A Twix? Oh, no you didn’t… we can’t afford it…

Travel like a local in Asia…? Oh yes, been there done that, all the weirdest travels on both buses and trains (and aeroplanes) in Asia through the years. Especially during the early years as a poor backpacker. “The cheaper, the better” was the motto. Pernilla, my partner-in-crime on my first trip, didn’t even allow me to buy a Twix, since the price of one of these goodies in China was equal to 2 portions of fried rice and veggies – our staple dish. In India – don’t bother – it was probably the same price as a whole week of dinners… At least!

Travel like a local in Asia – a must…

  • Even if you get to be tortured with local music on the worst possible volume on local buses and trains in Asia and if you’re constantly getting gawked at it really has its charm to be so close to the locals. Isn’t that the whole point of travelling; to get closer to the culture, and thus also the locals?
  • It’s rather entertaining being the only tourists on board a bus in Asia since that means they will take excellent care of you. Mostly, and except for one of the incidents mentioned below.
  • They think it’s fun to have you there. When you need a toilet, and there’s none on the bus, they’re more than happy to stop extra for you. They wait until you’re ready, no matter how long it takes. No problem! And no one on the bus is the least bit annoyed over this unnecessary stop. They are very eager for you to be alright (at least this was the case with the buses in India during the ’90s…).

Some unforgettable experiences with travel like a local in Asia:

Travel like a local Asia: Bus,

Xi’an, China

On our way back to our guesthouse the bus got full pretty quickly. The Chinese just acted like Chinese people (and I’m saying this with love <3, so you know…), and just needed to get aboard. Just when you thought: “No, now this bus is full! Not a single ant can get in now!” 20 more Chinese got in.

Could they even breathe with their heads way deep down someone’s crotch?

Pernilla and I felt somewhat lucky since we both were standing by a window. The windows didn’t have any glass, and since it was so crowded inside, we were more or less hanging halfway outside already.

I felt somewhat distraught over the poor souls sitting in the seats where I was standing, but I tried to push away those thoughts… I’m claustrophobic you see, so I did my utmost to keep my thoughts busy with anything other than what was going on then and there.

woman laughing hanging out of bus window

full public transport bus in Xian China

It got harder and harder for the bus to drive, because of the overload.

When the bus stopped in the middle of the road because it simply couldn’t go any further, more laughing Chinese just needed to get on. My mind just exploded – yep, panic attack full on – full-blooded panic!

With a hammering heart, I couldn’t hear anything but my heart, I frenetically started to squeeze out of the bus through the glassless window. Pernilla followed my move, and once down on the ground we just stumbled forward on the road, laughing hysterically. I was shaking, and the panic attack had threatened to rip me apart, but deep down somewhere I knew it actually never would… When safe I understood that!

After about 50 metres we turned around and looked at the bus and all the people. The bus was still standing there, unable to move due to overload. It couldn’t drive anywhere, but everyone was still so happy, and still tried to get on. Insanely insane!

Could this possibly be some kind of evening entertainment we simply just didn’t understand? 😛

Today this bus trip is one of the funniest and weirdest experiences of public transport in Asia.

Travel like a local Asia: Train,


I’m saying it again: public transport in China is the way to go! Travelling by train in China can be as amusing as the bus. Well, it all depends on which class you choose, of course. Back in the day I wasn’t that fussy about class, not like today. But I didn’t want the lousiest alternative, either. Usually, we chose “2nd class hard sleeper”, which was a doorless compartment with 6 berths.

“Cheapy cheap ass Pernilla” wanted of course to go with the “2nd class hard sitter”. She thought it would be a fun experience to share with her grandkids one day… Hell no! “2nd class hard sitter” is basically just simple, hard wooden benches… that’s it!

I just put my foot down to end the craziness!

Even though I was young I was smart enough to realise it wouldn’t be that uplifting spending 36 hours sitting up straight on a wooden bench crowded with other people. These people would probably stare at you all through the journey like you were the best entertainment ever!

This wasn’t even a wild idea of some random scenario, because this was our daily life in China.

It wouldn’t even be fun in hindsight as an anecdote about travelling like a local in Asia, and that’s why I made sure I won the fight about class.

woman sleeping on a train in india travel like a local
2nd class sleeper – India. Basically the same as the ones in China, minus the fan and plus speakers!

We were still beginners when it came to trains in China. The week we’d spent on the TransSiberian railway – we had learned nothing other than to fight the boredom with alcohol (which we already mastered being Swedish), and how to thaw frozen beer and frozen toilets.

