Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On the buses

Night buses seemed like the ideal scenario when I started out travelling on a budget - by getting your cross-country journeys out of the way at night time, you could miss out on the boring parts of travel while simultaneously avoiding paying for a night's accommodation, thereby killing two birds with one bus. The perfect crime!

It wasn't until I actually took one and realised it's impossible to sleep when there's no leg room and an inconsiderate DVD player screening realistic rape scenes at inappropriate volume at 1AM that I started to realise the night bus' false economy.

Even after I took on more work and stopped living on such a tight budget, I still fell for the night bus trap occasionally, but with the benefit of experience I made sure each trip was followed by a day with no tourism obligations so I could catch up with afternoon naps. Over time I've got more used to sleeping on buses and can now manage as much as two interrupted hours most of the time. At this rate, I should be capable of falling asleep on any given surface at the drop of a hat when I'm an old man, which fits in well with my retirement plans.

Here's an unreliable breakdown of night buses by country, based on my own experience that's usually with a single firm and may not be representative of countries as a whole. But let's face it, most of them are pretty bad.


After progressing very, very, very slowly down Thailand's coast by train to reach the islands, I finally gave up and swapped charming and tedious for efficient and noisy when I headed back up to Bangkok on the first of many night buses.

I've travelled with quite a few different night buses in Thailand, which have all been around the same price but can vary significantly in quality, which by my standards means not subjecting me to a painfully loud pirated DVD of whatever Hollywood film a travel company presumes tourists will want to watch in the middle of the night rather than try to get some sleep.

Spending more time in this country, I learned that travelling on the government-operated buses with the local people is better than the self-styled 'VIP' buses for tourists, as not only is it more comfortable (if you buy your ticket earlier in the day, you can even ask for a seat with legroom), but during the early hours of the trip you can watch bemused as grown adults guffaw in unison at what could be easily mistaken for a kid's show. It seems comedy in Thailand is more about loud sound effects and dwarves in cowboy outfits getting custard pies in the face than puns and satire. But then, it wasn't so long ago that Brits considered Noel's House Party to be viable entertainment, so maybe we're not so refined after all.


Indonesian bus drivers are my least favourite in the world (so far - don't despair, other countries, there's still hope!) The first one, when I first arrived in Bali, didn't inform me when we passed my middle-of-nowhere stop like I'd asked him to, instead letting me off further down the road in another middle-of-nowhere stop where I had no option but to try to get some sleep in a field before buses started again in the morning. Maybe it was my fault, but it was such a lousy experience, I'd like to blame him.

The second one, when I took a night bus from East Java to Central Bali, spent the entire 14-hour journey reflexively honking the horn in a quest to get in front of every driver and be crowned king of the road. They optimistically gave us blankets and pillows, but there was no chance of getting sleep. What a dick.


True to form, I don't have any complaints about the night bus I took from Tokyo to Kyoto, apart from it being a little cramped. If you hear a tedious tourist complaining about the high price of the bullet train because they've forgotten roads exist, point them in the direction of Willer. No annoying TV or music, no need to be vigilant for thieving cabin crew, Japan was very therapeutic generally. It wouldn't last.


Bus is literally the only way to travel in Laos unless you're insane enough to tackle the winding, crumbling mountain passes by motorbike. After gradually working my way north by day, I opted against travelling by night on the way back down out of slight fear, and took a slightly gruelling 12-hour day bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane instead. At least I could get a lot of work done.

As much as my fellow passengers tried to impede that plan

If the term 'VIP' has lost its currency in Thailand, where travel firms seem convinced they can attract customers by plastering it in large, gaudy letters on the front of any old vehicle, it's been thoroughly destroyed in Laos, where I saw many companies advertising 'Normal,' 'VIP' and 'Super VIP' buses, whatever that even means. It reminds me of all those redundant re-releases of Street Fighter II Turbo Extreme Bodyslam Platinum Edition for the MegaDrive. Even if you pay a little more, you'll be travelling down the same precarious roads and first class doesn't guarantee you a less reckless driver.


They come so close to getting it right on Vietnamese night buses, which are cheaper and faster than the night trains (though you'll still need to exhaustively haggle with travel agents if you don't buy the ticket direct) and actually feature horizontal beds rather than normal chairs. Sounds good so far.

The mistake they make is playing non-stop Vietnamese 'classics' (which means Vietnamese language covers of 1980s Western pop hits) for the entire journey, which some of the local people on the bus take as permission to make loud phone calls, something I haven't seen in other countries. Maybe it's all that coffee keeping them awake, or maybe they're just insultingly thoughtless and rude, one or the other.


Is that supposed to be a chandelier? That's what I call Super VIP!

This country's tourism industry is still in its relative infancy, which was evident in the slightly confused night buses I took, some of which provide blankets and pillows but forget to switch off the loud music and others of which forget all about the blankets but instead blast sarcastically cold air onto the window seats through air conditioning vents you have to seal up using bin bags or other materials to hand. Do they think European tourists melt if they're not kept chilled? Who in the world wants to be that cold?


Predictably, the night bus I took in Australia (combined with a night train until the track ran out) was more comfortable than the average Asian bus, but it did destroy one of my misguided prejudices by not having more legroom. I guess Asian buses are designed for international legs after all, and buses are just universally stingy.

The downside of this night bus is that it was about six times more expensive than the same journey would have been in Thailand, a discrepancy between the countries in general, but at least I didn't have to wade through a swarm of shouting taxi drivers when I got to my destination. No one's aggressively offered me a taxi since I arrived in Australia, I'm going to miss this basic level of respect when I leave.

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