Southeast Asia is a beautiful destination packed with stunning beaches and amazing wildlife, but the is region not known for it’s stellar transportation. If you’re backpacking Southeast Asia on a budget, you are going to be spending a lot of time on buses. It’s a necessary evil, but by the end of your trip you will be a pro! Here are a few tips on surviving bus travel in Southeast Asia:
Don’t Expect to be on Time
First and most importantly, don’t expect to arrive at your destination on time. There were so many times that I was told I’d arrive at a destination by 2PM but ended up getting there right before 10PM. Bus travel in Southeast Asia is rarely on time. You just have to go with the flow and hope for the best. Try and remember that it’s not the end of the world. Take a deep breath and enjoy the views of the Cambodian countryside.
Top Tip- If you are traveling solo, make sure you exercise caution when taking overnight buses in certain countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. They often arrive very early and leave you in the middle of nowhere at 3AM. Try to find a buddy for these trips or have a hostel awaiting your arrival!
Bring Snacks & Drinks
Since there are frequent delays, you don’t know how long it could be until your next meal. Suck it up and buy the Pringles from the nice ladies who sell them while you’re boarding the bus. You’ll thank me later when your bus has broken down on the side of the road and you haven’t eaten in 6 hours. Even if the bus doesn’t break down, you don’t know when your driver plans to stop for meals. Bringing your own snacks can help to prevent any hangry outburst hunger pains.
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Keep Your Valuables With You
It blows my mind every time I hear how someone got robbed on an overnight bus because they left their money/passport/camera in the backpack under the bus. Please don’t do that.
Have all of your valuables in your daypack and keep that under your feet or on your lap the entire time. If you want to be extra cautious keep your money and passport in a money belt and sleep with it on your person. Most people aren’t out to rob you, but it never hurts to be smart and take preventative measures.
Top Tip- Invest in a good lock for your backpack or luggage. It’s not fool proof but it could certainly convince an opportunistic thief to skip over your luggage. I used a Master Lock flexible lock while backpacking SEA and never had my bag rummaged through. It was also handy for locking up my valuables in hostel lockers. I always packed my cash, credit cards and passport in my money belt while traveling across borders or on overnight buses. It help me feel more secure that my important documents and emergency money were on my person at all times through transit.
Pack Some Toilet Paper
This is a rule that applies to way more than bus travel! Seriously, carry toilet paper with you. Many of the buses don’t have bathrooms, so they will make stops at rest areas or on the side of the road. These facilities don’t usually provide toilet paper or charge a ridiculous price for it, so grab a pack at 7-11 and keep it in your daypack.
Layers are Everything
The buses in Southeast Asia are either hot as hell or an icebox. If you are taking an air-con bus then pack multiple layers and a blanket. The drivers of these buses tend to get a bit overzealous with the AC. I typically wore pants and a t-shirt, then layered with a sweatshirt, socks and a blanket. Sometimes I was still cold! It’s always better to be over prepared and peel a few layers off than shiver your way through a 5-hour bus ride.
Motion Sickness Medicine is Your Friend
Pack some Dramamine, Gravel, or whatever it is called in your country because you might need it! The road to Pai, Thailand has 762 curves. The ride up to this beautiful town was brutal, and I never get motion sick. Since Southeast Asia is such a mountainous region, many rides can be bumpy and curvy. Packing a motion sickness medication can make an unbearable ride much more enjoyable. Another perk of these medications is that they can help you nap through some of the terrifying hair-pin turns. Some views are better left unseen.
Sometimes Seats are Optional
Typically when you buy a bus ticket in your home country you are guaranteed a seat. This is not always true with bus travel in Southeast Asia. You might have to share a row meant for 3 people with 5. Sometimes you have a reclining chair or it’s literally a mattress for you to sleep share with someone else. Other times you might not get a chair at all, and will have to brave the entire journey on a plastic stool in the aisle.
Stand your ground if you feel that a situation is unsafe, but be prepared to either deal with the uncomfortable journey or be left behind with no refund. That’s just sort of how things work here. You can avoid these types of mishaps by following the next tip!
Pay more for your safety
This isn’t your home country. Safety standards aren’t the same and it’s important to remember that. The roads in Southeast Asia can be dangerous and the drivers are often underpaid and overworked. Not trying to scare you, but road traffic accidents are the cause of over 300,000 deaths a year in Southeast Asia. So please don’t book the cheapest bus company because you are on a budget.
Do your research! A quick Google search can bring up hundreds of testimonials from other backpackers. Always go for the bus companies like Giant Ibis, who have an excellent safety records. If Google doesn’t have anything, ask other travelers or the staff at your hostel. You’re here to have a good time and learn about other cultures, so protect yourself and make sure you get there in one piece!
Follow these tips for surviving bus travel in Southeast Asia and you should be a pro in no time! Just remember that the long and tiring bus rides are bringing you in the next part of you adventure 🙂
Long-Haul Bus Ride Essentials
- In-Flight Organizer– This organizer is my favorite thing in my carry-on! It fits everything I need and fits in the seat front pocket in most planes & buses.
- Eye-Mask– Perfect for getting some shut eye on those long-haul buses
- Battery Phone Case– A lifesaver when your bus breaks down and you have a few more hours until your next destination.
- Headphones– These noise cancelling headphones will drown out all the noise, so maybe you won’t notice the chickens that are squawking in the aisle.
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