Travelling around South East Asia is so doable thanks to easy access to cheap transport. For the price of two pints back home, you can often cross through entire countries in South East Asia.
The well-worn backpacker circuit is paved with a variety of routes and means to transport backpackers where they want to go. Buses, mini-buses, trains and boats are at your disposal, and all it takes is a visit to one of many travel agents who will get you from A to B.
However wonderful these transport routes are, they are not without their downsides. And really, who are we to complain when we are able to access places people often only dream of for $10?
As any traveller in Asia knows, backpacking through Asia can be bizarre, stressful and hilarious.
Here are a few things to expect from travel in South East Asia and beyond.* How many do you recognise?
No bus is too full, no boat too weighed down. If there’s a will, there will be a way to stuff more and more people onto your mode of transport.
Yes, you will feel like a sardine or a tiny piece of an intricate puzzle as your legs rub against a stranger’s and you inhale the musk from an armpit next to your forehead. Your bag will be wedged between your legs in a way that makes you worry that you will be permanently stretched this way. A child will use your leg as a drum, an woman will use your foot as a convenient foot rest, and an old man will gently place his elbow on your leg as he balances on a tiny seat the width of a saucer in the aisle, all while holding a squirming child on one knee.
Loud, loud, loud music
Ah, the music that blasts on buses and boats around Asia. Mostly buses, and the loudest culprits are to be found in Nepal, in my experience. Although Laos is also a place to have your ears ringing long after you step off your bus.
While exploring different cultures is the best, it can be a little difficult to read or even talk over the latest chart music blasting from the stereo system.
With the volume so high, sometimes all you can do is stare at the unusual music videos as the singer’s voice pierces through to you brain.
Of course, when you hear this music back home, it will bring back fond and funny memories, but at the time, it can be a little stressful.
Relaxed Departure times
Mini-bus pick up at 7am? Don’t worry if you’re still there at 8.30am, it will come. Same goes for larger buses, you rush to get there only to wait anything from an hour or more, telling yourself not to panic, you haven’t missed it.
Bus drivers and mini bus drivers have a deep appreciation for the horn. For me, a horn signals something gone wrong, or a case of road rage, so when you hear multiple horns being blasted every few seconds, it can make for a nervous ride. But rest assured, the beeping can mean a million things, and you may even become used to it.
Lots of stops
This is a great thing about travelling in South East Asia; all the designated food and toilet stops along the way. They are great for getting some fresh air and a break from the wild ride. And for relieving yourself due to the absence of the promised toilet on board. Personally, on night buses, I literally jump at the chance to get outside for a minute.
“VIP bus, sleeper bus, tourist bus, express bus. Toilet on bus, air-conditioning, free food. Luxury”
These all sound wonderful when you are being assured by a trustworthy travel agent. You cough up the amount, and double check that it’s definitely all of the above. “This is the bus?” You point to the swanky coach they have promised you. “Yes, yes, of course. Brand new.”
When you arrive at the bus station, your mode of transport could be anything. Sometimes, rarely, you will get what was promised, or a version of it.
But remember to think of these promises as unexpected bonuses and not to actually expect to travel in comfort on a fully air-conditioned bus with all the latest upgrades.
More than likely you will be on a bus that just keeps letting people on, that turns off the lights at 8 pm and that has not a hint of air-conditioning, a toilet or fans. If you go into the situation with low expectations, then it won’t be so bad.
Once you have been dropped off at the bus stop, waiting for your bus in the sweltering heat, your travel agent is long gone, and all you can do is climb aboard and hope for the best.
When you are travelling by bus during the day, expect to sweat. In some cases, expect to sweat so much when you stand up it may appear that you have had an accident. True story.
Travelling northern India in April ensured each bus journey was a specific form of torture, heatwise. No fan, the windows that open a crack and reward you with wisps of hot air that’s slightly less hot than your skin. But damn, when you have to wear a scarf to cover up and you let it open for a second, that air feels like a cool breeze.
Sharing your sleep space with a giant cockroach isn’t great. Especially if you or one of your friends has a phobia. Expect squirming, anxiety and the sensation that there is one crawling up your leg.
Mosquitos are another joy to be had. Make sure you have long trousers for sleeping in, socks and something to wrap yourself in just in case you wind up on an extra mosquitoey bus.
Hocking, Hacking & Spitting
Yes. It is what you think. Vietnam and China is where to expect these joyful sound effects. It is normal for men to hock up phlegm with a deep, rattling gusto and often spit it….somewhere unconfirmed. Yes, it’s gross. And yes it may make you feel queasy all night long, but it’s another culture. Keep telling yourself that as you try not to gag.
If you have never traveled in South East Asia, please don’t let this list turn you off! This is a playful post containing the worst of backpacker travel, which definitely makes for some entertaining stories later. As is the case with all aspects of travel, it is the destination that makes it all worth while.
As someone who can’t sleep on buses, I prefer to travel by day. This way, you get to see the sights go by, and don’t have to deal with the lights going out before 9pm. But travelling overnight does allow you save a night of accommodation, so this was what I end up doing more often than not.
And hey, it’s all part of the adventure that is travel!
How about you? What’s your most memorable public transport travel moment?
*This post focuses on South East Asia, China, India and Nepal, as that’s where I have had most of these experiences. I’ve heard similar stories from South America, but I haven’t experienced them myself!