Surviving a Night Bus in Southeast Asia

Surviving a Night Bus in Southeast Asia

Let’s face it: traveling doesn’t come for free. In fact, when you add up the initial airfare, accommodation, entertainment, food, drinks, transportation and any miscellaneous charges it may turn out to be quite expensive. However, in places such as Southeast Asia, travelers are able to make their money go a long way, which is why the region has quickly become a rite of passage among young travelers today.

One of the ways backpackers stretch their money is by [generally] creating a budget for Southeast Asia. Many people will choose to stay in dorms rather than private rooms in Southeast Asia, stick to local street fare and limit their nights out. Others will plan to do all of the aforementioned, but will party well into the night with their new travel BFFs. Despite any differences, one commonality among backpackers is that most people will always stick to their budgets regarding one thing: transportation.

night bus in southeast asia

If you’re interested in the cheapest way to travel, it’s more than likely that you’ll have to give up comfort and personal space at some point and book a night bus in Southeast Asia. So if you’re reading this from your cubicle or you’re in the process of planning a trip yourself, I’ve come up with some survival tips to make your life a little bit easier.

How to survive a night bus in Southeast Asia

1. Bring something to do

This seems obvious, right? Of course it is! You’d be surprised how many people don’t, though. I’m not sure about you, but I definitely wouldn’t be about to be on a night bus in Southeast Asia without something to keep me occupied. I always have loads of books stored on my Nook as well as interesting podcasts. My favorites include Stuff You Should Know, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People and Real Crime Profile because I’m currently obsessed with The People vs. O.J. Simpson case.

2. Wear flip flops

I’ve found that it can be a bit like the Hunger Games when it comes to boarding a night bus in Southeast Asia; people can be impatient and ruthless. In order to avoid any sort of frustration and be able to move as quickly as possible when it’s time to board, be sure to wear flip flops as you’ll have to remove your shoes before boarding. Doing this will make the process much easier and everyone behind you in line will appreciate you more for it.

3. Choose your seat wisely

While I’m definitely someone who’s always team bottom bunk, the top seat is a wonderful choice if that’s what you’re into. The perks to the bottom seats are the fact that you can relax without having to climb anywhere and won’t feel like you’re dying each time the driver turns a corner. The major benefit of the top seats are the fact that they’re a bit more open and the windows are bigger, which is excellent for optimal viewing on long journeys.

If you’re like me and enjoy reading at any chance you get, take the aisle seats as they’re the ones with the overhead lights; none of the lights have worked on any of the middle seats I’ve had. Avoid the very back seats at all times as they’re close to bathrooms (if your bus has one, that is) and are just honestly the absolute worst as far as comfort goes. Just don’t.

night bus in southeast asia

I got tricked into the middle seat by the bathroom. Womp, womp!

4. Be prepared for a snack attack

I love eating. In fact, I spend a lot of my time thinking about food and what I will eat for my next snack and/or meal. If you’d like to curb any potential hanger, pack some fruit, veggies, cookies, nuts or potato chips in your bag and you’ll be good to go.

Some places cater to those taking long haul trips. For instance, while I was in Phong Nha, Vietnam, I noticed that Capture Cafe offers breakfast, lunch and snack deals for picnics and take away meals. Pretty cool, huh?

Capture Cafe in Phong Nha, Vietnam.

Capture Cafe in Phong Nha, Vietnam.

5. Don’t get your hopes up

Before boarding a 24-hour bus to Hanoi from Vientiene, we’d noticed our bus driver was watching the Reese Witherspoon flop Hot Pursuit with his friends rather than getting ready to drive. Since we were already over an hour behind schedule, some people were starting to get irritated. When we asked what time we were expected to leave, he informed us that we would go in about an hour, which is when the movie was expected to end.

Now, imagine a group of people standing on the side of the road with all of their belongings as they watched their driver just chillin’. Nope. I chimed in and let him know that the movie was 2 out of 5 stars at best and that it was time to go. Eventually everyone else started to get annoyed and caused a scene, which resulted in the driver begrudgingly starting the bus and allowing us to board.

The point is, maybe you’ll get a flat tire. You may have to sit or sleep on the floor if they overbooked the bus. You might even get to sit behind a baby screaming through the night! I can almost guarantee that you’ll never be on schedule. It’s all part of the experience, so just chalk it up to a funny story and move on.


What you’ll probably look like after a night bus in Southeast Asia:

night bus in southeast asia

Be prepared to feel a bit loopy at times. Are we Snapchat friends yet? Follow me: @laursvolta


6. Bring a sleep aid of some sort

I’m not going to lie, this is not something that I have issues with. I’m the person asleep before the plane takes off and doesn’t wake up until the wheels touch down. In fact, I could probably fall asleep at a concert under the speakers if I really wanted to. However, if you’re someone who finds it difficult to relax and drift into a deep sleep, I suggest bringing some ammo. I always have the following on hand just in case:

  • Benadryl or Nyquil
  • Ear plugs
  • A sleep mask

Now, I haven’t used any of these, but James uses all three each time and the combination works miraculously.

