We might just die on a bus in Tamil Nadu. According to my Pocket Earth app, we are flying along this crowded country road at 65 kph. The driver is leaning on the horn and eschewing the brake as though Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are on board, frantically attempting to disarm a bomb. Either we’re going to get to Salem early or… not at all.
Two days ago, the driver on our bus was in no rush at all, meandering through dusty villages as though the 40 or so passengers had signed up for a scenic journey of Tamil Nadu’s backroads. He also had a penchant for ear-splitting Indian pop music that, through the filter of the cheap bus speakers and my stuffed-up sinuses, served as a drill into the centre of my already aching brain.
Though he was in no rush, that driver also conducted an intimate affair with the bus horn, which was tuned to the same ear-splitting frequency as the music.
The state bus in Tamil Nadu is just like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
Before we took our first bus in Tamil Nadu, it seemed that navigating the confusing and apparently disorganized bus system would be an impossibility. Turns out, once you get the hang of it, it’s the easiest (and by far the cheapest) way to travel around Tamil Nadu.
We’re saying nothing for the comfort, but if you want a true local experience, the bus in Tamil Nadu is the place to get it.
Don’t miss the rest of our Tamil Nadu guides:
Tamil Nadu Hotels and Restaurants: Where to Sleep and Eat in South India →
A Traveller’s Guide to Shopping in Chennai →
A Traveler’s Guide To Using The Autorickshaws in Chennai →
9 Ways Traveling In India Will Surprise You →
The Complete Guide to Riding the Bus in Tamil Nadu
Where are You Going?
Of course, if you want to ride the bus, you probably already have a destination in mind.
The tough part here is to learn to pronounce the name of your destination so that other people will understand you. We usually talked to the people working at our hotel about our destination so we could find out how the word was pronounced by the locals.
Be aware that many popular locations have multiple names and even nicknames that are more widely used than the real name. In the case of Pondicherry and Tiruchirappalli, “Pondy” and “Trichy” will get you with much less tongue-twisting.
Tamil Nadu Bus Schedules
Having just left Northern Europe, we were slightly obsessed with schedules when we arrived in Tamil Nadu. Frustratingly, whenever we asked about bus timetables in Tamil Nadu, people were vague, saying the bus leaves “all the time”.
On our first trip on the bus in Tamil Nadu — from Chennai’s T Nagar station to Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram) — this vagueness left us standing on the sweaty and smelly bus station platform for almost three hours. Not a great start!
On the next couple of bus rides, we thought we got really lucky, hopping onto the right bus just as it was leaving the station. Then we realized that’s because Tamil Nadu buses actually do run ALL THE TIME. After that first time in Chennai, we never waited for more than 10 minutes (and usually less than 5) for our bus.
Incidentally, we learned later that we could have taken one of many busses to the Mamallapuram bypass, which would have gotten us about 2 km from the city, where we would have hopped into an autorickshaw for the remaining journey. Busses rarely go directly into Mamallapuram but they leave for the bypass all the time. No one told us that as we waited and waited on the platform that day but now you know. You’re welcome.
Pro tip for riding the bus in Tamil Nadu: Limit your bus rides to 3 or 4 hours. Any longer than that and your body and mind may never recover.
Finding Your Bus in Tamil Nadu
Unless you read Tamil, finding your bus in Tamil Nadu requires a lot of conversation.
The bus stations are a chaos of noise and fumes and people milling about between creaking old busses. There are numbered bus stands like you’d see in any Western bus station but they’re hardly ever used. Instead, you board the bus as it’s pulling through the station.
To figure out which of the dozens of busses sitting around is the one you want, look for any man dressed in a brown Tamil Nadu state bus uniform. They usually carry a beige satchel containing bus tickets and cash.
This is where your carefully practiced pronunciation comes in handy. If you are met with a blank stare, try a few different pronunciations of your destination until you come up with one that does the trick. The conductor will wave their hand, in that vague Indian way, to show you the general direction you should go. Walk in the direction indicated and then find another conductor and ask again.
Repeat until you find a conductor who waves you on board a waiting bus.
Getting a Good Seat on the Bus in Tamil Nadu
One thing you can be sure about on Tamil Nadu busses is that they are always (always!) full. Even though most bus routes seem to leave every 10 minutes or so, there is an endless stream of people to fill said busses. Every bus we took was standing-room only. You do not want to stand on the bus in Tamil Nadu!!
Here are our tips for getting a good seat on Tamil Nadu busses.
