2 February 2018: The guide book said there were hourly buses from Puducherry to Thanjavur (duration 5 hours). Great: a regular direct service. Simple hey? Unfortunately not quite so simple in practice. It took us 4 buses, 6½ hours and several million beeps of the horn later before we finally got to our destination.
The bus stations (including at Puducherry) were remarkably unhassly: that’s good in a lot of ways but not when you actually want some attention and help to try to identify the correct bus. And there’s no information counter, no information board and no ticket counter either. And don’t even think about seeing if there is a timetable: not a chance. On the side of some of the buses are names of towns but apart from buses to Chennai (which incidentally can also be booked in advance), most of the names of the towns are written in Tamil which (to the uneducated foreigner) just looks like squiggles (albeit beautiful squiggles) so that doesn’t get you much further.
Essentially you have to wander around asking all the individual conductors if their bus happens to be going where you want to go; if not, sometimes you would be waved off to a different part of the bus station (although that quite often led to a game of ping pong as someone else would then point you straight back to where you had come from). One difficulty is that the conductors seemed to know about their bus route only and most had no wider information and so some of their responses were less than illuminating. Partly this may have been because we only subsequently discovered that we were mispronouncing the name of our destination (which also incidentally has 2 official names – Thanjavur and Tangore – just to further add to the confusion). When we said Thanjavur we were emphasising the “Than” whereas in fact the emphasis seems to be on the “ja” instead. Live and learn!
But once we realised that we weren’t going to find the direct bus to Thanjavur, we pieced together a route and inched our way there – instead of one direct bus, we changed at Cuddalore, Chidambaran and Maylladuturai: each of the changes was actually pretty easy and buses seem to leave as soon as we set foot on them. For the penultimate bus, the conductor had nodded and given us the strong impression that his bus would go to Thanjavur, only for us to discover once we were moving that in fact there would be one additional change (but to be fair he helped us find the connecting bus at Maylladuturai). And apart from another bus driving into us at Kumbakoman bus station (fortunately when we were stationery and they were only going at 2 or 3 miles an hour), the journeys passed without incident. As normal, the horn was used far more frequently than the brake.
We even became quite skilled in the art of squashing our luggage into the seat next to us (the buses seat 5 across, in 2 and 3 seat rows). Although our bags took up an additional seat, we did not seem to get charged any extra for this (which we would have happily paid to avoid the luggage having to go on the roof). And for each of the journeys, we were given tickets: you can imagine our delight when the final ticket actually had Thanjavur printed on it (and in English too)! In total, we paid the princely sum of 152 rupees each (about £1.70).