South East Asian Buses and How To Survive Them

Things to expect when travelling by local bus in South East Asia:

  • In the wet season, the roads in Cambodia and Laos will be flooded. In the dry season, they will be dusty. All year round, they will be pot-holed. You will discover a new-found appreciation for tarmacadam.


  • The journey will become all the more exciting when you notice that the windscreen and some of the windows have massive cracks in them, adding the frisson of possible broken glass every time you hit a pot-hole (approximately every 5 seconds).
  • The driver will cover up the non-cracked portion of his windscreen with a large decorative religious icon. The good fortune that this brings apparently off-sets the reduced visibility.
  • In Asian buses, the horns put a protective forcefield around the vehicle, ergo it is perfectly safe to overtake on blind corners etc, as long as you are sounding your horn continuously.
  • There may be in-bus entertainment. In Cambodia, this will consist of a constant loop of karaoke videos.  In Laos, it may be videos of girls dancing in tiny hotpants.
  • A bus with 24 seats can accommodate 50 people, plus luggage.   Arrive at the bus station early to increase you chances of getting a seat, rather than a plastic stool or standing room only.
  • The locals are terrible travellers and many of them will be travel-sick.  The roads are so bumpy and windy, that you may also feel a little groggy yourself, even if you don’t usually suffer.
  • Your neighbour’s hand luggage may consist of six sacks of rice and a motorcycle engine.  You may have to accommodate some of these items under your feet or on your lap.
  • I always thought that expecting foreigners to understand you if you speak slowly and loudly was a purely British idiosyncrasy. It turns out that it’s a universal phenomenon and you may end up sat next to someone who seems convinced that you spoke Vietnamese in a previous life and will remember it all if they just keep talking to you.  The correct response is to say where you are from  (which is probably what they are asking) as follows:  “I’m from Britain.  England?  London?  Manchester United?  David Beckham?”  If they still don’t understand then, just make up your own side of the conversation and reply in English.  Hopefully they will eventually realise that since they don’t understand you, you probably don’t understand them either.

Things to bring with you:

1.  Travel sickness pills – NOT the non-drowsy kind, the drowsy kind; then hopefully you will sleep for most of the way.

2.  Water and snacks (cereal bars recommended) – you never know when the next stop will be.

3. Toilet paper/ tissue and hand sanitiser – the places you stop at will not bee equipped with loo roll or soap.

4. A jumper – sometimes the buses are fiercely air-conditioned.


5. An MP3 player with Radio 4 downloads.  It passes the time much faster than music and you can block out screaming babies, Laotian pornography and the sounds of the other passengers’ vomiting.  You will be in your own little civilised bubble where Sandi Toksvig has just said something amusing about George Osborne and all is right with the world.

Finally, remember that getting the local bus is always cheaper and much more fun than getting the “VIP” tourist bus.  Plus, in some places you will be a real novelty and get so much interest from the locals that you feel like a celebrity!


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