If you haven’t yet had the rare pleasure of traveling internationally via bus, you’ve missed out. This should get you up to speed on the do’s and don’ts.
- No shoes on the bus. I’m into this from the very start; I absolutely love being barefoot. In the summer. It’s about 10°C and the driver seems intent on maintaining air circulation by keeping the air-con at a constant hum. I rapidly lose interest. Through an unfortunate series of events revolving around a much-needed bathroom stop (which actually just means that I finally convinced the driver to pull over to the side of a dirt road in rural Vietnam), I wind up losing my only shoes by falling hip-dip into a mud hole. The worst part is that Aristo manages to dig them out of the mud but we aren’t even allowed to bring them on the bus because the driver is so hell-bent on cleanliness. Well, no, the worst part is that they have to hose me off with icewater before I’m allowed back on the bus. I’m pretty sure my toes froze together.
- Bring your own blanket and bring some socks, because you may die of hypothermia. That’s no way to go.
- No eating on the bus. Never mind the fact that it’s a 24-hour bus ride, there is no eating allowed. It’s like being twelve all over again. But no matter—it’s secretly thrilling. The drivers usually have some kind of assistant that patrols the bus and yells at people for any number of things, but it’s a simple matter of shoving the evidence up your sleeve when he walks by and feigning confusion at his rapid gestures when he inevitably catches you with lettuce on your face.
- Don’t ever expect anything to be on time. When the woman at the bus depot tells you that you’ll arrive in 18 hours, that’s actually code for 26 hours. Not that a backpacker really ever has any pressing social engagements, but still. Don’t expect to arrive in a timely fashion.
- Consider booking a room in the arrival city before hand. It will invariably be a holiday weekend (no matter how strongly you believe yourself to have circumvented Chinese New Year or Tet traffic, something will be happening and you will be homeless). Even though this goes against everything I believe in as a backpacker, do yourself a favour and book a room. Or you will legitimately wander around the city for 4 hours with all your stuff in search of cheap accommodation that does not exist. After a day and a half on a bus and, for some, a tragic spill into a mud field, a shower is like gold and you will thank yourself for splurging and paying $15/night to get a room with actual hot water.
- Book the bus ticket from your hotel. You may think you are super clever when you decide to rent a bike and ride 15k on a dirt road to the bus station to buy the ticket directly, but you may feel slightly less clever when you discover that the difference in price is less than $1 and you have paid more than that to rent bicycles. Suck it up, pay the hotel, save yourself the shame. Plus, they will take you to the station in a little shuttle with everyone else and save you from paying for a tuk tuk.
- Then again, don’t book from the first hotel or agency you run across. The government-associated tourist centre may seem reliable. It is not. They will charge you $80 for what you later discover to be a $25 ticket. You win some, you lose some. But don’t lose some to the Thai government. It feels so predictable.
- Don’t sit by Germans. They are constantly screaming at each other. They could just be talking loudly, but I swear there is something sinister about it. But either way, it’s not conducive to sleep and if you are lucky enough to fall asleep between bumps on the road and having your head bashed into the window, you do not want to be blaming some six-foot blonde woman with a bowl cut for waking you up. She will have no qualms about redirecting the screaming to you if you even so much as think the word “quiet”.
- Border crossings are not as big of a drama as everyone likes to think. As long as you aren’t trying to illegally immigrate to Laos, no one is going to hassle you. But they like to make you wait (shocker), so don’t think that hurriedly stumbling half-dressed out of the bus and powerwalking the 3k across the border barefoot is saving you any trouble (you have to cross on foot, who knows why). Then again, if you’ve lost your shoes there simply isn’t anything to be done but to borrow two left foot clogs from the driver and stumble across dirt mounds in shoes 5 sizes too large.
- As far as I can tell, there is no VIP bus. It does not exist. The promise of a bed and toilet for a 24-hour journey is thrilling and it’s easy to get suckered into paying the extra $5 or whatever for comfortable sleeping and bladder relief. The VIP bus will not be working. You will be sleeping in the same lounge seats as the normal bus, paying 50% more, and urinating in mud holes on the side of the road. Sometimes, you will be put in the only seats on the entire bus that don’t actually recline and you will sleep upright all night. Other times, you will be sitting on the floor because they overbooked the bus and life is a bitch. Aristo once sat in a plastic yard chair. He did not enjoy it, but then again I was on the floor and took several kicks to the face from sleeping passengers so it’s impossible to pick a clear loser.
All that being said, who comes to SE Asia to enjoy luxury? If you want to avoid drama, book a fucking flight. Otherwise, enjoy all the nonsense and get your money’s worth later by telling these stories to everyone you meet. Bus stories are like war stories to other travelers and I fell into a sink hole at 3am, so who is the real winner here.