Buses in Asia

Tips, Safety, Choosing a Seat, and What to Expect

bused in Asia
Photo by Greg Rodgers

From rattling 'chicken buses' to luxurious coaches with Wi-Fi, taking buses in Asia is always an adventure. Even with an abundance of low-cost airlines, riding a long-haul bus is usually the best way to cover a lot of ground in Asian countries.

Every serious traveler in Asia has more than a few tales of nightmarish, 14-hour bus journeys. Staying safe and sane on those long buses in Asia requires a little experience and a whole lot of patience.

Learn all about transportation in Asia.

Tips for a More Comfortable Bus Journey

  • Long-haul buses in Asia often have the air conditioning cranked to maximum; the drivers even wear coats! Keep warm clothes handy just in case.
  • The blankets provided on sleeper buses often go unwashed. Bring your own sheet or blanket to be sure.
  • The food and snacks on VIP buses aren't much to get excited about; the same applies to overpriced food available at roadside stops during breaks. Bring your own snacks and food to break up the monotony of the trip.
  • Most long-haul buses have squat toilets on board, however, using one in the dark on a swaying bus can be challenging. Plan ahead and make a run for toilets at breaks -- stops are often short and the queues are long!
  • Even buses that appear well maintained from the outside may have poor suspension. Opt for seats in the middle of the bus to avoid bumpy rides.
  • If riding on a local bus without many tourists, ensure that the driver or assistant know your intended destination. Knowing when to get off can be a challenge sometimes, especially if you're sat near the rear of the bus.

See some useful tips for taking overnight buses in Asia.

Paying for Your Ride

The method of booking bus tickets varies from place to place. The safest bet is always to book long-haul buses at least a day in advance. Keep your ticket and receipt; lost tickets are rarely reimbursed. You can usually book transportation in travel offices and at reception desks for an added commission. Otherwise, make your own way to the station to book your own passage.

On many buses in Asia, you will simply pay once the bus is already underway. An assistant will come around and collect money based on how far you are riding. When paying your fare on the bus, don't expect the driver to have change for large banknotes. Always try to keep some small change handy for transportation in Asia.

Buses in Asia are rarely—if ever—considered 'full.' You can actually hail passing buses on roads by lifting your hand and then pointing to the ground in front of you with palm turn down. You'll only be charged for the distance traveled, regardless of whether you get a real seat or not. Don't linger or try to speak to the driver beyond just asking the final destination; holding up transportation is considered extremely bad form!

Choosing a Seat

  • While sometimes you'll be assigned a real seat number for your journey, often you'll be able to choose where you sit. Choose your seat wisely; changing later may not be an option!
  • If the road has rough patches—and they often do—the most stable section of the bus is typically in the middle. Avoid sitting directly on top of the front or rear axles, as you'll feel every bump!
  • If your luggage is stored in compartments accessible from the outside, try to sit on the same side of the bus as your bags so that you can watch from the window if people disembark before you.
  • Avoid seats directly in front of the television if you wish to sleep. Seats in the rear beneath the air conditioning often turn into wet, torturous affairs if condensation causes a drip later down the road.
  • If on a sleeper bus, ensure that your seat reclines and that the mechanism isn't broken.
  • If you plan to alight before the final destination of the bus, try to sit near the front where the driver or assistant can warn you before your stop arrives.
  • Keep in mind the direction that you are traveling. Choose a seat that keeps you out of the afternoon sun. If traveling in mountainous terrain, pick a seat with the best view -- that is, if you can handle looking over the edge into the valley below!
  • So-called 'no-survival-seats often have the most legroom, however, many locals choose to avoid them in case that there is an accident. Seat belts are rarely available on buses in Asia. Seats directly in the front of the bus, center seats in the back of the bus, and seats facing the access stairs are considered the least safe. If safety is a concern, opt for a seat that has another seat in front of it. Read more about staying safe in Asia.

Theft on Buses in Asia

Transportation hubs tend to attract plenty of petty theft due to the crowds and transient nature. While violent crime is rarely a problem in Asia, tourists are sometimes the target of petty crimes.

Keep your belongings close at hand, both while on and off of the bus. If the bus stops for a short break, take your day bag and personal items with you rather than leaving them in your seat. Never fall asleep with a phone or MP3 player in your hands. Avoid putting your personal bag near the aisle; keep it beneath your feet.

Any luggage stored in the hold beneath the bus could be opened by the bus assistants who riffle through bags for small items. You may not notice that something is missing until long after the bus is gone.

The problem with theft on night buses is especially rife in Thailand. Read more about getting around in Thailand.

Upgrade to VIP

One of the oldest scams in the books is to offer an upgrade from the 'regular' bus to a 'VIP' bus. A majority of the time, customers are simply put onto the same standard bus. Pretty much every bus in Asia—regardless of the age or condition—says 'VIP' on the side! A majority of long-haul buses have air conditioning, toilets, and even movies. Real VIP buses may provide cheap, sugary snacks and small bottles of water—hardly worth the difference in price for an upgrade.

See these 10 budget travel tips to save money.

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