I was warm and cosy in my little fort, racing through the night on a train bound for Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Every now and again I’d look out the window and watch the countryside rush past, content in the fact that this was a hell of a lot better than catching a sleeper bus.
I was having so much fun, snacking and lounging, pretending that I was on a spaceship on its way to Mars, that I almost forgot to sleep; a problem I never encountered on sleeper buses in either Laos or Vietnam.
On those journeys all I could think about was getting some sleep, some respite from the sounds of traffic, the bouncing around and the stiffness in my joints because my seat was designed for a much smaller man.
And that, my friends, is just the first reason why a sleeper train in Southeast Asia is far superior to a sleeper bus: the train will not leave you feeling suicidal when you finally get to your destination.
What to expect
I said it before in my guide to Vietnamese sleeper buses and I’ll say it again: I’m not a tall man, nor am I short one – but in Asia I’m like a big fat giant when compared to the average man on the street.
Suffice it to say, Southeast Asian sleeper bus weren’t really designed with my frame in mind. I’m both broader and taller than the average Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Thai, so bus drivers would often stick me down the back of the bus where the seats are a little bit longer.
Now that was very kind of them but there are three main problems with being stuck down the back: you’re more likely to bounce around all night because you’re sleeping right on top of the rear axle; the toilet is at the back of the bus so you’ll have to put up with the door slamming open and shut every couple of minutes or so (not to mention the smell); and, finally, you’ll be the last one off the bus.
You won’t encounter the same problem on a sleeper train in Asia, where the only thing to bear in mind is that the beds on the bottom are likely to be a little bit bigger than the ones on top – and they often cost a little bit more as a result.
It comes as no surprise that sleeper trains are considerably more expensive than sleeper buses in general – but you may be surprised how quickly the trains sell out in Vietnam in particular, where you’d do well to book your journey on the Reunification Express at least two days before departure.
Meanwhile, it’s better to be a solo traveller on a sleeper train than a bus, where you may be forced to get up-close and personal with whoever you end up sitting next to on some sleeper buses.
However, life on a sleeper train isn’t always fun and games. On Thai sleeper trains you’ll have to wait until after dinner for the train’s crew to make up your bed, at which point it’s only the most vocal who will have their beds made up first, and you will be woken up to two hours before you arrive at your destination so that the crew can unmake the beds again in the morning.
Annoyingly, on some sleeper trains the lights won’t go out at all – a huge inconvenience for people sleeping on the top bunk.
Only a crazy person would prefer a sleeper bus to a sleeper train and only a mentalist would prefer a hard-sleeper to a soft one on an overnight train – but a backpacker on a strict budget might in fact prefer to take a bus or book a hard-sleeper purely because it’s a considerably cheaper option in Thailand and Vietnam. (In Laos you’ll likely have no choice but to catch the bus.)
In either instance – sleeper bus or sleeper train – you’ll want to bring plenty of water on board, some snacks, warm clothes and an iPod, Mp3 player or some good old-fashioned earplugs.
Be careful with your carry-on luggage as it’s not unheard of for things to go missing during the night; in fact, I’ve even heard stories of backpacks and rucksacks going walkabout in the middle of the night – but there isn’t a lot you’ll be able to do about that, besides keep all your valuables on your person.
The meals on sleeper trains are generally inexpensive but cost slightly more than they do on steady ground. You can often save yourself a little bit of money by walking to the dining car to order your meal rather than by ordering from the man in your carriage (you’ll know who I’m talking about within a couple of minutes of taking off from the station).
In my time I have caught more South East Asian sleeper buses than trains due to the budget I was on backpacking through the region but there is no doubt in my mind that the latter is the superior mode of transport.
However, some sleeper buses are in fact superior to others. Buses in Laos, weirdly, are usually a lot better than their Vietnamese counterparts, with an additional level to the bus allowing for larger beds and more cushioning.
A good rule of thumb to remember is you often get what you pay for – and the destination is almost always worth the journey.
For more hints, tips and advice about sleeper buses do check out my handy guide to Vietnamese sleeper buses.