- Get on at the first stop (usually the local bus station), even if it means going out of your way.
- Try to figure out which side will be the prevailing sunny side and then sit on the opposite side. A sunny window seat will fry your brain. If most of the passengers are seated on one side of the bus, you can be pretty sure that will be the shady side.
- Look for the bus speakers. Sit as far away from them as possible since drivers often blast irritatingly shrill pop music for the entire drive.
- Don’t sit in the back few rows. Those are the most painful seats.
- If you’re a single woman, don’t sit next to a man. A single man should not sit next to a woman. On the Tamil Nadu busses, non-couples sit segregated by gender, with women generally occupying the seats near the front of the bus and men at the back. A couple can sit almost anywhere, but usually we ended up in the middle of the bus.
Pro tip for riding the bus in Tamil Nadu: Don’t sit in the very back row of the bus. These are the bone-breaker seats. Stephen ended up with a sore back for about a week after sitting in the back seat for a few hours.
Stowing Your Luggage on the Bus in Tamil Nadu
For reasons we couldn’t fathom, locals never seem to carry much with them on the bus. Maybe a purse or a small backpack, but nobody had luggage, even if they were travelling long distances. It was a squeeze to fit my very small carry-on in the racks above the seats and Stephen’s larger hard-sided bag had no hope of getting up there.
We could sometimes squeeze Stephen’s case under our seats but it was always an arduous exercise in spatial relations.
Another option is to leave your suitcase or backpack near the front of the bus and trust in the kind-heartedness of Tamil Nadu locals to look after it. We did this a couple of times and had absolutely no problem — contrary to the report of high theft rates we’d heard about in other parts of India.
Buying a Ticket on the Bus in Tamil Nadu
Once you’ve grabbed a seat and found somewhere to put your bag, you’ll need to get a ticket. This is the easiest part of riding the bus in Tamil Nadu.
After the journey begins, the conductor will start pushing his way through the bus, stopping at each seat to sell tickets. Just tell him where you’re going and give him the money. Bus prices in Tamil Nadu are impossibly low (our most expensive bus ride was 4 USD for the two of us!). Small bills are a good idea, though the conductor usually carries a wad of change and will not try to short-change you.
Keeping Track of Where You Are
There were several times when we weren’t 100% sure the bus we’d boarded was going to the right place. Most times, we had no idea when we would arrive.
Enter Pocket Earth, the app we rave about constantly to everyone who will listen.
If you have an iPhone or a 3G-enabled iPad without cell service, you can use Pocket Earth to tell you where you are. The GPS chip inside your device works even if you are offline, and Pocket Earth’s maps are stored on your phone, so it doesn’t require internet to work. I love using it to see where we’re going, to find out the names of towns we’re passing through, and to figure out when we’re nearing our destination.
It’s a great way to reassure yourself that your are on the right bus and that you won’t miss your stop!
I don’t know how we ever travelled without it.
What to Bring on the Bus in Tamil Nadu
- Plenty of water. These busses are not air-conditioned and you will need to hydrate a LOT. There are no toilets of course, so make sure you go before you leave.
- Earplugs are essential to block out the painful in-bus music and the constant blasting of the bus horn.
- Looking out the window for hours on end can get pretty boring and reading is almost impossible on the bumpy twisty roads of Tamil Nadu. Listen to audio books, podcasts, or music to help pass the time and whisk you away to a less chaotic place.
- Plenty of vendors board the bus at major stops along the way, so if you’re ready and willing to try street snacks, don’t worry about bringing your own. If you’re a little more picky about what you eat, bring your own snacks so you can join in when the whole bus is doing snack time.
- You will not get efficiency or any comfort on Tamil Nadu busses — so bring your sense of humour. You’ll need it once the novelty wears off!
Arriving at the Bus Stand
Arguably the most joyous and easiest part of the Tamil Nadu bus ride is arriving at your destination. The bus will let you off at the central bus station (called the “bus stand” in India). In most cities, the best hotels in town are arranged near the bus station, so you can start the daily hotel search within minutes of getting off the bus.
Unlike in other places around the world, some of the Tamil Nadu’s best food can be found in and around the bus station, so don’t be afraid to eat there, too.
It might sound a little bit crazy to ride the bus in Tamil Nadu when you can hire a private driver for budget rates. But for us, it was a huge part of our cultural experience in the country and we wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Have you ridden the state bus in Tamil Nadu? How about in other parts of India? Was your experience similar to ours or very different? Let us know in the comments.