Ahhh the notorious night buses of Asia. You may be familiar with the many horror stories that filter down through backpackers of how awful, traumatic and dangerous they can be, but I’m here to tell ya that they can be fun! Well, perhaps I should say that they can be entertaining, confusing, bewildering, adrenaline pumping and bonding. If that’s what you’d class as fun then you might not mind taking the cheap journeys in Asia on a night bus.

My experiences of the night bus are from Southeast Asia and I’ve reaped interesting tales from each trip. But I’ve learnt a lot from these little adventures and feel I can assist you in surviving a night traveling Asia by bus. All aboard!

travelettes night bus southeast asia sophie saint

1. Always be prepared

This classic Boy Scout mantra applies to these night time adventures. Do not board the bus without a full bottle of water, snacks, a charged iPod and an eye mask. Stops for refreshments are sporadic and random, so if you find yourself starving hungry, you may have to befriend fellow passengers for a nibble as there could even be NO stops scheduled!

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Of course you won’t actually know what the schedule is and the driver probably has no idea either so there is no point in asking. But if there are stops, you can bet it will be at an overpriced roadside cafe that has stayed up late with hiked up prices to snare hungry travelers.

Eat a big meal before boarding and this will probably tie you over for a while – lets just hope your bus doesn’t break down though.

2. Stagger your water intake

I learnt this by chugging half a litre of water after a salty dinner and then boarding the coach. Unfortunately, on Vietnamese night buses, you are not guaranteed a toilet on board like the Thai buses. I found myself praying to all the gods to not let me wet myself and wildly looked around for some form of help.

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It didn’t get to the point where I had to pee in a bottle, but when they stopped to let some locals on (more on that later), I begged the driver to let me pee by the motorway. I left my dignity on the bus and went for it. Best wee ever.

So in conclusion, stagger your water intake incase you find yourself sobbing over your bursting bladder with no toilet in sight.

3. Meet some rad new people

What do you get if you jam about 50 people into a confined space for an extended period of time? A bit of classic bonding of course!

Night buses are a great way to meet new travelers and have a little natter whilst on the road. I met some lovely people and actually ended up sharing hotel rooms with them when we got dumped on Khao San Road in Bangkok at 5am. A much needed nap in a comfy bed and a shower is definitely in order if you haven’t managed to sleep all night, and splitting the room price with a new friend is a bonus!

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Comrades are made when things go awry. When we were marooned by the roadside for 8 hours in the wilderness of Vietnam with a broken bus, we chatted about anything and everything whilst we slowly bought all the stock of a nearby shop. It was actually quite fun despite the constant thoughts of ‘Will we ever get there? Or is this our new home?’ as everyone was just stoked to be traveling.

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4. Expect stowaways

Vietnamese tourist buses, whether they’re traveling by day or night, stop constantly to pick up/drop off locals. It’s quite endearing that they’re providing some lifts to their mates, but it can be quite claustrophobic. One night bus saw about 20 vietnamese jump onboard – they lay under seats and in the aisle. When sitting at the very back, seeing a mass of bodies between you and the exit, it can get a bit stifling. What to do? Go to sleep. Or go to your happy place.

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5. Keep valuables safe

I know of people who have left valuables in their big backpack and had it stowed below in the baggage compartment. Rumors have it that sometimes stowaways will be hiding in there to slice open your bag and steal anything of value. Although it hasn’t happened to me, I would always keep my valuables in my little bag that stays on my lap on the bus and avoid placing anything out of sight under my seat.

Sure, there could be stowaways looking for a quick buck, but you never know if the hippie sitting across the aisle might be eyeing up your goods. Don’t treat everyone like an imminent threat, just be as wary as you would be at home about your valuables!

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If you wouldn’t put your bag on the seat beside you and turn away from it on your home bus/tube/metro, then don’t do it when travelling. Travel smart and always know where your stuff is, especially on a night bus where you’re bound to doze and be quite groggy.

