Asia is famous for its lush scenery, mouth-watering street food, religious diversity and crumbling temples. It may also be equally as famous among the backpacker types as home to some of the most harrowing bus trips on the planet. Traveling by bus is usually the transportation mode of choice by budget backpackers because it is cheap. Those who are constrained by time (and not by money) usually prefer to fly between cities, rather than take the bus.
10 hour bus rides are commonplace all over Asia. But, more experienced backpackers know that 10 hours is nothing. 16, 20, 24, even 32 hour bus trips are relatively common in Asia. Although you might step onto the bus feeling chipper, you’ll likely exit the bus 24 hours later feeling as though you’ve been trampled by a steam roller. Long-distance bus rides can be bumpy, stiflingly hot, sticky, smelly and all around hellish. So, whether it’s from Kathmandu to Pokhara in Nepal (7-9 hours) or Hanoi to Vientiane (24 hours), there are some steps you can take to make these extreme journeys slightly more manageable.
1) Ear Plugs
Ear plugs are an absolute must when embarking on a long-distance bus trip, especially one that will drag on through the night. It is fairly common on bus trips, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, for the bus driver to blast cloyingly sweet and poppy music videos all through the night that will eventually make you want to cut your own ears off with the nearest butter knife. Be sure to have a set of ear plugs to end the music video madness. You’ll be happy you did. Ear plugs will also block out people’s conversations, crying babies, meowing cats (yes, cats have been known to be on long-distance bus rides in Asia), and the sounds of people vomiting.
2) Extra Sweater
When you think “Asian climates” you often think “hot.” This is true, in many Asian destinations, temperatures regularly rise above 90-degrees Fahrenheit. Despite this fact, long-distance bus drivers in Asia find it immensely pleasurable to crank the air conditioning in the bus to sub-arctic levels. You’ll quickly forget you’re driving through the sweltering tropics and wonder why in the world you feel like you’re trekking through Antarctica with nothing but a bathing suit on. Vietnamese long-distance bus drivers are especially notorious for turning up the A/C and refusing to turn it down or off. The solution is to bring an extra sweater (or two, or three) always when on a long-distance bus trip. If, for some reason, you do not have icicles coming out of your nose, you can always ball up the extra sweater and use it as a pillow.
3) Baby Wipes
Baby wipes are a definite must for maintaining sanity on long-distance bus trips. After only a few hours on the bus, you’ll probably begin to feel greasy, grimy and covered in dirt. There may or may not be someone throwing up continuously in front of your seat (bringing extra plastic bags may be a good idea, too, especially on Laos bus trips). Baby wipes come in handy for a quick wipe down of your arms and face. You’ll instantly feel more refreshed and ready to take on the next 10 hours of the trip.
Throughout the course of most bus rides in Asia, the driver will stop somewhere several times for food and drinks. Passengers can get off, go to the bathroom, grab some chips or crackers and stretch their legs. But, it is not unknown for the bus driver who may or may not have had 15 energy drinks to power straight through to the destination. Whether or not there is a stop on the bus ride, it is always wise to bring a few snacks for yourself. While rat-on-a-stick (Laos) may sound tasty to some, others may want to munch their own snacks. Bring a small stash in your backpack to keep your blood sugar up. It is also nice to have fresh snacks, like a bag of rambutans or a bunch of bananas.
5) Sit in the Front
It is wise to arrive at the departure bus station early and find seats about half-an-hour before the bus leaves. Bus drivers and bus attendants in Asia have been known to stuff those silly farangs (foreigners) in the way, way, way back of the bus, next to the stinking bathroom and everyone’s luggage. If you have no choice and are forced to sit in the back, embrace the adventure. But if possible, sit in the front of the bus where the ride is infinitely less bumpy and you’ll have easier access to get out on rest stops.
6) Reading Materials/Entertainment
Bringing a book, a magazine or some music on your bus journey is sure to ease the pain. To be honest, you might not even touch your book because there is always an endless stream of entertainment outside the bus window. No matter where you’re going, looking out the window is usually always fun and exciting because everything is so new and the scenery is often spectacular. When you get bored of window watching, having a book is nice, but not always feasible to read, especially if the trip is extra bumpy.
Other Things to Bring/Remember for Your Bus Trip:
*On long-distance bus rides a toothbrush and toothpaste are your best friends. A quick teeth-clean can be the difference between feeling hellish and feeling normal.
*Always keep your passport and valuables ON YOUR PERSON. It is very important not to stow passport, cash, credit cards, etc… in your backpack that is under the bus. Sneaky people have been known to riffle through bags under the bus, helping themselves to whatever catches their fancy.