For the backpacker in India, public buses come at a convenient hierarchy of choices – cheap, convenient but slow, crowded. Below public buses is hiring a car / taxi – extremely expensive but you are in control. Above that comes the train – comfortable, reliable but you can’t just get on board, you need to reserve – 90 days in advance in most cases.
But bus travel solves many problems – just get on board; get off anywhere you feel like; choose comfort levels between basic buses (wooden crates left over from the mango season) to super luxury buses (Volvo machines with soft cushions, super cool air conditioners et al).
Of course, doing bus travel for journeys beyond 7-8 hours is painful. For this trains are better. Of course, if one has a lot of time, one take always get off a bus, take a break and then take the next bus forward.
My experiences of traveling by public buses have spanned the entire spectrum. Back in college days, one went to Pilani from Delhi for a college tour. The mode of transport was a Haryana Roadways tin crate originating from Delhi’s ISBT. A 7 hour drive in those days, c 1993. The classic stereotype of traveling with chickens, various bunches of greens, etc accompanied by raucous conversations of honest citizens belonging to the local dominant ethnic profiles were manifest.
My general perception is that public buses i.e. ones run by state corporations are better managed in Maharashtra and South India than north – Madhya Pradesh northwards. Even without actually boarding a bus, one can get a sense by looking at the state of repair that the vehicles demonstrate.
From recent memory, my experiences have been in Madhya Pradesh (an overnight bus ride from Gwalior to Delhi), Goa (North to South, South to North), Maharashtra (Konkan, Mumbai-Pune, etc), Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
In Vijayawada, I found one of the best maintained bus stations
|Vijayawada Bus Stand
The criticality of Vijayawada from a logistics point of view is immense. It is crossroad between three routes – Chennai – Kolkata, Bangalore – Kolkata and Hyderabad – Chennai / Kolkata. The buses here virtually go all over India. It is also the point of orientation to go to the historic port town of Machilipatnam. To have a well managed, clean and user friendly bus station is definitely a big achievement.
But bus stations in south India pose one big problem – signboards in local languages. Whether it be the big new bus stand in Hubli or the one in Vijayawada, there is absolutely no chance decoding any information from the signboards in the station or on the bus. Fortunately, Hindi is understood by all. And even if the local staff members can’t speak it, they communicate effectively using sign language.
|Hubli Bus Stand
In Hubli specifically, the staff members could speak a little bit of English as well. So I was able to locate the exact spot from where buses to Badami were available. Hubli incidentally serves as an excellent base point to tour north Karnataka. It is an overnight bus ride from Mumbai and from Hubli one can get NWKRTC buses to anywhere from Karwar to Hyderabad to Hospet to Hampi to Bangalore.
You cannot avoid crowds in buses. In Goa, there are state run buses that typically operate shuttles between the big towns like Margao, Panjim, Mapusa, etc. Like a hub and spoke model, from these main towns, mini buses operated by private parties take people to small villages in the interiors or on the coast. These mini buses are just too small. During the day time when everyone is outside going to work (including tourists who need to reach the beach well in time to get the best positioned deck chairs) the buses can become a corridor of elbows, like the photograph below.
If you are in south India or in Maharashtra, I do recommend buses. For more information, you can check out http://www.redbus.in or the websites of the state transport corporations of Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.