Surviving Sleeper Buses in Southeast Asia

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In Southeast Asia, I got the joy of traveling in a lot a buses, in particular sleeper buses.  There is a lot of hate out there for sleeper buses, and a lot of that is deserved. Below you’ll read a few experiences of mine on sleeper buses. As well as, information on what to expect and how to prepare for riding one.

    1. In Vietnam you will be asked to sleep on the top bunk and they will have raised seats:  In these delights of transportation you will be sitting half upright all night with your legs descending into a dark cavernous hole.  When I finally got the chance to exit this awkward hell on earth my legs were covered in spider bites.  You will also be asked to sit on the top bunk.  Not the worst thing in the world to do, but be aware it will be a rougher ride than on the bottom bunk.  
    2. Most likely there will not be bathrooms: Sometimes there will be a tiny bathroom located in the back, but in my experience they were always locked.  Depending on the driver, you may or may not have a stop on your overnight trip.  When you do stop it will be on the side of the road.  Don’t be afraid to bravely follow a bunch of other women into the dark jungle, or as a man urinate on the side of the road.  When you do stop at a place with public restroom you will typically have to pay a small amount.  My worst experience on a sleeper bus was on my way to Sapa in Vietnam when I had the most interesting night of bladder roulette of my life.  There was a conspicuous lack of bathrooms on the bus, the driver did not make any restroom stops, and then we were held hostage for an hour after our arrival.  When we had finally arrived at our destination the bus driver locked the door right before he himself curled up in the drivers bed.  Which, luckily for him was a flat bed, and not one of the half raised sleeper monstrosities that I had just endured for the last 5 hours.  We had been told by the station agent that this would happen to keep us safe until a time when the drivers and taxis would arrive, but it was still jarring.  I remember sitting for close to another hour of torture, wondering if I was ever going to get the chance to relieve myself.  Luckily I was saved by a brashy, curly haired blonde in a long red jumper.  She confidently walked up to the sleeping bus driver, and poked him several times to get his attention.  However, he was very adept at ignoring her, so she stated very loudly, “I’m turning the bus on and opening the doors I need to pee.”  Which she did very deliberately, and released us all into that early morning light.
    3. As a female solo traveler: When you are traveling alone in Cambodia, and ride the Vikram bus line, the beds are meant for two.  For me it wasn’t an issue because I had someone with me.  However, you always hear of someone, that had heard of someone, having an issue as a female solo traveler on these bus lines.  Here are ways you can try and avoid the awkwardness of sleeping next to a male stranger:  one girl bought two tickets in an attempt to make sure she could have the whole bed to herself.  Unfortunately, in this case they oversold the bus so they made her sleep next to someone anyway.  On one of the buses I rode, I noticed that one solo female traveler asked to join the bunk of two other female travelers.  You can employ these methods, or any others if you’re squeamish about laying in cramped quarters next to a stranger.     
    4. You will have to remove your shoes:  When you get on the bus, you will be asked to please remove your shoes, and place them in a plastic bag.  One time I was stupid and wore lace up boots.  Don’t be like me, wear flip flops.
    5. You will probably be cold: Bring a sweater if you are one that gets cold easily.  Luckily I overheat quickly, so a sweater wasn’t necessary for me.   
    6. You probably won’t actually sleep: With this in mind I would try not to schedule activities for the morning you arrive at your destination.  When we got to Sapa we had an activity of immediately hiking rice terraces.  The misery for me was compounded because I had sprained my ankle from the previous night of walking the streets of Hanoi.  It was an experience I’ll never forget, but I am confident in saying I would have enjoyed it more had I gotten the chance to sleep before immediately beginning a hike in the mountains.   
    7. When the police show up: Although you may not feel comfortable being led away from all of your worldly possessions that you’ve stuffed in your backpack underneath the bus, when the cops show up, you might as well just do it.  While waiting for the bus in Sapa to get back to Hanoi, the bus station manager told the westerners idly sitting around waiting for the chance to board the bus, that we had to leave the station and follow him. That the police were coming to check everything out.  The majority of the twenty year olds initially balked at the idea of leaving their bags that they had just loaded and following a stranger away from the bus station.  However, as we hear the majority of the time in Southeast Asia “no, no, it’s ok.”   So we all followed this man to a street corner a couple of blocks away.  As we waited for the hour to pass before the bus finally showed up to our corner we often heard “just 10 more minutes.”  As a traveler you pretty much just have to trust in the universe that everything is going to be ok, and it generally is and everything will always take just 10 minutes more.
    8. The bus might break down: Granted the bus I was on that broke down wasn’t a sleeper bus.  However, buses break down, it happens.  With that in mind try not to keep your plans too scheduled, because things can, and often do, switch on a dime.  But don’t worry, you won’t be left stranded, another bus always comes along.  

 

 

Although all this sounds awful, sleeper buses are survivable, and actually kind of fun.  In an awkward, sleepless, getting bitten by spiders, and never knowing when you’re going to be able to pee next sort of way.  Also, they are the easiest and cheapest way to get around so more than likely, if you go to Southeast Asia, you will ride a sleeper bus at some point.

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