The moment you decide to take an overland trip across Southeast Asia you are submitting to their system. A system of no rules, no timetables and no speed limits. Becoming frustrated and angry will only make them turn the TV up louder, skip a bathroom stop or drive faster.
The bus will never leave on time. You may be sitting for hours at time staring at your bus in sweltering heat. You will never get a straight answer from anyone and will never understand why you are delayed.
The bus will break down more often than not, and usually in the middle of nowhere. You won’t always understand what is going on until you see the smoke, or the driver pull out the fire extinguisher—this is when you should start to worry. Most everyone uses this as a quick bathroom break and chance to stretch their legs.
Did I mention the buses break down a lot? Expect long delays and to arrive at your final destination at least two hours later than planned.
There are always more people on the bus than seats. When you start seeing the small stools being pulled out this is when you should be aware that your leg room in the aisles is going to disappear. If there aren’t any stools the last people to get on will stand, sometimes for 4 hours or for the entire trip.
Especially in Cambodia, loud TV, music videos and soap operas will be played at unbelievable volume levels. They don’t care if its the middle of the day or night, the TV will be on at an excruciating volume. I remember playing my own iPod and no matter how loud I turned it up I could still not overpower the Khmer music videos that were on. Also it’s not like the TV is on and no one is watching it. The driver and people that work on the bus are completely enamored with the shows on the TV. Baffling.
At night the buses are cold…REALLY cold. You will probably be given a blanket on over night buses, and although I question the cleanliness, if you don’t come prepared you will freeze. Also, the lights usually aren’t turned off all the way, so if lights bother you bring a mask to cover your eyes.
Instead of slowing down at stop signs or yielding to the cows in the road the bus drivers usually choose to lay on the horn, warning anyone in the way that they are coming and not stopping. When we entered small villages the driver would lay on his horn for almost the entire drive through the city warning kids to get out of the street and all of this is done without taking any weight off of the accelerator. We are going full speed into traffic, towns and cross streets with no intention of slowing down. The horn warnings go on all day and night. I remember one bus trip we were up all night solely because we had a particularly loud bus driver that insisted on using the horn every other minute.
One of our favorite sleeper buses was in Laos. It had bunk beds where you could lay down flat. Sounds great right? If you are a solo traveler and you don’t book two spots they place you with a stranger of the same sex. So, you are sleeping in an area smaller than a twin bed with someone you’ve never met before. Josh and I could barely sleep shoulder to shoulder. Our friend we traveled with for awhile ended up shacking up with a 6’3″ guy, head to toe and let’s just say he didn’t sleep much during the night!
The buses in Vietnam are great, you are able to almost lay flat, stretch out and aren’t sleeping with a stranger. These sleeping buses come equipped with seat belts and I suggest you wear them. The first night on one of these buses I rolled my eyes thinking there’s no way I’m sleeping with a seat belt on. HOLY CRAP. Bus drivers in Vietnam drive with a speed and in a state of absolute lunacy that is beyond anyone’s belief until experienced first hand. Wear your seat belt, you won’t be sorry.
If your bus doesn’t recline at all it will always be a gamble if you are going to get any sleep, but like they say “Practice makes Perfect”. The more you do it, the more you will find yourself sleeping in any position.
In Laos, if you can’t find a bus that is scheduled to go where you want to go, there is always a cabbage truck that will help you get there – just hop on!
What are your tips for surviving overland travel by bus?