Chinatown Buses: Now Less Thrilling?

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  05.30.07 | 8:52 AM ET

imageWhen we first posted about the Fung Wah Chinatown buses in 2002, the line hadn’t yet reached its cult status among budget travelers as a cheap but safety-challenged option along the Boston-Washington D.C. corridor. Word of mouth among travelers, a string of unfortunate incidents—a flipped bus and a fire among them—and an in-depth story in the Washington Post have since brought the buses into greater renown, and now it looks like Fung Wah may start acting a little more like a mature travel citizen.

Fung Wah, according to USA Today’s Rick Hampson, has hired a transportation consultant and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates interstate bus companies, says the line has improved its safety record. 

Regulators, competitors and some travelers, however, remain skeptical. “At the beginning, the media laughed at our warnings (about Chinatown carriers). That’s not true now,” Bob Schwarz, a vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines, told Hampson. “The good news is that nobody’s been killed. The bad news is that it’s only a matter of time.”

Still, the lure of $15 one-way trips from New York City to Boston or $20 from New York to Washington D.C.—and the often thrilling experiences that go with them—have made many other travelers embrace the Chinatown bus lines.

I spoke to Colleen Clark, the co-author of Pulse Guides Night + Day D.C (and my former colleague), who reports that she and her fellow Chinatown bus-loving friends have even gone so far as to have a “Chinatown bus-off” in a Brooklyn bar. 

“The stories were hilarious,” said Clark, who earned a Jack and Coke for the sheer volume of her outrageous Chinatown bus stories. “One kid’s bus broke down on the ramp near Baltimore and the guy next to him looked really nervous. As the cops pulled up to help the bus, a vegetable truck also pulled up and the guy jumped off the bus, ran and sped away in the veggie truck.”

Clark recalled other stories from the Chinatown bus-off:

My ex once had his bus drive off the highway into a cornfield in Jersey. The bus stopped. Out of the corn walked a Chinese man, who handed the driver a brown paper bag. The Chinese man walked back into the corn and they drove on.

Another friend’s bus broke down and they refused to send another one, so she ended up hitchhiking off the turnpike into Harlem.

As for me, I lost the ripped sheet of loose-leaf paper on which my supposed seat number was written. The woman alternated between screaming at me in Engrish and doing a bona fide standup routine in Mandarin. Then she made me go sit in the back of the bus.

On the upside, Clark says, she’s gotten three dates from traveling on Chinatown buses. She says: “Something about roughing it in unairconditioned, bathroom-malfunctioning, third-world transportation seems to spell romance.”

Related on World Hum:
* Inside ‘The Most Schizophrenic Job in All of Travel’
* Enough With the Superjumbo Jets. How About a Superjumbo Bus?
* ‘You Look Like You Could Use Someone To Talk To On This 5-Hour Bus Ride’

Photo by spinachdip via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

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