A long while back, I sat half asleep on a shaky night bus somewhere in the midst of Malaysia. I had been in Singapore for a few days to renew my visa for Thailand and was heading back north with Bangkok as my final destination.
At some point that night, the bus turned off the highway and pulled into a large parking lot surrounded by jungle and towering, somewhat ominous mountains. I later found out that this rest area was in Cameron Highlands (Malaysian highlands), not far from where American businessman and silk expert Jim Thompson was presumed to have died under unclear circumstances around 1967.
Thirty or forty other colorful long-distance buses were already parked when we pulled in and stopped with a deep sigh between two other Scania buses. There was a crackle from the bus’s speakers, and with a drowsy voice in broken English, the driver asked everyone to leave the bus.
As my fellow passengers and I disembarked, the driver pointed to a small, ramshackle building with a blinking neon sign advertising Malaysian sodapop.
There, he explained with subdued enthusiasm, was where we could buy snacks and drinks, and that behind the building was a shack with several toilets. We were also informed that the bus would depart again in twenty minutes… “and if you are not back in time, we will leave without you”!
I fastened the money belt where I kept my passport, traveler’s checks, and wrinkled vaccination card, pulled my t-shirt over it, and stumbled down the bus’s stairs to get my bearings in the vast parking lot.
On stiff legs, I followed the slow procession of men, women, and children heading towards the kiosk and toilet shack.
I remember how most buses had their headlights on and idling engines, making the ground gently vibrate. The nauseating smell of diesel fumes hung heavily over the entire area. Unpleasant as the dirty air was to breathe, it at least kept the mosquitoes at a reasonable distance.
After finally getting to pee, I got in line for the snack shack to buy something cold to drink and perhaps a pack of crackers, if they had any.
Although I was a bit worried that the bus might leave without me, my thirst was so urgent that there was no way I would be leaving my spot in line until it was my turn at the window.
When I finally reached the counter after about seven or eight minutes, it was a beautiful young woman with a pink hijab and tired eyes who sold me a bottle of lukewarm water. Behind her stood a younger man in a long dark blue tunic. He brought forward all the orders from the back of the shack and handed them to his colleague in front at the window.
I handed over my last Singapore dollars, received the unmarked plastic water bottle, and started walking in the direction where I thought my Bangkok bus was parked.
The thick fog of exhaust seemed to conspire with the headlights just to make it harder for me to find my way. I eventually located my bus and let out a sigh of relief as I boarded, making my way to my window seat just in front of the bus’s rear door. With each passed row along the bus’s dark middle aisle, I heard how the passengers were giggling and laughing.
Were they laughing at me?
Halfway to my seat, the driver turned on the bus’s ceiling lights. It was only then that I realized that I had really ended up in the wrong place. On every passenger seat sat a Buddhist nun with a shaved head and dressed in pink and white cloth.
I was in the midst of a busload of women who had dedicated their lives to Siddhartha, the enlightened one, Gautama Buddha himself!
With the bus now fully illuminated, all eyes turned to me – the confused, the lost, the guy dressed in a worn-out t-shirt and dirty shorts.
The driver had noticed the comical situation and opened the rear door so that I could make a quick and smooth exit. As I took the final steps out of the bus, I heard all the nuns laughing loudly and joyfully.
With a smile on my face, I continued to look for my bus and probably just minutes before it departed, managed to one with the familiar Singapore-Bangkok sign followed by the numbers 005.
The nuns’ long journey to Nirvana and mine to Bangkok could now continue.
The above photo is from Burma, many years later but contextually close enough to illustrate my bus adventure back in 1989.
Photo: Elle Raboff