It’s a rite of passage for all backpackers country-hopping around the continent. Despite your best efforts, you will definitely have to take a few long bus journeys in Southeast Asia. Whether it’s from city to city or country to country, the prices are so much cheaper than flying (and arguably safer than the trains).
Of course, you won’t be travelling in luxury. The roads will not be safe. The driver will be grumpy, drunk or short-sighted. No one will speak English, including staff and your fellow passengers. But it’s all part of the experience, right? It’s character building!
What you need is a survival kit. Here are a few things I learnt from taking 10 long-haul bus journeys in Southeast Asia:
1) Always pack more clothes than you think you need. It may be 30 degrees outside even at night, but inside that bus it’s guaranteed the air-con will be cranked up to 11. Pack your ski jacket.
2) Get on early and claim the window seat. You may have booked the window seat, but if he got on first, then Mr Aisle-Seat will be sitting in it. He will conveniently speak no English and/or be asleep.
3) You may think that a night bus will save you money that you would have spent on a night of accommodation. You may believe that this is great because it doesn’t cut into your daytime sightseeing time. In reality, you will be set back two days of exhaustion. Plan for that.
4) Don’t think too much about the driver’s driving skills, or how old the bus is, or the fact there are no seat belts, or how bumpy the roads are… Ignorance is bliss.
5) Bus companies love freebies! Freebies I received included: bottled water, a toothbrush and toothpaste, wet wipes, a blanket, a Dora the Explorer neck cushion, WIFI. Yes, that’s right FREE WIFI on buses I took in Cambodia and there were power outlets for every seat too. Take that, UK coach services!
6) Make sure you have plenty of good music or podcasts on your phone and that it has full battery. The only thing worse that listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989 for the 100th time is listening to the guy next to you snore, the Burmese karaoke on the TV and the baby in the back crying.
7) The bus will inexplicably stop around 2am for a toilet and food break at some dodgy-looking shack in the middle of nowhere. Even if you’re happy to stay on the bus and sleep, you will be asked to get off so that the staff can have a break.
As for the toilet situation at these stops, it’s up to you whether wetting yourself or developing a UTI through holding it in is better than going to the toilet in a literal cesspool. This is where the wet wipes come in handy.
8) Bring a sick bag, even if you don’t suffer from motion sickness. You never know if your neighbour might be in need of one instead…
9) Damn, Southeast Asia is beautiful. I may have spent 40+ hours sat on long bus journeys in Southeast Asia during my trip, but I did not waste any sightseeing time. Keep your camera near you for unexpected photo opportunities or just watch the world pass you by…
10) Expect the unexpected. Will you have to get out and help the driver push the bus at some point during the trip? Possibly (and yes, that really happened to me).
Will there be a live chicken on the bus with you? Also, completely plausible (and totally happened to me).
Will your bus be delayed or cancelled without any explanation? Again, it could happen (it’s happened to me more than a few times).
Just grin, bear it, try not to get too frustrated (remember, saving face goes a long way in Asia). Have the phone numbers of your accommodation or such on hand and try to be flexible. Even better, give yourself some buffer time if you’re catching a flight or need to be somewhere at a certain time.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Most of all, just try to make the most of your experience while you’re on your long bus journeys in Southeast Asia. Keep your belongings safe, chat to your fellow travel buddies and remind yourself that the most challenging of times make for the best travel stories!
Note: I booked Myanmar bus journeys through StarTicket and Cambodia bus journeys through Giant Ibis in advance, and would highly recommend them. For all other countries, I booked through my hostel or at local bus station a few days before with no problems (other than the occasional ‘no bus, whole day’ scenario, which falls under number 10, but what can you do?).