The most important tip is to relax and just enjoy the ride. It’s a unique opportunity to hang out while seeing some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll see in your lifetime. If you should find yourself in the situation boarding a night bus in Southeat Asia, I hope these tips can help make your process run a bit smoother than it would have otherwise. Did I forget anything? Let me know in the comments below!

night bus in southeast asia

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  1. May 10, 2016 / 10:46 pm

    Hahaha your bus driver watching Reese Witherspoon made me laugh. Oh night buses, we have a love hate relationship. Our survival tactics are pretty darn similar to yours. Ours included audiobooks and Valium though! Gotta love SE Asia pharmacies! Hahah also- peeing in the middle of the night is also a treat, especially in Cambodia and Laos where you’re lucky if it’s at a restaurant or stop. One time I had to pee next to the bus on a dirt road and the bus driver decided in mid stream to shine a bright headlight on me so the entire bus could watch. Hahahaha I think there could be a really interesting collection of stories from people’s night bus experiences!

    • May 20, 2016 / 7:55 am

      Oh man! reading your post and Megan’s comment about unprofessional drivers and rough experiences, makes me look less forward to traveling around Cambodia and Vietnam next winter. I do think you’re one brave girl for even considering such a long journey on a bus, my longest was 5 hrs in Thailand and leaking AC (on top of my husband’s head), broken stinky Toilet and the hot atmosphere made us swear to attempt to never do those bus trips again, but never say never as a budget traveler, right?!

  2. May 21, 2016 / 12:16 am

    Very helpful post, Laura! Thank you for sharing.
    I’ve only taken the long bus journey once (from Hatyai to Kuala Lumpur) but didn’t get to pick the right seat because it was super last minute. Wasn’t a journey to remember, I can say.
    Like Alla, I swear to never take the bus journey again. But yes — never say never 🙂

  3. May 22, 2016 / 11:25 pm

    Reading your adventures is a wow! I may not have the courage to do all those so I’m content reading your adventures. 17 hours on a bus is very, very long! But at least you have someone to share these experiences with. Enjoy!

    • May 23, 2016 / 1:28 am

      Thanks, Wendy! It isn’t that bad, I promise! It’s very relaxing. They provide water, blankets and you bring your own food. It’s pretty nice for the price.

  4. May 22, 2016 / 11:53 pm

    Oh my goodness I had the WORST night bus experience in Cambodia a few years ago. The toilet door flew open while i was perched, standing on top of the toilet seat and left exposed to the WHOLE bus! The toilet was so bad we had to stay thirsty so we wouldn’t need to go! At least it gave us some extremely funny memories of the trip 🙂

    • May 23, 2016 / 1:27 am

      Ha that does sound traumatizing, but at least it’s funny now. I think all of the bathrooms are pretty terrible, but I’m always just pleased with the option to go on a bus. I think I’m pretty easy to please, though!

  5. May 23, 2016 / 12:09 am

    Oh man I took a regular bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap (well a series of buses, cars, and whatever they tossed us in until we got there), and I hated every moment of it. I can’t imagine a night bus for 24 hours! I definitely prefer the trains!

    That bus driver grinds my gears with how unprofessional he was being! I’m glad you guys didn’t just let him get away with it and caused a scene so he’d get moving.

    • May 23, 2016 / 1:26 am

      I definitely prefer trains as well, but there wasn’t a train option from Laos to Vietnam. Once we were in Vietnam, I wanted to make sure we stopped in Phong Nha, so the bus was the better option. It’s really not that bad to travel this way, and they’re quite luxurious in all honesty. The price is right and I sleep or read anyway, so I don’t mind. As far as the guy goes, it’s just another hilarious anecdote to add to the bunch from this trip!

  6. May 23, 2016 / 12:56 am

    Tim and I have yet to take one of these dreaded sleeper buses. But judging from your pics, I am highly intrigued! What a good tip about the flip-flops! Haha that snapchat screenshot is hilarious… I’m so 2000-and-late with the new features of snapchat plus it kills my battery :/ womp womp… Yea, I kinda love long-haul transportation because of all the snacking you get to do on the bus hehe. Oooh does your kindle have a built in light? I need to invest in one of those. Have you heard of the People v. OJ American Crime Story drama? IT SOOOO GOOD!

    • May 23, 2016 / 1:24 am

      Of course! I haven’t watched it yet but I can’t wait until I do. In all honesty, I haven’t had really bad experiences on these buses so I’m not sure why people dislike them so much. I fall asleep for most of the trip, but even so it’s great to just chill and read.

  7. May 23, 2016 / 5:48 pm

    Haha, I loved the idea of this post! It’s so important to bring healthy snacks on long bus trips because you find yourself binge eating out of boredom. Or, at least I do! And I think your shameless snapchat promo at the end is genius haha. Also, I love your thumbnails on your blog posts! I’m looking forward to your next post!

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