If you’re doing almost any travel in Southeast Asia as some stage or another you’re going to end up on a bus. Here is the skinny on what you should expect.
Across Southeast Asia, government-run and privately run long-distance bus services offer a comprehensive network of routes. Costs are generally very reasonable and the services as fast as the roads and traffic will allow. Safety, especially at night, is not world class.
Working on a hub and spoke set-up, buses will radiate out from provincial capitals both to destinations within the province and to those further afield. Smaller towns may have a single bus station, while larger cities and capitals often have multiple bus stations, each usually serving different regions of the country. Bus stations are often on the outskirts of town to (in theory) keep the buses out of the city to ease congestion. In practice, depending on the destination, buses may meander through town after departing the station on the lookout for more passengers.
For trunk routes, tickets can be purchased online through online travel agents and sometimes the bus companies themselves. Bricks and mortar agencies will also sell tickets, or you can go out to the bus station yourself to buy tickets, say the day before or just show up in the hope you'll make the next bus. If you buy through an agency, they may include transfers to the bus station in the ticket price—this can be a big time saver, especially if you don’t know your way around town.
In high season, booking in advance for popular trunk routes can be prudent. If you leave it till you just show up, you may need to wait a few hours before you can get a seat. This does depend a lot on how popular the route is and the time of year.
As with trains, buses are categorised across a number of classes. While the classes have different names depending on the country, they roughly equate to third class, second class, first class and perhaps a few VIP permutations.
Third class will be cheapest, least comfortable, most crammed and slowest, with the bus getting progressively better as you up the class. First class are generally air-con, four seats abreast (with reclining seats) with a toilet on board while VIP may be three abreast, with onboard WiFi. The options will vary country to country and operator to operator, but generally speaking, the more you pay the better service (both in comfort and trip time) you get.
Driving standards can be erratic and, for travellers new to driving in Southeast Asia, the experience can be quite hair raising. Overtaking dangerously, into oncoming traffic and around blind corners, all at high speed, are common. We feel (unscientifically) that the safest place to sit on the bus is about half way back, on the non-driver side of the bus.
Theft from the luggage compartment is common. Never stow valuables in the hold of a bus.
As with night trains, night buses are popular with travellers as you get on in one town in the evening and wake up in another in the morning. Safety on night buses can be problematic, particularly with regard to drivers falling asleep. While long-distance buses should have multiple drivers, that doesn’t mean they’re not all exhausted. Where possible we avoid travel by night bus, but in some cases it is unavoidable.
Long trips will have meal stops along the way, sometimes brief, sometimes bewilderingly long. Don’t be surprised when you are just 30 minutes from your destination and you pull over for a one-hour meal break.
In more recent times, with an increase in visitors to regional destinations and an upgrading of roads across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, we’ve seen a proliferation of absurd bus routes on offer in backpacker hot spots across Southeast Asia.
We’re not referring to mere long-distance bus rides, such as overnight journeys from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or the six-hour Siem Reap to Phnom Penh route, oh no, but to very, often very, very long-distance, multi-country routes, such as Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Pai to Vang Vieng, Don Dhet to Siem Reap and Vientiane to Hanoi.
Are they scams? Not necessarily always. Some ticket sellers are reluctantly honest about the routes’ realities while other agents will happily lie through their teeth to whom they consider gullible punters. Sometimes a scam, sometimes not, but in our opinion always a folly!
Getting from Pai to Ko Tao on a long-distance ticket, for instance, doesn’t involve crossing borders, but even so this route would involve a bus to Chiang Mai (140 kilometres, around five hours on winding roads, then change of bus for Bangkok (approximately 600 kilometres, minimum 10 hours), involving the inevitable waiting around time. Then it’s another change of bus and at least six hours to cover the 400 kilometres to the boat pier in Chumphon. Here you’ll wait for a boat to take the three-hour (or so) sea journey. So at a minimum you’re looking at 27 hours across three buses and a boat. Are you really in that much of a hurry to get to Ko Tao?
We are somewhat bewildered by the popularity of these routes. What is the attraction of driving halfway across Southeast Asia in one go, missing out on the destinations and scenery that we thought you might have come to see in the first place?
So how about breaking up your journey by stopping off at some of those places the bus drives past? You may be in for some pleasant surprises and without doubt you’ll get to see some less touristy parts of Southeast Asia. Instead of going Vang Vieng to Bangkok direct, how about a night or two in Nong Khai or Udon Thani en route? Don Dhet to Phnom Penh might see you stop off at Kratie for example, while if you’re travelling between Pai and Luang Prabang, surely you’ve got time for a night or two in Chiang Khong? Shorter hops also mean you can use local buses, which are often more fun anyway and certainly cheaper.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.