Adhering to a few tips for taking 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. If your time is tight or your budget tighter, making use of an overnight bus is the way to go. But there's a catch: Getting quality sleep on a night bus is a challenge—you may be dragging a bit the next day.
What to Expect on Sleeper Buses in Asia
Night buses in Asia can vary widely depending on the country and where the transportation company sourced the buses. The terms "night bus," "overnight bus," and "sleeper bus" are used interchangeably.
Some overnight buses have regular seats that recline back a little farther (Thailand), while others have stacked bunks permanently in a horizontal position (China and Vietnam). Every variation between can be found plying the roads in Asia.
The overnight buses in Burma are surprisingly luxurious (think: streaming music channels and full-size headphones) compared to the antiquated-yet-charming trains. In contrast, 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.
Bunk sizes are often too short for taller Western passengers to fully stretch out, and your options for walking around or stretching are limited to quick breaks.
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 as attendants hurry to stay on schedule: 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. For suitcases, line the inside with a large garbage bag and wrap everything before closing.
Theft 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 sometimes even stolen from luggage stored on top of buses. In Thailand, the 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 or offers from pushy drivers and hotel touts. You probably won’t have time to take an inventory of your belongings by dumping your bags. Realistically, most travelers usually don’t discover that small 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. Many cumulative reports may eventually draw some heat to the bus crew.
- Make your stored belongings as inconvenient as possible: Cover backpacks with a rain cover, 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 interested in the smaller things, too.
These items are frequently targeted by bus crews:
- Flashlights and headlamps
- Pocket knives
- Travel alarm clocks
- USB chargers / portable power packs / USB memory sticks
- Replacement razor blades / electric shavers
- 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.
If using your smartphone for music, be careful about falling asleep with it in your lap. Travelers have woken up with the headphones still in their ears leading to only a dangling wire.
Rig Your Luggage
Crafty travelers have learned to configure their bags in sneaky ways to tell if someone has opened them.
For backpacks, 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 or a cable tie that must be broken.
Choosing the Best Seats on Night Buses
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. Choose wisely!
- Seats directly in front of screens (assuming they still work) can be noisy and distracting when movies come on. Movies can be surprisingly violent and disturbing in some countries.
- Sitting directly beneath speakers and air-conditioning vents can also be risky.
- Some seats on older buses are broken and locked upright. Ensure yours works right away so you can quickly move to another seat if necessary.
- For a smoother ride, try to choose seats in the middle of the bus. The seats directly above the rear axle are always the bumpiest on the bus. Sitting above the rear axle on some rides could mean you actually get launched into the air as your driver hurries along on rough roads.
- Although you may have to deal with a screen, the seats at the very front of double-decker night buses have the most legroom. Plus, you’ll enjoy the luxury of not having someone recline a seat in front of you.
The Toilet Situation
If there is a toilet at all on your bus, it could potentially be a wet, cramped, bumpy affair. Squat toilets are common on many night buses in Asia.
Toilet breaks may be rare on some journeys as your Redbull-guzzling driver pushes through the night to finish his shift. A single, 15-minute stop on an eight-hour trip is commonplace.
If you are suffering from TD, you should make different arrangements or resort to taking loperamide, ordinarily not a good solution.
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 scrambles to use the bathroom and grab food or snacks.
Food options range from unidentifiable local snacks (even fried insects in Laos and some countries) to full-spread buffets, but one thing is certain: 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 personal belongings on the bus when stepping off for a break. Keep them with you at all times!
Don't Get Left Behind!
In very busy rest areas, nearly identical buses may park around yours. Have a good idea where you’re bus is 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!
Passengers do sometimes get left behind, so keep a vigilant eye on your bus. If eating, sit somewhere you can see the bus or the driver.
Other Tips for Taking Night Buses
The air conditioning 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. Never pay an agent extra to upgrade to a VIP bus; you’ll probably end up on a regular night bus anyway but after paying more than other passengers.
Do as the locals do: Bring lots of snacks! They’re good for morale and help the time pass.