6. Expect some creepy crawlies

Unfortunately, I’ve traveled alongside some delightful cockroaches and other bugs aboard Thai buses. But these buses are cheap for a reason!

Just make sure you’ve got some mozzie spray in your handbag as sometimes a few can be trapped on board, and it sucks having to keep swatting when you just want to relax.

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I traveled on a local bus in Vietnam, and that was one heck of an experience! Despite it being stifling hot and me being stared at, it was extremely entertaining to help pass baskets of clucking chickens to fellow passengers! Although, I lost my smile when I leant against a package for an hour… Then realized it was a pig carcass.

7. Expect the unexpected

You have to have faith that you will get to your destination. Even when shit really hits the fan!

When you buy a ticket from the tourist office or your hotel, you take it for granted that they will get you there. I have always got there, but not without some mishaps on the way. Ridiculous yet hilarious mishaps:

Scenario 1: A tire blew. But luck had it that we happened to break down right next to a Vietnamese mechanic in the middle of nowhere. What are the chances?! Thank you, Travel Gods!

Solution: Hang out, watch chickens scratch in the dirt, take a pee in a bush, then before we knew it, it was all fixed by one insanely strong elderly Vietnamese gentleman and we were on our way again.

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Scenario 2: After a rest stop, everyone got back on the bus and off we went, hitting the dusty road! Then I noticed four empty seats behind me. That’s right, the driver had left some of our fellow passengers behind!

Solution: Cue a quick U-turn to find some pretty stressed out travelers running after us. Pretty funny as it didn’t happen to me, but this is something to note: befriend fellow travelers and ask them to make sure they keep the bus waiting if you need to pop to the loo or buy a snack at a rest stop.

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Scenario 3: We broke down in the middle of the night. I woke up and everyone was very confused and chattering. The driver was nowhere to be seen and dawn broke on a new day and we were a solid 9 hours behind schedule.

Solution: The driver was found asleep in the luggage compartment, then he cheekily hightailed out the situation on the back of a mate’s motorbike. Well, there wasn’t much to do apart from sit, chat and wait it out. The kindness of strangers and locals come into this as we were looked after until a local bus swung by and picked us up. Patience is a virtue, and this really gave me some practice.

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8. Try get some sleep

I find it pretty darn hard to sleep whilst sitting upright, so I’m the one awake all through a long haul flight creating weird 90’s playlists on their inflight entertainment system, lit up by the electronic glow with eyes wide awake.

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You can get sleeping aids from pharmacies to help soothe you to sleep, but if you happen to get on a sleeper bus in Vietnam, you’ll be laughing! I had the pleasure of riding one of these, and it was unbelievably comfortable. Instead of seats, you have bunk beds running down the sides and middle of the bus, meaning you can fully recline and sleep like you would in a bed. Bliss!!

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If you’re not lucky to get on one of these, make sure you have an early start to your day. The buses usually leave in the early evenings, so jam pack in lots of activity in your day to tire yourself out. Indulge in a delicious  meal, steer clear of anything too spicy or suspicious (remember the whole loo thing) and take a soft jumper or sarong to wrap around yourself when it gets a bit chilly during the night. Be comfortable and hopefully sleep will come to you, or just rest up for your arrival.

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I think you can tell that you never know what to expect aboard an Asian night bus, but hopefully it’ll be more comical and mildly annoying, rather than catastrophic.

Get on the bus, make sure your iPod and water bottle is full and be ready for anything. Pray your travels to be smooth, but if you want adventure, sometimes a mere night bus can provide it better than the destination. Happy traveling!

All photographs by Sophie Saint

Sophie Saint was one of the original travelettes, from 2009 – 2017. After fleeing the UK with ink barely dry on her graduation certificate, she traversed the world with a backpack and spent a few years living in Melbourne – one of her favourite cities in the world.

She finally returned to the UK after a few years where she now whiles time away zipping off for European escapes, crocheting and daydreaming of owning her own hostel somewhere hot to live out eternal summers. See what she’s up to over on her blog saintsonaplane.com and instagram: @saintsonaplane