Friday, April 28, 2006

A Bus Trip

In recent years, bus service in Bangladesh has improved. Recently I travelled Dhaka-Sylhet-Dhaka by private bus. I was amazed at the high quality.

Planning the trip, I called various bus companies and Shohag appeared the most courteous and professional. Yes, they had many busses from Dhaka to Sylhet, what time would I like to leave, etc. Then the surprising question, "Would you like to travel by Business Class or Economy Class sir?" The prices were Tk 600 ($9) and 400 ($6) respectively so I said why not, this is the time to splurge.

When I got to the "terminal" at my "reporting time" and on to my assigned seat A1, a comfortably wide seat in front of the bus with at least 3 feet of legroom, I found a small pillow that appeared stuck on the seatback, uncomfortably behind by top vertebrum. I could not dislodge it and so asked for help. No problem: an ingenious sliding mechanism, using sewn-in ribbons, allowed the pillow to be slid up to behind the seatback.

In addition to the reclining seatback I also had a foot rest that popped out, an airline-like swivelling LCD TV (Business class exclusive), a massage system (which I could not get to work) and headphone audio system (which was also dicey.) Like planes, there was a mesh pocket attached to the back of the seat in front (in my case, on a panel in the front.) There were reading lights and individually controllable AC vents.

A "flight attendant" accompanied us and made several excruciatingly polite announcements in Bangla. My favorite one was when we arrived at our only break and pit-stop when he said "I hope my dear passengers will be able to satisfy all their needs at this stop." As in go to the bathroom.

Oh yeah, the bus had no bathroom. That was the only drawback. But that one stop it made halfway into the 5-hour trip was enough. Of course if you have diarrhoea you are dead.

Shortly after starting the attendant stuffed bottled water, a Cola can, a packet of crackers and two AlpenLiebe candies (Indian version of Werther's) into the mesh pocket.

The attendant also sprayed air-freshener a few times up and down the bus, near the floor. So, no odor problems.

There was a 15"(?) TV mounted on the top where they showed Bangladeshi programs. I enjoyed a program showing the "best of" Close-Up talent contest (though the headset jacks needed to be prodded often.) They also showed Mr. Bean episodes plus some dramas. But no Hindi stuff. However, the LCD monitor in Business Class had a second channel where they showed Bollywood.

All the Shohag employees were smartly dressed in beige shirts, ties and black pants. Most were polite but good salespeople at the same time.

The ride was ok, although the driver was quite generous with his honking (loud and shrill) and with tailgating and swerving around vehicles in front. The horn of this monster bus has a special sound that warns everyone in front to get out of the way.

The trip to Sylhet, estimated to be 4.5 hours, took five. On the way back the journey took 7.5 hours because we were stuck at Jatrabari (entrance to Dhaka) for about 3 hours. (Ugh. How I hate Jatrabari.)

Before the AC busses, passengers had suffered mightily over the years because of the difficulty in obtaining tickets for Biman or Railways (usually graft-related.) Now Biman and Rail tickets are no problem, because competition from busses have straightened them out.

Short of actually flying, these busses have emulated (with success) airline service every step of the way. In addition to the cabin service, they issue airline-like tickets and a check-in service with luggage tags for checking in larger bags into the bus belly.

Years ago, when my wife and I were travelling in Mexico, we were surprised by their assigned seating busses and polite service and wondered by Bangladeshi busses could not provide better service. No more - world-class bus service has come to Bangladesh.

I congratulate those who made these high-quality busses happen. The in-depth thought to every bit of customer experience shows in the meticulous execution.

Now, please tell your drivers to drive a little more carefully on the highway, ok? Oh yeah, what's with the ugly pink color?

Here is the bus:

And here is the view from inside: