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Chinatown Bus Lines are a Budget Traveler’s Dream

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A Guide to the Chinatown Bus

The word is out—the cheapest way to get from one major U.S. city to another is on the “Chinatown bus”. In recent years this has become transportation option of choice for budget travelers in New York, Washington DC, and Boston, and more recently on the West Coast. Students, backpackers, and an array of other savvy travelers have long loved the rock bottom prices that these bus companies offer. Despite the popularity of these bus lines it can still be difficult to find information on Chinatown bus service.
What exactly is a “Chinatown Bus”? Read on and you will have the inside track on this great budget travel option.

Chinatown Bus history

The Chinatown bus phenomenon began in the late 1990s when an entrepreneur in New York’s Chinatown started running daily bus service from Chinatown in New York to Chinatown in Boston. The service was aimed at Asian immigrants who wanted to shop or visit relatives in either city and needed cheap and convenient transportation. The service was bare bones—no advertising, customer service, or bus stations. Customers simply went to the bus stop, waited for the bus (or van), and paid the driver upon boarding. For those willing to do without frills, they offered virtually the same service as traditional bus companies at a substantially lower price. Before long, the word spread and all kinds of people started using the service. It became especially popular with students, budget travelers, or people for whom the service was simply more convenient.

Soon more bus companies duplicated this model and started offering service in other cities. Now you can find this type of bus service in Philadelphia, Virginia, Baltimore Washington DC, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. At this point the term “Chinatown bus” is used more loosely to describe this sort of low-cost/low-frills service. Many, if not most, of the companies do not have Chinatown as their main location and may not cater to the immigrant population at all. These operators are also sometimes referred to as “curbside” operators.

How can tickets be so cheap?

$15 between New York to Boston? $25 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles? It seems hard to fathom. Chinatown bus companies are able to keep prices low because they operate in a fundamentally different way from traditional carriers. Foremost, the service is very basic. There is little in the way of customer service or amenities. Most of these operators do not have formal stations, picking up passengers at bus stops instead. They eschew traditional advertising in favor of word of mouth. Further, many of the operators play a very hands-on role in the operation—you will not see idle executives at a small independent bus company. Finally, these operators make sure they fill their buses. That is why Chinatown bus operators usually only operate on heavily trafficked routes. Indeed some companies only run buses at peak times.

Are they safe?

When these companies first started operating, concerns were raised about safety standards. There is still controversy within the bus industry about whether these newcomers are complying with the same regulations as the traditional companies. However, a task force set up by the Federal government to look at safety issues found that Chinatown bus companies did not perform better or worse than other types of bus companies (ie. charter, tour buses). All bus companies operating in the U.S. must undergo the same inspection standards and must comply with the same rules. Realistically there is probably a range of quality among Chinatown bus carriers. Some are fly-by-night operators trying to make a fast buck, while others are legitimate entrepreneurs who plan to grow and operate a long term business.

What you should expect

  • No frills service—the driver may be the ticket collector; there will not be a lot of customer service.
  • Comfortable buses. Despite the low fares buses are usually quite nice. Most buses are comparable to Greyhound and many are actually more deluxe.
  • Communication challenges. Drivers are legally required to speak enough English to help passengers in the case of emergency. In reality this is often adhered to rather loosely. At the very least, expect your driver to have an accent.
  • Possible delays. Many of these bus routes are on highly congested roads. When the roads are busy, expect delays.
  • Rest stops. Buses will have a lavatory on board but there is usually a 10 or 15 minute bathroom break on trips over 4 hours. Don’t be late returning to the bus, the driver will not count heads before leaving at the appointed time.
  • Full buses. Buses definitely sell out at peak times (weekends and evenings). Book ahead or get there early if you want secure a seat.
  • Plastic Bags. An odd little quirk on Chinatown buses is that every aisle seat usually has a plastic grocery bag tied to the arm. I guess they find this is the best way to keep the buses clean.

How do I find the Chinatown Bus?

Again, “Chinatown bus” is a term used to describe a type of operator and not an individual bus company. Many unrelated bus companies fall into this category. Since most Chinatown buses do not spend money on advertising it can be difficult to find out details about schedules and bus stop locations. Many of the carriers are becoming savvier about the Internet and quite a few have websites with information. Usually an Internet search will yield links to bus service to your destination. There are also several directories, such as chinatown-bus.org that include links for most Chinatown bus companies and the author’s employer, GotoBus.com, is a centralized booking site that has schedules and sells tickets online for most Chinatown bus companies.

The Chinatown bus is not for everyone. If you want an orderly system with American style customer service, you should probably stick to traditional carriers. However, if you know what to expect and come prepared with a sense of adventure and humor, you should enjoy the trip just fine. You will also enjoy the money you save!

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Beyond the hype, a dirty side of Da Lat

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Most of this is true, but that’s not the only local reality where things get pretty ugly, too. Unless this reality is recognized and seriously addressed, Da Lat will lose its charm and become a shadow of itself.

Here’s an unflattering picture of the other side.

When walking or running on a sidewalk around Xuan Huong Lake in Da Lat in the early morning, at a certain point you can no longer stay on the sidewalk. One is forced to walk or run into the street as there can be up to ten street kitchens completely blocking sidewalk access. Going out on a street at night can be a bit dangerous as there are quite a number of drunk drivers on the road at night, some driving at speeds well in excess of 120km/h.

These street vendors sell food and drink in plastic bowls and cups. Plastic waste is scattered about a hundred meters in front of and behind their stands. Food and drink thrown away or spilled on sidewalks and streets is a common sight.

Because food safety isn’t monitored regularly, or because people might be very drunk, it’s also not uncommon to see vomit on sidewalks. Open stool and urination is a regular occurrence in the early hours of the morning.

There are many signs along the lake advising that making fires is forbidden, but the street vendors completely ignore them. Many tourists from warmer parts of Vietnam easily come to Da Lat in shorts and T-shirts, despite the colder weather. Street vendors want these visitors to stay warm so they stay longer and buy more food and drink. Sidewalks are often blackened with ash from these staying-warm fires.

When I was photographing these fires, a street vendor threatened to stab me with scissors several times. Some vendors started throwing rocks. A man tried to grab my walking stick and the cell phone I use to take pictures. I reported these incidents to the police but they took no action.

These charcoal fires release many deadly toxins such as PM2.5, carbon monoxide and benzene. When street vendors run out of charcoal, some start burning plastic waste. Burning plastic waste releases dioxins and other highly toxic substances. A piece of dioxin the size of a grain of rice is enough to poison a million people.

To keep their customers happy, some street vendors sell beer and other alcoholic beverages. Some install large speakers so their customers can sing and make lots of noise when they get totally drunk. Not infrequently, the karaoke singing continues until 4 a.m. and can be heard up to two miles away. Although the law prohibits singing karaoke after 10:30 p.m., this law is not enforced around Xuan Huong Lake. Once I heard karaoke singing in three different places around the lake, all blaring at the same time.

Almost everything I have described so far represents laws that are constantly being broken. But why don’t street vendors and their customers obey the law when it’s clearly stated on signs in the area?

The answer is simple.

Laws are not enforced. I have more than 12,000 pictures on my files of breaking the law in this city that gets dirty and ugly quite often, but I didn’t see a fine being issued when I called the police to intervene — not once.

A policeman explained it to me in a somewhat pompous way. If the police consistently enforce laws, it would infuriate many people, and with many angry people out and about, the country’s stability would be undermined and civil unrest could ensue.

The same officer went on to explain that if the police strictly enforce the law, things could get out of hand very quickly. People could become violent, and if the police hit back to defend themselves, controversy would ensue.

Police Policing

With a huge police force and militia, Vietnam has everything it needs to counter the violence and maintain political stability. So what’s the problem?

For many years, the police in Division 8 themselves have blatantly flouted the laws about dumping trash, throwing cigarette butts on the ground, and burning garbage. They even ran a fire pit on police property.

How can the police enforce laws when they themselves break them all the time?

On October 31, I informed a senior police officer in Da Lat that I have over 12,000 pictures of people breaking laws – laws related to setting fires on sidewalks, burning trash, dumping trash, dumping of waste and fishing in the filthy waters of Da Lat Xuan Huong Lake and its stinking lagoons, singing karaoke until 4 a.m., binge drinking, drunk driving, high speed motorcycle racing and so on.

I was surprised when he explained that I should not photograph people breaking the law unless their lawlessness directly impacted my safety and well-being.

Surely it is every citizen’s duty to record violations of the law and report them to law enforcement?

Even when someone threatened me with violence, he advised me not to take photos and to report the person to the police unless I had stab wounds or other injuries.

I was stunned.

I think the government needs to be much more serious about enforcing its most basic safety and environmental laws. If it doesn’t, it won’t be able to tackle far bigger things like the impact of global warming, carbon neutrality and sustainable development.

Photos by Paul A. Olivier of public waste in Da Lat:

*Paul A. Olivier is an American expat living and working in Da Lat.



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How two Hyderabadi 3D artists are popularizing city’s flyovers, roads, buildings at global level

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Kodak Moment: How two 3D artists from Hyderabadi are popularizing overpasses, roads and city buildings on a global scale

Hyderabad: For most of us, photography means clicking photos of a beautiful sunset, landscape or people. But Laxman Pithani and Nikhil Chakravarthy from Hyderabad are crazy about new buildings, roads, highways, flyovers and other infrastructure projects in the city.

“When you’re driving on a newly constructed freeway, with not many vehicles and hardly anyone to stop you or ask you anything, you have a kind of absolute freedom. We both enjoy it,” says Nikhil.

Laxman and Nikhil jointly run a Twitter and YouTube page, Traveling with Laxman, where they post videos and photos of newly constructed or inaugurated flyovers, roads and buildings. They have released drone footage of the Uppal SkyWalk project, the renovated Yadagirigutta Temple, Gandipet Park, the Biodiversity Flyover and more.

Laxman (left) and Nikhil (right) at the recently inaugurated Shilpa layout transition

Her most recent work was the transition of the Shilpa layout. When the city witnessed their first Formula E racing event, they were there to capture the track on which the race took place. On their Twitter Page Travel with Laxman, they have around 2,806 followers and on their youtube Page they have around 57,000 subscribers.

Transition of the Shilpa layout

It’s not about the end product. But Laxman and Nikhil began pursuing infrastructure projects in the city from the start. “If there are upcoming projects, we consult the person concerned and get detailed information about it. We shoot it from start to finish,” says Laxman.

In this way, it helps the audience to keep up to date with the progress of these projects.

T hub

When Laxman met Nikhil

Laxman is originally from Hyderabad but Nikhil is from Tenali in Andhra Pradesh. He moved to Hyderabad in 2002. Both met in 2007 in an animation institute `Arena; where they served as 3D training faculty. Here they taught the students how to use animation techniques in films and character forms. They later moved on to teach interior design at the same institute. In 2015 they both joined Custom Furnish, a company specializing in interior design, where they worked as 3D artists. In 2019, Nikhil left and Laxman continued for another year and a half before retiring in 2021.

Durgam Cheruvu Bridge

Ever since they met, they have discovered their shared passion for travel. Your definition of travel sounds very unique and interesting. “We both love to explore unknown roads. I can drive straight for 10 hours without thinking about the destination. We used to always discover new roads, overpasses, buildings, etc. on such trips, which fascinated us a lot. Each specific destination where nobody bothered us gave us a different kind of freedom,” explains Nikhil.

Until December 2021, Laxman and Nikhil were doing this as a part-time job. But in December 2021 both resigned and started doing so full-time.

Her work is now also being recognized by the Telangana government, which is asking for her help in getting photos of some of the infrastructure projects in the city.

Command and Control Center, Banjara Hills

Development in Hyderabad

Both Laxman and Nikhil say the pace of development in Hyderabad has been very fast compared to other cities. “I was born here, so I’m really excited to see the city developing at this pace,” says Laxman. Nikhil adds: “Something happens every week that it just can’t keep up with this speed. For example, the other day when the Shilpa layout flyover was inaugurated, on the same day Skyroot Aerospace’s private rocket was launched from Sriharikota.”

transfer of biodiversity

In addition to updating townspeople on the development, Travel with Laxman now allows many expatriate Hyderabadis to regain their lost connection with the city. “We have people calling from places like the United States and telling us they’re excited about how their city is doing,” says Laxman.

Renovated Yadadrigutta Temple

The duo are happy to be able to fill this gap faced by Hyderabadis living elsewhere.



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Wedding of the week: Lovebirds elope on a Balinese beach following three months of top secret planning

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Jamie Hart, 36, and Daniel Sutton, 44

Western Australian senior graphic designer Jamie and welder Daniel always knew their wedding should be small and intimate, but they also wanted an element of surprise.

The couple, who met online in March 2021, had planned a trip to Indonesia and made the spur of the moment decision to elope because why not? They were too excited to wait a year to tie the knot, so they turned their engagement party into a secret wedding celebration.

After legally signing the papers at The Old Tower House in Perth a week earlier, Jamie and Daniel said ‘yes, I do’ in Bali, with Daniel honorably taking Jamie’s maiden name, Hart.

Jamie Hart and Daniel Sutton get married on the beach in Bali.
camera iconJamie Hart and Daniel Sutton get married on the beach in Bali. Recognition: Srivijaya Stories

When and where

The big day took place on October 22, 2022 on the white sandy beaches of the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa.

Jamie and Daniel's big day in Nusa Dua, Bali.
camera iconJamie and Daniel’s big day in Nusa Dua, Bali. Recognition: Srivijaya Stories

a dress

Jamie’s dress of choice, Morilee, was by New York bridal designer Madeline Gardner.

Jamie's dress was a stunning Madeline Gardner piece.
camera iconJamie’s dress was a stunning Madeline Gardner piece. Recognition: Srivijaya Stories

honeymoon

There was no need to travel to their honeymoon destination as the newlyweds were already there! They celebrated in Nusa Dua, Ubud, Seminyak and Canggu.

Jamie and Daniel started their honeymoon in Bali.
camera iconJamie and Daniel started their honeymoon in Bali. Recognition: Srivijaya Stories

If you would like to be featured, send your wedding details and high resolution photos to [email protected]

Add details about when, where, dress information, honeymoon and anything that made your big day special!

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