By bus from Penang to Krabi

Hazard and Talisman

Hazard and Talisman, Krabi

Bus rides can be murder. It's taken two days for my sacrum to return to normal after our twelve hour coach ride from Krabi to Bangkok, but at least on that one no-one was in fear of imminent death...

The bus taking us to Krabi from Penang is a nine seat minibus, but the operators aren't going to let it leave Georgetown before they've packed twelve passengers into it. We do the rounds of the guesthouses and three girls are found waiting at the last one. Two guys who were aboard before us get booted to make room for the girls. Fully loaded now, the driver slams the tail gate on the packs crammed into the back. The force required is sufficient to almost shatter the back window and give the backseat passengers whiplash injuries. We're off!

As soon as we clear the Penang Bridge and make the expressway the driver floors it. Not bad on a six lane expressway - we'll make good time! Amber's (unlocked) pack had been removed from the back and wedged between the Thai passengers in the front seat where we can't see it. It's something to consider on the burn up to the border. We needn't worry. Our van pulls up before the customs checkpoint, we all file out and get our passports stamped, then return to the bus to drive through without anyone casting even a cursory glance over any luggage. No wonder some folks think smuggling is a breeze!

You'd imagine leaving a six lane freeway for winding two-way roads full of traffic would be cause for a reduction in speed. You'd be wrong. Our driver obviously isn't being paid by the hour and maintains an average hundred kilometres per hour, tapping out a polite pip-pip whenever our velocity threatens to insert us into the exhaust pipe of a slower vehicle. Which, with one exception, is every other vehicle on the road.

I'm not averse to speed. Like many guys I derive a thrill from a bit of fast driving and having lived in regional Australia, speeds of 100-140 kilometres per hour are nothing unusual. On good roads. Straight ones where you can see for miles. Ones with not a lot of traffic.

The road we're blasting down now however, is dipping and swerving around the landscape. We share it with motorbikes and scooters, lorries and dilapidated buses. At frequent intervals untethered cows munch roadside grass and stationary vehicles occasionally occlude half the roadway while their owners chat or attend to engine troubles. Trucks fully laden with oil palm fruit haul themselves slowly into the path of oncoming traffic from side roads cunningly concealed on the far side of bends.

I worry for a bit and then decide to treat it as I do air travel. There's nothing I can do. If we crash, we crash. If I die, I die. What else can be done? This fatalistic approach frees me to enjoy the ride, amazed that we can careen down a highway like this without even a raised eyebrow from any of the other folks on the road. My eyebrows, however, pursue my hairline to somewhere above my forehead as we commit to bends at 110Km/hr. Bends where the recommended speed is 75Km/hr. Bends where the laws of physics demand that we cross to the other side of the road to avoid being pushed into the gutter by our centrifugal force. I'm pretty sure the driver can't see around these corners any better than I can...

The American girls in the back seat are discussing interventionist tactics. They figure asking the driver to slow down wouldn't work and consider asking him to stop so they can get off. Eventually their desire to reach a beach overcomes the fear of grievous bodily harm and they reinsert their iPod earplugs and take refuge in their own version of fatalism. Amber's concerned, but not freaking out. I think this is a time where her not-so-acute distance vision is a blessing.

I watch the needle climb back to 120Km/hr and check the swiftly approaching rear end of the truck in front. I flick my eyes down the road to see the bend about forty seconds away. I know the double line down the centre of the road is meaningless to our driver and realise I'm grinning like an idiot as I see him move his foot away from the brake pedal and hit the accelerator. I begin to have fears for my sanity...

We make it past the truck (and the two cars in front of it) in time to gamble there's no-one coming around the bend we're about to enter. We're lucky again. So are the streams of kids riding their motorcycles out of the school gate on the other side of the bend. Since our speed has pushed us to the wrong side of the road again, our driver is pip-pipping his way around the bend as if sound waves can deflect a head-on collision. The kids are already heading for the road edge as we emerge from the bend and swerve back to our side of the road. It's close though. We roar by some of them with inches to spare. They ride on as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Amber's pretty pissed off though.

An incident in the main street of a busy town prompts one of the English girls in the seats next to me to open revolt. We're travelling at a sedate 90 when the vehicle in front of us decides to execute a left turn. There's a law against using indicators to signal this intention, so when his brake lights go on at the last minute, it's all our driver can do to avoid him. Brakes are sharply applied and the wheel is wrenched to the right in an evasive manoeuvre. We just miss him.

The English girl rips the buds out of her ears and yells at the driver to slow down. The driver twists his head around to regard her (without slowing down at all) and then turns to his mate and says something. His friend asks the English girl what the problem is.

"Can you please ask him to slow DOWN?" she yells.

A cheeky smile appears on the bloke in the front seat. He turns to the driver and says a few words, to which the driver at first cracks up laughing, then looks bemused and says something which is pretty obviously the equivalent of "What? Really?" The boys have a brief conversation and then the English speaking guy turns back and explains that the driver can't slow down, because he has to deliver the American girls to the ferry terminal in Krabi in time to make the last ferry to Ko Lanta. Then he turns back to the driver and they both laugh it up about crazy damn farangs...

As the needle creeps back up to 100, we're overtaken by a beaten up old blue bus. I've seen it before. It's the only vehicle that's overtaken us today, and it's doing it again. It dawns on me that it's a local bus. One that stops at every little village along the road. We've only stopped once in five hours. I stare in slack-jawed wonder as the blue streak pulls away from us. Our driver takes up the challenge and pushes the pedal to the metal. I start grinning again.

The English girl's expression conveys she has no doubts about my sanity at all.

It's obvious she thinks I'm as crazy as the driver.

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