Time was when the longest bus journey aimed at backpackers that we can recall was offered by Khao San guesthouses and was the Bangkok to Penang visa run. Though roads were good and border formalities straightforward on that route, it was long enough. But 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, including Thailand's Pai and Ko Pha Ngan, Laos' Vang Vieng and Don Dhet, and Cambodia's Siem Reap.
We're not referring to mere long-distance bus rides, such as overnight journeys from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the Vientiane to Pakse overnighter 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 (1,ooo kilometres in 12 hours by direct bus -- come on!)
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!
These routes can be found right across mainland Southeast Asia -- well, except Burma where land crossings are still an issue but hey, look out for Siem Reap-Bagan soon! We're not about to cover them all but here are a few glaring and common examples of nonsensical itineraries.
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 keep hearing of new "rapid, luxury/VIP" services on the increasingly popular Phnom Penh to Bangkok route, but a November 2012 journey resulted in the following nightmare. Only 12 hours direct in a "VIP bus" assured the agent, though to be fair the hotel staff, eager for the commission and not knowing much about Thailand's geography, were probably only repeating the bus company's fibs.
The journey actually took 16 hours, involving a change of bus in Siem Reap, then a change to minibus for the Poipet to Bangkok leg. Although the company (we think this one was Sorya but to be fair, most are probably as bad as each other) said the final destination was Khao San Road the driver upon finding himself in the suburbs of Bangkok with only one passenger left and not fancying Bangkok traffic jams, proceeded to dump said passenger at a tollway exit several kilometres from Khao San. Result: one lost, exhausted and foul-tempered passenger.
Vang Vieng travel agents offer "direct" buses to Hue (24 hours and we've heard nightmare stories about this one), Bangkok (17 hours) or 4,000 Islands (20 hours), while $30 will get you a bus ticket from Don Dhet to Siem Reap. That's got to be at least a 16-hour journey with three different buses.
We're not giving prices or their comparisons here since we're not recommending any of these routes. Whether you pay $20 or $30 for a 24-hour bus ride is, to us, irrelevant. Do you have a map? Check the distances, do the maths, bear in mind local road conditions and envisage the worst at border crossings and bus change-over points. That lovely new coach on the poster can't possibly be taking you door to door -- that's not the way public transport in Southeast Asia works.
Buses go from one transport hub to the next. All passengers from Don Dhet for example, will begin in the same coach until Stung Treng, where Banlung voyagers will have to be accommodated. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh passengers will then have to be redistributed in Kompong Cham and those going all the way to Sihanoukville will then have to redistributed again in Phnom Penh.
We are somewhat bewildered by the popularity of these routes. What is the attraction of driving halfway across Southeast Asia in one go with your eyes on a Kindle (will the battery last?) missing out on the destinations and scenery that we thought you might have come to see in the first place? Maybe it's part of that "zapping mentality" -- wanting to zap between one perceived highlight and another, and skipping out the "dull" bits in between... You just can't "zap" by public buses.
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 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.
Take it easy -- you're on holiday!
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 4th February, 2013.
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