Tips for Taking Night Buses in Asia

How to Survive an Overnight Bus in Asia

Tourist bus in Thailand
Philip Game / Getty Images

Adhering to a few tips for night buses in Asia could mean the difference between an interminable ride and a restful journey. Sometimes getting the right seat on the right bus is simply luck of the draw, but there are some variables you can control.

All night buses share one thing in common: they save you a night of accommodation and a day of your trip otherwise lost to transportation.

Night buses in Asia certainly aren’t equal. The overnight buses in Burma are surprisingly luxurious (think: selectable music channels and provided headphones) while many of the night buses in Vietnam and China have awkward seats fixed in horizontal positions. The night buses in India, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia are a mixed bag that ranges between enjoyable and nightmarish.

Prepare Your Luggage

Regardless of what type of bus you’ll be taking, your luggage could potentially end up soaked, abused, and filthy. Bags are frequently tossed from buses or compressed beneath hundreds of pounds of other luggage: pack accordingly!

Bus companies may make a loose effort to cover luggage transported atop of buses with a tarp, but a heavy shower will inevitably soak everything. Internal luggage holds are sometimes wet and dirty. Use a waterproof cover for backpacks. If traveling with a suitcase, line the inside with a large garbage bag and wrap everything before closing.

Security on Night Buses

Sadly, overnight buses are a convenient place for thieves to do what they do best. Petty thefts occur on overnight buses throughout Southeast Asia. In Nepal, items are even stolen from luggage stored on top of buses. In Thailand, bus assistants crawl into the luggage holds beneath buses and rifle through bags while rolling down the road!

When the bus stops, you’ll often find yourself dealing with a busy transportation hub and offers from drivers and hotel touts, so there won’t be time to take an inventory of your belongings. Realistically, most travelers usually don’t discover that smaller items are missing until days or weeks later.

There are a few ways you can lower the risk of becoming a target:

  • Know the details of your bus: You should record the name or number of your bus, license plate (a quick photo is easy and can be deleted later), and phone numbers for the company (check the ticket or side of the bus). Although local police may not be much help, report missing items anyway to the company and the police; remaining silent doesn’t contribute to a solution. A cumulative effort may eventually draw some heat to the bus crew.
  • Make your stored belongings as inconvenient as possible: Cover backpacks, use locks on suitcases, and pack the dirtiest laundry you’re carrying on top. With 50 or more bags to choose from, a thief may simply close yours and move on to the next one.
  • Keep everything of value with you: Keeping money, your passport, jewelry, and electronics in your small bag with you at your seat is common sense, but bus thieves are particularly interested in the smaller things, too:
    • Flashlights and headlamps
    • Pocket knives
    • Travel alarm clocks
    • USB chargers
    • Batteries
    • Replacement razor blades
    • Sunscreen (it can be pricey in tropical Asian countries)

These types of items usually go unnoticed for a while and can be easily resold in markets to travelers later.

Rig Your Luggage

Crafty travelers have learned to configure their bags in sneaky ways to tell if someone has opened them. Draw the internal string only halfway closed on backpacks; if it’s fully closed later, someone has looked inside. Suitcase zippers can be connected together with string; a thief won’t see or be able to replace the “tripwire.”

Choosing a Seat

  • If seating isn’t assigned, you’ll have only a quick moment to pick your seat -- your bed for the night -- as you climb on board.
  • Seats directly in front of screens can be noisy and distracting when movies come on. The same applies to sitting directly beneath speakers: the sound is often cranked up so everyone on the bus can enjoy.
  • Some seats on older buses are broken and locked upright; check to see that yours reclines properly before committing.
  • The seats directly above the rear axle are always the bumpiest on the bus. The middle seats are the least bumpy.
  • The seats at the very front have the most legroom on double-decker night buses. Plus, you’ll enjoy the luxury of not having someone recline a seat in front of you.

Toilets on Night Buses

If there is a toilet on your night bus, it could potentially be a wet, cramped, bumpy affair. Squat toilets are common on many buses.

Toilet breaks may be rare on some journeys as your Redbull-fueled driver pushes through the night to finish his shift. A single, 15-minute stop on an eight-hour trip is commonplace.

Taking Breaks

Passengers are thankful for a chance to stretch when a rare break finally comes. Roadside rest areas catering to tourist buses can become busy and frantic as everyone has only a short time to grab food or use the toilet.

Food options range from unidentifiable local snacks (even fried insects in Laos and some countries!) to full-spread buffets, but one thing remains the same: you won’t have much time to eat. Don’t lallygag; another bus may arrive immediately behind yours and extend the wait time for food.

Don’t leave your belongings on the bus when stepping off for a break. Keep them with you at all times.

Tip: In very busy rest areas, nearly identical buses may line up around yours. Have a good idea where you’re parked and look for other passengers you recognize. Drivers will typically sound the horn a few times before pulling away. Bus attendants may take a loose headcount, but not getting left behind is ultimately your responsibility!

Other Tips for Taking Night Buses

The air conditioning predictably gets cranked to frigid levels on many night buses in Asia. Keep a fleece, sarong, or something warm with you to cover up. The provided blankets are sometimes of questionable cleanliness.

The term “VIP” is slung around to the point that pretty much every bus is a “VIP” bus in some way. Don’t pay an agent extra to upgrade to a VIP bus; you’ll probably end up on a regular night bus anyway.

Do as the locals do: bring lots of snacks! They’re good for morale and help the time pass.