You think taking a bus to work during rush hour is a long time to be on a bus? Try taking a 14-hour sleeper bus journey overnight from Vientiane to Laos’ Four Thousand Islands, and then another day-long bus journey to Cambodia just a few days later.
I was such a shambling wreck of a man by the end of it, that I’m sure I looked like I’d come straight out of Night of the Living Dead.
As much as I love travelling in South East Asia – and I really do love it – travel via sleeper bus can be an incredibly awful experience. I can’t sleep while travelling by planes, trains or automobiles at the best of times, but it’s so much worse when you’re bouncing around through the night on shoddy, pot-hole filled roads, while trying to nod-off in a bed that’s made for a man who’s half your size.
And then you might be the unfortunate person who has to try to sleep next to the toilet in the back of the bus, having to put up with the foot traffic and the smell. When you’re finally just about asleep, the toilet door will slam open and wake you because someone idiot didn’t close it properly.
If there is a hell, I think it’s a sleeper bus journey that never ends – it just goes on and on and on for eternity. Now there’s a cheery thought.
On the other hand, I’ve always quite enjoyed catching a sleeper train in Asia. In my experience, they’re infinitely more comfortable – especially if you’ve got the bottom bunk. I’d always recommend taking a sleep train if you can, but sometimes you just don’t have that option.
With that in mind, here’s a list of what you should pack to make your sleeper bus journey a little bit more tolerable…
Pack this stuff in a small backpack or daypack, because you’ll want to keep it on your person at all times, so it won’t get stolen and you’ll have easy access to it in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, that means you’ll also be sharing a tiny little bed with it.
You’ll need to pack some food because, in my experience, the bus never stops as often as you’d like. And when it does stop, it’s often somewhere you don’t want to eat, or you won’t have enough time for a meal.
For the same reason as above, you need to bring a bottle of water. However, go easy on the drink, as not all sleeper buses have toilets on them – at least one of the three sleeper buses I caught did not have a toilet on it.
Sometimes the bus driver will crank the air conditioning so high, that your lips will turn blue. Specifically, bring socks and a jersey.
Or the temperature on the sleeper bus could be a million degrees, in which case you’ll want to wear less clothes. Do not assume it’ll be hot or cold – prepare for both.
I didn’t have a travel pillow, but my wife did – and she had a much more comfortable time on sleeper busses and trains than I ever did.
If you’ve got a phone, make sure it’s fully charged and packed full of some kick-ass podcasts. I recommend bad movie/comedy podcast The Flophouse, character actor Stephen Tobolowsky’s The Tobolowsky Files, Kevin Smith’s Hollywood Babble-On, or anything else that’ll keep your mind entertained during the long journey.
I can’t read on a bus without getting motion sick, so I’d listen to audio books when I wasn’t listening to podcasts. One audio book I remember enjoying on one of these long journeys was Tina Fey reading her autobiography Bossypants.
If you’ve got a laptop, netbook or tablet, make sure it’s full charged and packed full of movies and TV shows. Usually, the road will be too rough to be able to enjoy these without feeling ill, but sometimes the road is smooth and straight enough that it’s okay to watch something.
It can get pretty noisy sometimes on the bus. Once, on a 12-hour sleeper bus journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An in Vietnam (or was it Hoi An to Hanoi?), the radio started blearing at 4am. And then you’ve got all the other assholes on the road honking their horns all throughout the night.
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t have a sleep mask, then bring an extra t-short or something that you can put over your eyes and block out any light from passing vehicles and towns.
If you’re not travelling with your partner, you should try to travel with a close friend. Why is that? Well, besides having someone to talk to, you should bring a friend to take the bed next to you – otherwise on some sleeper buses you’ll be forced to get a little too intimate with a complete stranger.
That’s right. On sleeper buses in Laos in particular, those beds are awfully close together – and sometimes there’s no division between where one bed ends and the other begins. You’ll pretty much be sharing a double bed with someone. (Thanks to @grantbton on Twitter for reminding me of that fact.)
Finally, as we say in New Zealand, you’ll need to take some concrete pills and harden up. The destination will make the journey worthwhile.
While you’re here, check out these Vietnam travel tips (learnt the hard way).