Thus when we headed out on our first train adventure in China I was super excited to have gotten the lower berth! Wow, we were naive…

During the night everything was dandy, but at 6 in the morning we were woken up by a Chinese song, which practically blasted the speakers to Japan. We did not know it yet, but this song would haunt us for the rest of our China stay (and for me – 20+ more years, searching for it in pure hysterical indoctrinated fashion).

The song was the sign it was time to “rise and shine”.

At 0600 sharp I thanked my lucky star for sleeping on the lower berth where there were no speakers and laughed smugly to the poor souls on top. Well, time to keep on sleeping. But oh no, I had to rethink that one last thought.

“Rise and shine” meant that everyone considered themselves welcome to my berth! Just like that, they pushed my legs and feet away, before sitting down to enjoy the first meal of the day.

They set the table with chicken feet and other delicacies – time for breakfast!

The rest of the day I spent cramped on my berth with curious Chinese wondering what kind of alien I was.

Next trip I got the middle berth! Oh happy days, I thought with a happy smile!

But, no… This was no fracking happy days! Would there never be a full score?

Now I had this completely mad man underneath, constantly spitting. On one occasion he actually managed to hit me with one of his loogies – right in the face! Pretty nasty, actually. How did he even do it? He was after all in the berth under me…

When he wasn’t spitting he was amusing himself with banging and kicking in the underside of my berth, which if possibly was even more annoying than the spitting.

On that trip, I actually missed the uninvited guests on my lower berth…

Third time’s the charm, right – time for the upper berth! I had some kind of warning bell ringing in the back of my head… wasn’t it something with the upper berth? I shook the feeling. It just couldn’t go wrong now, could it? Well, it could, when the clock strikes 0600 and your ear is next to the speaker…

Then it’s all wrong, really wrong.

The more trains we travelled by the more we heard this song because oddly enough it was always the same song waking people up – as an alarm, regardless of trains. Of course, we left the country without having bought a single version of the song. Who would’ve thought I would get so brainwashed I would actually miss it? It took me over 20 years to find the song again...

At least the trains in China always had hot water for tea and noodles… always something…

Travel like a local Asia: Bus,

Hampi – Goa, India

Public transport in India? Hmm… Extremely crowded. If you’ve been backpacking in India (and Nepal for that matter), you might have preferred travelling on the roof of the bus, as we did. At least this was how you did it during the ’90s, it might be forbidden today… Everything changes.

It was so nice sitting on the roof, you had a better view; India and Nepal are incredibly beautiful countries. A large bonus was you didn’t have to get crammed in with random people all staring at you, touching your most private parts, shamelessly.

charnette woman on a bus roof in nepal travel like a local
On the roof of a bus between Nepal and India – these nice boys had nothing to do with the story…

We were on our way to Goa from  Hampi and had been on the roof the entire trip. When we got to the Goa border we were forced to come down since it was illegal to sit on the roof in Goa.

As mentioned above I’m ravaged by claustrophobia, so I wasn’t the least pleased with being forced to do this. Slightly terrified I realised there weren’t the smallest of spaces where we could sit since the bus was already crowded beyond necessity.

And we were 4 large white backpackers needing space inside.

The bus conductor pushed aside some poor women in the furthest back of the bus, pointing to a small space, about 10 cm wide. That was supposed to be our seats apparently.

I pointed to the seat and then on my bum, while wiggling the head in true Indian fashion.

The Indians all laughed, and the conductor looked angry – stubborn as few. There was nothing we could do, so we gave up and squeezed into the bus.

Because of my fear of getting stuck among people in the middle of the bus and getting a panic attack, I waited till the end until everyone was aboard to finally get aboard too. That’s why I ended up closest to the door in the back, stuck in the crowd. The same thing I had tried to avoid.

Some Indian men were sitting behind me, and another Indian man standing in front – and there was no space between – not even a single paper sheet… They were all young guys, and at first, it felt ok. We were so used to having men staring at us we hardly even noticed anymore. Groping was so far nothing we had experienced, they had always kept their distance.

Well, except for that time we went to try on saris then…

One of the men sitting behind me all of a sudden thought it prudent to push his foot up between my legs and the one in front noticed a marvelous opportunity to finally realize his long dream of groping a slutty white woman. If I’m sounding bitter here, it’s because I am. This is one of the worst experiences of my life, so it’s kind of hard writing about it neutrally… even though many years have passed since.

In desperation I wondered if he even knew the meaning of  “No problem”.

The man in front of me had prudently enough both his arms free, while mine were stuck in the crowd and I couldn’t move. He touched my breasts, as they didn’t at all belong to me, but were something anyone had access and right to. Several times I screamed at them both to leave me alone, to no use. The man in front of me parroted the phrase: “No problem!” while nodding his head smiling.

