If you’re traveling in Southeast Asia, they are hard to escape: night buses. I personally think they’re a great way to get around and even used them to travel from Luang Prabang to Koh Lanta over land. You don’t waste time travelling during the day and you save money on accommodation. I even take them when I backpack in Europe and North America. As a backpacker, there is simply no better way to get around.
My favorite European bus company is Flixbus, but I usually check Omio to see if there are even cheaper local alternatives. In Southeast Asia, there are always lots of different options and most of them won’t be available online. I prefer to book buses through my accommodation, at the bus station or a booking office on the street, that’s usually the cheapest. Night buses tend to book up faster than regular buses, so I advise you to get your ticket at least a day in advance. If you do want to book online in Southeast Asia, I’ve had good experiences with 12go.asia and baolau.
The trick to surviving night buses is much like a long haul flight: getting as much sleep as possible. As a seasoned backpacker my body is now capable of sleeping pretty much anywhere: buses, trains, airports, couches. As long as it is isn’t upright, I’ll find a way to sleep. With night buses the trick is to make yourself as comfortable as possible, by wearing your comfiest clothing (I usually go for leggings) and by taking all the necessary things with you on board. This is what I pack on a night bus:
Snacks and water
Night buses are kept cool by A/C, which is great, but it does make you thirsty. Most buses will provide you with a small bottle of water, but make sure you bring a large bottle of your own as well.
And pack some nutritious snacks while you’re at it, you never know if and when the next food stop will be. I usually take some fruit, nuts and cookies.
Neck pillow, eye mask and ear plugs
Even with a reclining seat, a neck pillow is crucial for sleeping. I have an inflatable one because it saves space and works almost as well. To shield yourself from the light and noise, make sure you pack a good eye mask and ear plugs as well. It’s hard to sleep with traffic lights flashing in your face or through the noise of other passengers and Thai karaoke music.
Sweater, scarf and socks
Even in a warm climate like Southeast Asia, it will still be cold inside the bus. The A/C on night buses is on full blast, partly for your comfort and partly to keep the bus driver awake. Often there will be a blanket provided, but make sure you also take a sweater, a scarf (which can double as a make shift blanket or rolled up into a pillow) and warm socks. I also cannot stress enough how cold you’ll get if you wear shorts and a top on a night bus, this is the time to bust out those elephant pants or leggings.
Fresh pair of underwear
Chances are you’ll arrive to early to check into your accommodation so take a fresh pair of underwear to change into so you won’t feel as grimy the whole day.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, face wipes and deodorant
Speaking of grimy: there is nothing that I hate more than not brushing my teeth before bed. Take your toothbrush, toothpaste, some facewipes and deodorant with you so you can freshen up before bed and after waking up in the morning.
This is not just for night buses, but travel in general. Always have a roll of toilet paper or a pack of tissues with you. You do not want to go to the bathroom just to find out there is no toiletpaper after you do your business.
I knew that I could sleep on flights, trains and buses without a sleeping aid in Europe, but I was a bit hesitant about the buses in Southeast Asia. So I went to the pharmacy in Vietnam where you can buy sleeping pills over the counter. For 80.000 Dong (about 3 USD) I got a whole strip of Valium. And it works like a charm. I took one on each of my night buses in Southeast Asia and slept for 5-6 hours straight. It might not get you through the whole trip, but will definitely help you pass the time and feel a bit more alive when you arrive.
Most buses do not have plugs to charge your phone, so bring a portable charger to avoid running our of juice. Also, be sure to look up directions to your accommodation and pin it on Google Maps or maps.me beforehand if you don’t have data.
Phone/laptop/tablet or book
Unlike flights, buses don’t provide onboard entertainement (unless you count loud Thai karaoke, which I don’t) and you won’t be able to sleep the whole 12 hours. So bring your phone, tablet or laptop with some Netflix episodes downloaded or a good book to keep you occupied.
Although the cargo hold of night buses are generally safe (with the buses from Khao San road to Krabi as the exception!), it is always smarter to keep valuables like money, credit card, passport and phone on you. Use a purse or money belt to keep them on your body while you sleep.
There you go, these tips should help you survive along night bus ride. Do you have any additional tips and tricks? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
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