After spending over 200 hours on various buses in SE Asia, I can say that I absolutely love bus travel, and I highly recommend doing this at least once during your trip. I’ve seen truly the most STUNNING landscapes from the comfort of my bus seat. And no matter what happens, it’s always an experience. Sometimes one of enlightenment on the open road, sometimes one of spiraling frustration, loneliness, and why-am-I-doing-this, and nearly always one of making new friends! In fact, taking the bus is my #2 recommendation on my list of tips for traveling SE Asia! Find the ins and outs of bus travel below:
Ahhh VIP buses…a true gift from the bus gods. Big comfy reclining seats, blankets, throw away toothbrushes and toothpaste, snacks, bottled water, power outlets, fresh wet washcloths in the morning, and sometimes if you are really lucky, your own personal entertainment center just like in an airplane! VIP buses are almost always worth the extra cost in my experience. These and regular buses are sometimes double deckers, so it’s always fun to check out the top floor, and if you are really brave, sit in the front seats that are right up against the window! If you have a long or an overnight journey ahead of you, I highly recommend going VIP.
Regular buses are fascinating. They usually are carrying non-tourists, lots of unwieldy cargo, and have a much different vibe. I took a very, shall we say, “rustic” looking bus in Myanmar on which I was the only tourist. It was really old, with old blankets, and old curtains. And inexpensive. They played some sort of prayer music for hours on end, and then switched to a very odd television show that everyone is forced to listen to because it’s played over the speakers. At one point, this bus pulled over to the side of the road and 5 people got out and squatted in broad day light to use the bathroom. #1 or #2, I have no idea. I was happily taking a picture of a cow outside the window, when I realized I had multiple squatters in my frame, and I abruptly and awkwardly put my phone away. Regular buses make plenty of stops, and are a great way to travel. They are missing the nice amenities of the VIP buses, but it’s worth it.
Minibuses, also called minivans, are another popular, and usually less expensive option. I think they hold 13 people, and they can be pretty cramped. Unless you get 1 of 2 of the single seats on the side.
Let me go ahead and say that I really prefer not to travel by minibus. I feel a bit unsafe and claustrophobic in them. Especially if I don’t get one of those 2 single seats on the side. These drivers tend to be pretty crazy (although sometimes that happens in big buses as well) and you get truly packed into these buses with too much luggage and things people are transferring from one place to another. These buses (and big buses actually) often double as the mail man, transferring large packages and cargo along with an already packed bus of people and items.
And in Cambodia, I took a minibus who advertised one of their perks as “trained drivers.” Ohemgee does that mean all the other companies are not training their drivers?! This would not shock me. Several of my experiences on minibuses have been frightening for one reason or another, and I only take them if I have to.
If you are taking a night bus, you should ask if it is seating or beds. I find the seating ones quite comfortable as they are usually big reclining seats with blankets. The sleeper beds are a fun one-time experience, but only if you are traveling with a friend! Especially if you are a woman, I don’t think you should take these alone, unless you find one with single compartment beds. I took one in Cambodia with a friend, and that was really fun and crazy and uncomfortable, but we were together so we could laugh about it. I took another in Laos, that I did not realize was a bed sleeper. The bed was WAY smaller than the one in Cambodia. It was literally the width of a twin bed and two people were supposed to share it. Amazingly, or so I thought, no one had the “seat” next to me. Even though I was worried about my stuff, I eventually curled up and fell asleep. That is, until one of the bus employees woke me up rudely by pushing my body over to make room for himself! I tried to tell him no and to get another bed (there were other’s available) but he did not listen. I had to lay there, completely uncomfortable and afraid for two hours, until I got the brilliant idea to annoy him enough until he left.
Also keep in mind, that many overnight buses arrive at their destination at 3 or 4am which is a safety and convenience consideration. As I’m traveling alone, I usually only take night buses that arrive the next day at 6am or later.
What about going to the bathroom?
I’ve taken many many buses in SE Asia at this point, and only two of them had a bathroom on board. And as I’m sure you can guess, it wasn’t very easy to use anyways considering the conditions of the roads. Buses usually make ample stops during the journey. When you stop to eat, there are rest areas there. These bathrooms usually leave a lot to be desired if you are accustomed to Western standards. They are outdoor, so there are usually a lot of little spiders and spider webs. There is usually a mix of Western and squat toilets, and often squat are the only option. The floors are dirty and wet. It’s definitely a get-in-and-get-out situation. These places almost never have toilet paper so BRING YOUR OWN. And if you really really have to go, you can ask the bus driver to pull off on the side of the road.
What about eating?
VIP buses provide some sweet and non-filling snacks, and sometimes a meal ticket is included in the price. But I always pack a bunch of fun snacks and water for the road. Especially because buses usually take longer than they are scheduled to take. The bus will stop at sometimes seemingly random times for dinner and breakfast. They pull over to little ramshackle establishments on the side of the road where you can get miscellaneous things with rice, or packaged snacks. Or if you are in Cambodia, fried bugs. You are usually pretty delusional by the time they stop, as you are often woken up for this.
Here’s an example of an inexpensive, but over-the-top spread I got on a stop in Myanmar. We got some bamboo, miscellaneous green things, and lots and lots of rice!
Are they safe?
Overall, I felt extremely safe on every bus I took. As I am finishing up this blog post, I am traveling through India, where I have to be much more careful and discerning when choosing transit, so I am now really appreciating how much freedom I had in SE Asia to hop on any bus, any time, to any place, all by myself. Of course, every now and then, you’ll get a driver who is clearly trying to meet some time expectation and drives like a bat out of hell, but this only happened to me a couple times. Sometimes the roads can be quite bumpy or windy, but it’s all part of the fun.
What about my sanity?
Indeed... For the first 6-8 hours, I’m riding high, having one epiphany after another, writing poetry, sorting out my mental demons….then I peak, and ever hour that passes is a steady descent into my demise. My sanity slipping through my fingers, and my energy to continue traveling depleting at an exponential rate. Bus travel will test you, especially if you are crazy like me, and do multi-day journeys. My longest was from Myanmar to Cambodia. It was a total of 46 hours, 36 of that on buses, and 10 of that waiting at bus stations at odd ours in the morning. And then there was a truly trying 26 hour journey from Cambodia to Thailand. Anyways, I’d recommend starting out with a nice 6-10 hour day bus. Watch the world pass you out the window, sink into some deep thoughts, then get to your destination and go to sleep sans the demise!
What’s the best way to book a ticket?
You can book your bus at the bus station (usually cheapest), through whatever hotel or hostel you are staying at (very convenient because they usually pick you up at your location), or through these three websites which I found very helpful: www.easybook.com, www.12go.asia, www.rome2rio.com. The tickets on here will be a bit more expensive because it’s online booking, but often it’s worth it.
But plane travel is so much easier…
Most travelers I speak to do prefer taking a plane (even though it’s worse for the environment). And if you are traveling for a shorter period of time, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to spend 8-12 hours on a bus because it eats up a whole travel day. But it’s really such a wonderful way to see the country you are in. I’ve seen so much of beautiful, rural SE Asia from the bus window. The landscapes are stunning, wild and lushly green. And you can get another perspective on how people live outside of the bigger cities.
Any last minute words of wisdom?
Don’t forget the toilet paper! And take a sweater! Most of the buses I’ve been on are freezing cold. I always wear pants, take a sweater, and end up using the blanket provided. Also, your luggage will be stored underneath the bus. Although I’ve never had any problems, I always keep my most valuable items in my smaller backpack with me in my seat.
And godspeed! It’s a wonderful way to experience the world!