I couldn’t push them off or smack them.

I couldn’t move – not even wiggle my fingers! This is how crowded the bus was. All I could do was scream out loud, which nobody seemed to care about anyway.

When the man in front of me grabbed my nipples through my bra, started rolling, and rubbing them, the Austrian guy we were travelling with tried to help me with aiming to hit the guy. But even he was stuck in the crowd, so it didn’t really help…

After a rather long while (don’t know how long) the bus finally stopped and we rushed out – I was first out of course. The Austrian guy started pounding the Indian guy and while a tumultuous brawl broke out I quickly as a weasel rushed up on the roof in pure panic.

And then I refused to get back down.

My travel buddies joined me up on the roof and this time the bus conductor was forced to give up. We did not come back down again, and even though it was illegal he let us sit up there for the rest of the trip.

This is one of the worst experiences in my life. I felt so helpless… To not even be able to defend myself…

charnette woman pointing on a bomb scared bus in india travel like a local
The bus between Pushkar and Jaipur, India – no connection to the story at all…

Travel like a local Asia: Bus,


My travel buddy Helena and I was on our way on public transport – a bus – to Flores. Public transport with hard seats, of course, where Helena and I were the only tourists. The only air-condition was the lack of glass in the windows, so the wind could blow straight through the bus. Lovely.

Especially considering it was permitted to smoke on the buses, completely without consideration.

The story started already on the station waiting to leave. We were idling for about an hour before we actually drove anywhere. In Asia, it’s not that big of a deal – idling – not like back home, where it’s only allowed up to 1 minute…

So, after about an hour we were off. Or at least that’s what we thought anyway. It turned out the bus was only driving around the station building to pick some random person up standing on the back of the building waiting.

After that, we returned to the original spot for some more idling. Ok…?

women on a train in indonesia travel local
Two happy girls on a 1st class train to Java, Indonesia.

This should’ve been the first sign this trip was to be anything but normal, but we didn’t see it coming… yet… Finally, we were off. The trip would take all night, we knew that. The driver wanted some cozy atmosphere so he turned on his favourite cassette (yes, cassette!) with local pop/rock music. On maximum volume!

We started to realise this would be a very long night.

And soon we noticed one of the songs was playing a little more often than others. Why? Because this song was recorded 4 times on this cassette (and this I discovered when I later actually bought the cassette to bring back home. Yes, if you’re brainwashed you are!).

On one occasion I went up to the driver to ask who the singer was, and got the self-explanatory answer:


Oh, well, but ok, that guy! Obviously!

We tried to get some rest for a while, like sleeping inside a disco. After a few hours, we were so tired and started having nervous laugh attacks. We were laughing with tears streaming down our faces, but in the end, we managed to fall asleep from pure exhaustion, like little babies.

All of a sudden we wake up – everything dead quiet around. The bus was standing still and was completely empty but for us two. What? Had we arrived? Why had nobody woken us up? In surprise, we looked around but became none the wiser.

It was pitch black outside, so even though we peeked through the glassless windows we saw nothing. Slowly and carefully we stepped outside to look around, to get an inkling of what was going on. We were in the middle of nowhere – in the jungle – and the bus was parked somewhat sloppy, halfway down the ditch.

Had we been in an accident? Were we in fact dead? Had we been hurled into a dystopian world?

Suddenly we hear distant sounds from the dense forest and immediately knew what was up. It was all cool, it was just prayer time.


There wasn’t much to do other than to wait for the rest of the passengers to finish their business in the mosque. When done they entered the bus and pretended shamelessly as if nothing had happened. And then the trip went on.

So, alas, we arrived at our destination at last! Tired and completely worn out. And we simply loved this song with the man from Timor… that is the craziest thing in the whole story!

moni volcano lakes seen from above, indonesia
On the trip back to Bali we took the flight and got to see Kelimutu from above.

This was a funny incident. Many bus trips in Indonesia were just funny, in that they were often on the hysterical side of things…

Sometimes I miss the times when travelling like a local in Asia, today I’m most travelling flash-flash if possible. I’m blaming my claustrophobia for this. Of course, it’s slightly to blame, but that isn’t the whole truth. The truth is I’ve probably with age grown more comfortable and more introverted (how that is even possible!?).

It is somewhat easier to keep your distance from people while travelling 1st class… that’s for sure… for better or worse…


Have you been travelling like a local in Asia? What are your impressions? Is that the only way to travel? Please leave a comment!

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