For my journey up North last week I traveled by big buses and mini-buses. I had a lot of time to think as I travelled up and down Malawi, and I came up with this comparison of buses and mini-buses here.
There are three types of big buses here in Malawi.
1) High Quality - The first type are the expensive buses like those operated by the Premier Bus Company. They leave at scheduled times, make only one stop, and leave regardless of how full they are. It's one person per seat, and no standing in the aisles. They also give a little snack and a drink during the ride. This is my favorite way to travel, but the price means I can't always use it. Also this particular bus only goes between Blantyre and Lilongwe. It takes about four hours to go from Blantyre to Lilongwe on these buses.
2) Medium Quality - The second type of bus are less expensive, but still out of the price range of the typical villager. An example are most of the Axa buses. They leave at scheduled times, but make stops in all the major towns to pick up and drop off so it takes longer. These buses also leave regardless of how full they are. It's one person per seat, but they allow standing in the aisles. Or sitting, as the case may be, since people are on these buses for hours. This can make the bus feel really full. These buses travel across most of Malawi. It takes about five hours to go from Blantyre to Lilongwe on these buses.
2) Low Quality - The last type of bus is a low cost transport option that is typically used by the average Malawian for long-distances. I only took one once, on the way to visit my site for the first time in July 2014. And there is a reason for that.
These buses have no scheduled arrivals nor departures. They don't leave until they are full. That day we waited for the bus to fill up for over four hours before it left the bus depot. And when I say full, I mean every seat and packed aisles full of standing passengers. These buses make stops anywhere there is a person, a bus depot, a vendor selling stuff, or I don't know, a maize plant growing. It was ridiculous and frustrating. All told it took us 10 hours to go from Lilongwe to Blantyre that day. I didn't get any photos though.
The other major type of public transport used here are mini-buses. I've posted a lot about them, so I won't say too much more. Suffice to say, they are usually run-down vehicles the size of a VW Bus with anywhere from 16-25 people crammed in them, plus chickens, goats, fish and whatever else people need to carry. They cram in as many people as they can, sometimes even making people sit backwards in the first row, or having people stand (or crouch). It's not uncommon for doors to be falling off, pieces of metal to stick out inside the vehicle and bags of maize to be on the floor so you have to step over or on it to enter and leave the vehicle. They go short and long distances, leave only when they are full, have no scheduled times, and stop anywhere there is a person wanting a ride or needing to be dropped off.
Here is a pic from a mini-bus I took last week. I love the expression on that lady's face. She was probably wondering why this crazy azungu was taking a photo of the mini-bus. You can't see it here, but there was a guy standing just to the left of me too. Just a typical mini-bus ride in Malawi.