On any trip that you embark upon, you will undoubtedly have to rely on some sort of transportation. Even if you plan on taking advantage of the Land Reform Act of 2003 and freely roam the countryside of Scotland, you will still have to get there, you will still have to get back, and you may need just a little help in between.
During our time in Southeast Asia, we have come to use just about every mode of transportation you can imagine. As I am writing this, for instance, I am enjoying the leisurely pace of a slow boat up the Mighty Mekong from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Khong, Thailand.
For this tip, though, I wanted to share a tip about buses and minivans.
Buses are a great, inexpensive way to travel around Southeast Asia. Many bus rides to the next stop are actually less than $20 USD and can be anywhere from a couple hours to over 24! There are a few different options when choosing a bus, so you need to be somewhat educated when making your choice.
Most bus lines in this part of the world offer a couple of different options, based on the popularity of the route and also taking into account the time of the year. For example, when we left Vang Vieng, Laos, a bus was what we wanted to take, but only minivans were leaving in the direction we wanted to go. They use minivans during the rainy season exclusively because the large buses cannot negotiate the passes and the roads heading north are often partially washed out. It is also a slower time of year, so the demand for big buses is less.
We prefer to take big buses over other modes, but first, I will share the options.
Minivan: A minivan can hold up to 15 passengers, and there is no space for luggage specifically. The van is full of seats, and people pay; luggage does not. If there is an empty seat, you can bet every Dong, Riel, or kip in your wallet that the driver will cruise around town on his cell phone until every last seat is full. These vans are faster than the buses, but not worth it, in our opinion. The drivers are paid by the passenger, but they also get paid by the trip and not the hour. Passing on blind corners and higher speeds are the norm. If you are an adrenaline junkie or have some Xanax, then this is the vessel for you.
Buses: Buses come in a few sizes, from your 28-passenger-no-frills medium bus to the big 40+ passenger-pushers. The medium buses can handle roads a bit better than the bigger buses, but they lack the same comfort. Most will come with air conditioning, but it is sketchy (at best). No bathroom, no wifi, and with its small wheel base, the drivers try to use them like a minivan, so they can get a bit crowded.
The bigger buses are used by major carriers like Futa Bus in Vietnam, Giant Ibis in Cambodia, and Green Bus in Thailand. These carriers offer a full line of buses and minivans, but we will focus on the stars of the fleet. These buses are usually appointed with an attendant, as well as a driver. Sometimes the attendant is also a qualified driver. Giant Ibis in Cambodia even puts English-speaking attendants on board. They offer cold water and sometimes even wipes and local pastries. Seats are assigned, and you barely feel the road, even in twisty passes like on the way to Sapa, Vietnam or Pai, Thailand. The air conditioning blows cold, and some even have bathrooms on board.
Sleeper buses are for the long journeys. Sleeper buses have single reclined seating on both sides of the bus and another row down the middle. The seating is also 2 stories, so imagine bunk beds . . . sort of. They actually have bunk bed sleepers in some places, but at the time of this writing, we have not been privy to them. Sleeper seats are designed for the local traveler, not the tourist. The maximum size I would recommend would be about 5 foot 9 inches tall, maybe 175 pounds. I am 6’1″ and 235, and they are NOT comfortable. The good ones have wifi, all have air conditioning, and some have bathrooms.
All of these will make stops around the 90-120 minute mark of the trip to allow bathroom breaks and food. These stops are generally at places owned or under contract by the bus companies. You rarely encounter an ATM, so be sure you have cash. Some even charge for use of the bathroom! Medium buses and larger will also stop randomly along the way, picking up and dropping off locals and mail. Some of these drivers may even have side arrangements to pick up people and get them on the bus, even if there are no seats available. I woke up after a couple hours on a sleeper bus on the way to Sapa, Vietnam to find new passengers sleeping and sitting in the aisles, not in seats. This seems to be a common practice in Southeast Asia.
PRO TIP: Always travel with spare tissue or toilet paper. There are more bathrooms without it than with it in Southeast Asia, for instance, so it’s best to be prepared!
We should note that there are higher-end minivans that carry only 9 passengers. The seating is wider and much more plush. IF you have to take a minivan and one of these is an option, I would recommend the more luxurious one, as it is usually only about 30-35% more than a normal minivan. Speaking of costs: bus travel is cheap! Most buses average about $15 US. What is more expensive is really more about the route. Bigger buses that are considered “express” with no local stops are roughly $15US as opposed to $9US. A nicer minivan with better seating is $20US. Sleepers are almost always $15-$20. Not a lot of money and a great way to budget travel. Many offer overnight trips, so it counts as a night of accommodation, which is like a double win. You can almost always arrange these trips through your hotel or hostel. If you are planning more a more detailed trip and like to plan ahead, I would suggest doing it online with a reputable company like 12togoAsia.com.
Out of all of these, we have come to prefer the large bus when we can. It is simply a more comfortable ride, and luggage is stored underneath in the lower compartment. They are generally cleaner and more organized with assigned seating. If we cannot take a big bus and are forced to take a smaller bus or van, we recommend NOT sitting in the back. Anywhere behind the rear axle and every bump and turn will be amplified 2-fold. Try to sit in the middle or as close to the front as possible. On big buses, the same advice applies, and if there is a toilet, it is always in the back. The same goes for sleeper buses, and while the upper bunks have a bit more room, I was not a fan of the movement, being so high above the center of gravity. I felt like the bus was going to roll over! (Enter the earlier Xanax comment.)
You should also know a little about your route: how long it will be, how trusty it is, and what the road conditions are during the time of the year you are traveling. It will help you to make your own decision on what to choose if you have to travel by land.
I will cover domestic air travel abroad and alternative methods of travel soon!