Purchasing a ticket for inter-city bus travel in Asia can feel a lot like throwing yourself at the mercy of a petulant god.
When purchasing a ticket, the newbie traveler will ask about the basics: “Will there be a bathroom on the bus?” and “At what time will we arrive?”. The savvy traveler knows what nuisances await and asks: “Will we need to change buses?” and “Will there be any food/bathroom breaks?”. The seasoned traveler doesn’t bother asking questions at all. They know that a petulant god has whims and needs beyond reasonable expectations.
Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you may be delighted to find that your bus takes two hours longer than expected to actually hit the road cause it’s arranged door to door service for locals, you may find that your tourist only bus careens through small villages with someone hanging out the open door loudly advertising hop-on, hop-off services for locals or you may find that your overnight bus drops you off at what doesn’t really look like your destination at 4am. In most countries your assigned seat means nothing – it’s usually more of a free for all. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you are at the mercy of someone else’s whims and timetable. Keep in mind when booking that your local travel agent may have limited information to work with and he knows that it doesn’t really matter what he promises – he’ll never see you again anyway! When thinking of the pick-ups, transfers, rest stops, wait times, flat tires, checkpoints and language barriers, I sometimes marvel that both I and my luggage have arrived on time to our expected destination.
Although I have had some very interesting experiences on buses, it’s not all bad. I’ve learned that each country has a certain level of consistency. Once I’ve got a taste for a country, I can figure out what contingency planning is required for each ride. Most importantly I’ve learned to be prepared and then let go. Ride the wave of uncertainty and remember the most important rule of the road: take advantage of every bathroom break!
Here’s some highlights of my experience by country in South East Asia.
Thailand: luck of the draw- some fancy double decker buses and some sketchy old ones
Malaysia: luxury! Seats like lazy boy recliners and seats are only three across so single travelers aren’t nuzzling elbows with strangers
Cambodia: typically old buses and booking a VIP bus doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get one
Vietnam: an impressive breed of sleeper buses where each person gets an individual leather pod seat that reclines quite far but not quite flat (see picture)
Myanmar: bad, often windy roads, older buses, nothing special for overnight and at times, driving that makes me prefer blissful ignorance to windows (except for the beautiful scenery, of course)