“Where is the bus stop?!” I yelled into the dark cacophony of street sounds littered with diffused shop front lights, just before midnight. In India bus stops are on random street corners in the dirt, next to dumpsters and usually surrounded with the bleakly impoverished and five random guys in everyday street clothes, who all seem to be in charge.
Jaipur to Rishikesh India. We’d just finished filming the extravagance of the Gem Palace (Crew Episode at the Gem Palace) in Jaipur. On our tight schedule we needed to keep moving at night to film the Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh (Full Sleeper Bus Episode) the next day and get back to Delhi for our flight. We also needed to sleep. Our strategy, rent a pod on an all night sleeper bus to Rishikesh. Something we’ve never done before. Our producer Brian Leitten found the option online, just when we were about to give up (having exhausted all flight, taxi and train options) and it seemed like a solid plan, plus, we’d saved on the cost of a room!
“This way sir. This way sir. No problem.” Says a seemingly in charge Indian leading me around the corner to a group of busses that appear to whimsiclay come and go. I looked back at the rest of our film crew, Brian getting out of the car and Viv bluntly indicating she will get out when the bus is identified without question (it’s like she’s done this circus before).
Indians are extremely helpful, however, not always in the right direction. I have a feeling this guy is leading me to a random bus.
“You stand here. Bus will come.” He grins a grill of white teeth. “The bus to Rishikesh”?
“Yes sir.” He adds a head bobble to his permanent smile.
“Ok. Thanks.” I reply and he watches perplexed as I walk away.
“The bus isn’t here yet. It’s apparently coming soon.” I help Viv and Brian with our luggage as a bus swoops by us and around the corner.
“That’s ours!” Brian yells over the diesel engines and street hustlers (thank goodness he has a photographic memory of Hindi characters). We lug our cameras, drones, and gear, chasing the bus.
Viv turns to me as we walk up to the bus, “I’m prepared to be underwhelmed.”
We were actually impressed! (with the first bus… the return journey was a different story)
How to book a sleeper bus.
Get on their website and it should be relatively straightforward to book a berth. We booked in the morning for a trip that night. We found Shakti the nicest sleeper and Redbus a little shabby, but still did the trick. The information below is from our ride booked with Shakti. Make sure you completely understand where the bus will pick you up and don’t second guess the location if it’s just a dumpster on the side of the street. $20 USD will get you a nice berth, but you can get cheaper than that if you are more flexible.
What’s a sleeper bus?
The bus that stopped for us was basically a double decker tour bus with a long, tall hallway sided by double stacked closed berths from front to back, often with a small ground floor seating section for riders not in for the long haul. They are single berths except for a few double berths at the back. It’s designed to take on overnight long haul passengers, however will make several stops throughout the night to pick up and drop off passengers. Your luggage is stored in compartments under the bus and at the back (or under your legs in the case of the second Redbus experience). The bus is driven by a group of Indians, who seemed to be poised for driving shifts throughout the night, passenger management, and the one guy who hung out the door most of the time yelling at cars, trucks, ox drawn carts, mopeds, pedestrians, donkeys, and bicycles, otherwise known as traffic. These guys manage the bus pretty well, keeping it clean, storing your luggage, notifying you of stops and keeping you alive as they smash on the horn all night long. Trust me, you won’t mind the horn when you understand the alternative is certain collision.
What do you do with your luggage?
When we approached the bus there seemed to be one of the drivers scurrying around the under bus luggage compartments taking luggage out, putting it back in and taking ours.
“This is going to Rishikesh, right?” We thought we would ask one more time as he literally shoved our gear into an impossible space.
“Yes sir. Of course sir.” Obligatory head bobble.
You probably want to stay with your luggage to make sure it all gets on the bus. We didn’t wait for them to close the luggage compartment. Mostly because we felt it was impossible for anyone to extract it from the conglomerate of luggage it was now in. We don’t feel the compartment was locked either. However, we felt confident with our luggage. I’m not sure why, possibly the grins and affirmative head bobbles combined with a cheery, “No problem sir.” lulled us into apathy - we were also seven days into one of the hottest road trips we’ve ever made and were all processing a bout of Giardia so anyone taking charge was welcome relief. Over a 14 hour drive through India with multiple unobserved stops of reshuffling luggage for new passengers, we did arrive with all of our luggage intact.
What are the beds like?
We didn’t know what to expect from our sleeping quarters. They are reserved and numbered so we knew which one was ours, and I have to admit I took a deep breath, as Viv said, preparing to be underwhelmed. I had a bottom pod. A thin plexiglass slider window was partially pulled back in front of a privacy curtain. I leaned down and pulled the curtain back. Subdued blue light emitted from my sleeper and I was impressed. Dual air conditioning ports were wafting cool air into the unit. It had a curtained window to the outside. I tossed my laptop bag to the end of the sleeping pod on an adequately thick matters that actually thickens on one end simulating a pillow. I slipped off my flip flops and placed them on the convenient raised rack in the pod. I slid in through the glass door, pleasantly surprised it was designed to just fit my 6 foot length and had plenty of room for my 220lbs body and bag. I closed the glass door, sitting up against the wall cushion I unpacked my laptop and plugged in my wifi hotspot. I was ready to do a little work and head to sleep. You need to bring your own linen, which was my jacket and change of clothes, which you could do in complete privacy.
What if I have to go to the toilet? Food? Water?
Being savvy travelers we always carry water and a little food with us. I suggest you do the same. Although the pods are air conditioned, you need to drink inside when it’s 90-100F heat outside in India. There are stops for food, water and the toilet, however these stops can vary from a disgusting roadside outhouse that makes it seem reasonable to squat in a field in front of everyone, to a modern convenience store. We utilized both for a toilet, but suggest getting food at the convenience store stops and not the street vendors (did I mention we were suffering from Giardia?) The stops seemed regular and timely, but not too frequent. They will make a special stop if it is an emergency, but they rather not. I asked.
Is this safe?
Viv, the female in the group, Brian and I felt it was rather safe as we slept the night separated from each other. We were never bothered or noticed any perceived threats. The drivers tend to walk up and down the aisle every so often. I’m not sure what they were doing, but I assume checking over the passengers. The real insurance for us was the locking windows and privacy curtains. Is it a safe ride? Well, that’s another question. Indian drivers are pretty solid, they tend not to go too fast (which is why 304 miles is taking 14 hours!) and are well aware of the dangers of the road. If there was an incident? I had already gone through my mind where Viv and Brian were. Fire? I was going to break my window, go to their units, smash their units and pull them out if they haven’t made it out already. A roll over? Pretty much the same plan, enter from the outside. I didn’t see any extinguishers nor break hammers for the windows, but after investigation of the seal I was pretty sure I could kick it out.
A Sleeper bus is a great option.
If you want a unique and practical solution to travelling domestically in India you can save airfare and a hotel room in a sleeper bus. Yes, you need to be a little resilient. Not every bus is the same. Some are less modern, imagine the difference between an old movie theater no one loves anymore and a modern theater. So, as Viv did, keep your expectations low and be exceptionally surprised, as I was. It really is a unique way to travel, and I found I could get more work done on the bus than I could on an economy flight.