Having travelled through south-east Asia on a number of occasions, I’m well aware of the bus situation there and how little your expectations should be. Buses are often the easiest and cheapest way to get around the countries in the south-east, so no wonder us backpackers sign on up. However, they haven’t reached the likes of buses you might expect at home with free Wi-Fi, iPhone chargers and reclining seats, so best to prepare for the best that south-east Asia has to offer.
1. Don’t work on a tight schedule
The bus arrival and departures times in south-east Asia really are more of an estimate, and schedules which the locals don’t seem to stick by. I’ve found that many buses will provide a pick up time, but then they don’t tend to depart until the bus is full, so you could always be waiting around in the heat, waiting for some other tourist to jump on board. What is even more unpredictable is the duration of the bus journey. My friend and I once took what was supposed to be a 14 hour bus journey in Myanmar, which in the end turned out to be 22 hours. We weren’t sure if we’d missed our stop, took the wrong bus or if the bus had just decided to take the scenic route… but there was no explanation for the extra 8 hours on the bus, and the locals didn’t seem as pissed off as we did by the end. So, never plan a bus if you are on a tight schedule, leave plenty of time for flights and prepare for the worse.
2. Prepare for the cold
I find the buses tend to really pump out the air-con to extremes in south-east Asia. These tend to be the only times on my trips where I need to wear more than one layer, and where I wish it would be a bit warmer. I’ve heard some buses can be really hot, but I’ve only found them to be pretty darn cold. One bus I caught in Myanmar pumped out the air-con to 8°c at one point, which explained why the locals were putting on their winter coats, hats and scarves before they boarded. Wear some thin long pants, but take a pair of socks, jacket and I always take a type of scarf/pashmina which can then be used as a blanket.
3. Keep your valuables with you
I’ve heard extreme stories where locals will steal from your bags under the bus, or plant drugs in them… I find this can be pretty hard to believe, but you can never be too safe. Padlock your luggage and keep the likes of your passport, laptop, and purse on you on the bus. Secondly, these bus journeys are long so you’ll probably want your laptop or iPad for entertainment purposes, so best to keep them with you.
4. Take snacks
The buses do stop for toilet and snack breaks but these food outlets can often be unpredictable. Don’t expect a service station with a McDonalds and Starbucks. Instead, expect a street stall with some kind of questionable meat, Oreos and 5 day old seafood. This isn’t always the case as I once got a 36 hour bus journey through Vietnam, with only a few cake bars to my name and the bus luckily stopped at service stations on the way where full buffets were laid out! But you just never know.
I always say earplugs should be taken on all travel trips as you never know what you’re going to hear during the night, but make sure you take them onto the buses with you. Many buses, especially the cheaper ones, blare the likes of Vietnamese cartoons or Taiwanese game shows at a phenomenally loud volume all through the night. I’m never sure why they play these on night buses, as surely the locals want a few hours kip as well, but there you have it. Take some earplugs and a night mask to drown out whatever is being played on the tele.
6. Travel sickness pills
Those roads are windy, long and have a million and one pot holes. Take a few pills just in case, and you won’t be feeling dodgy 2 hours into a 10 hour ride around a windy mountain.
7. Check your destination
Ask other tourists, locals, anyone around you to check to see if you’re going to the right place. In Laos I got on a bus with my friend and another tourist. We were the first ones on and when the driver pulled up we said our destination and he nodded and continued to load our bags on. I then got my iPod out and attempted to nap whilst the driver completed the pickups around the town. About an hour later I noticed we were still in the original destination with a packed bus full of tourists. He was circling round, and mumbling a lot in his foreign tongue. It turns out his bus was too full and we weren’t supposed to be on the bus as he was going to a completely different destination. My friend, the other tourist and I got off and waited around for our bus which was two hours late…