When there is little English spoken or used, using the country language is key. Miming can only get you so far. It’s very hard to mime directions if you’re lost or need to get off at a stop you’ve never been to. Have someone write your bus stop and number on a paper for you so you can show it to the bus driver or attendant. This is the easiest way to communicate with locals.
Upon entering the bus, I immediately “play the helpless tourist” and show them my piece of paper with the bus directions. Often this is the cue to them that I won’t know where to get off and need help. This tip has saved me more than a handful of times.
Also, showing locals a map isn’t always enough to gain sufficient help, especially if you’re showing them an “English version” map of the city (which most likely you are… tried it a handful of times). Addresses, bus numbers, directions, any important information written in their language is the best tool to approach locals with if you want help.
4. Finding your stop
Tip: Make friends with the bus driver/ attendant and sit nearby
So far, I’ve not had many bad experiences with bus drivers or attendants. I’ve accidentally fallen asleep, passed my stop, gotten lost, etc.. and many drivers have gone out of their way to help me get onto my right route safely.
Bring yourself to their attention and be visible. Sit near them. If it’s an attendant, he/she will come up to me and give me a nudge that my stop is coming up. If it’s the bus driver, he’ll usually look in his mirror at me and call my stop out. But when it’s peak traffic and the crowd swarms, they can forget, so occasionally inquire about your stop.
5. Find your return (or departure ) bus
Remember what side of the street you’re dropped off on. The return bus generally does it’s pickup on the opposite side of the street. Also, it doesn’t hurt to ask passing locals, where the bus stop is.
6. If you get lost… no worries…
No one likes “getting lost”. It’s a stressful experience for many, myself included. What helps me overcome this fear is knowing I can hail a taxi. If there aren’t any taxis in sight, then I’ll talk to locals, eventually finding someone that can point me to a logical solution.
The important part to remember is that although you may travel solo, you’re never alone. Your environment is your resource and that’s what you must use. It usually makes for stronger and more personal experience.
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