Asia Buses Journeys Travel Disasters

9 Things to Expect on South-East Asian Transport

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?

One of many jam-packed bues journeys in Asia!


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.

This is often hooked up to a television screen, which sometimes shows movies in deafening surround sound. I swear I’ve forcibly watched Jumper a million times in Asia.

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.

Local bus to Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, India


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.

The beautiful view on a Vietnam bus

False Advertising

“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.

Creepy Crawlies

cockroach on south east asian bus

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!

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  • Reply
    February 17, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Hahaha I can definitely relate to every single one of these!!! The worst for me would probably have to be spitting, I just get so grossed out! Ekkkk. Glad you survive though hehe 😁😀😊

  • Reply
    Amanda connolly
    February 17, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Great article! Funny and well written and (almost too) informative 😂👍

  • Reply
    Jennifer St Louis
    February 17, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Love this post! It’s so funny and so true! It’s the hocking and spitting that brings back memories! Thanks!

  • Reply
    February 17, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    I live in India so I am very much aware of all of these horrors and more – one reason I always use my car instead of public transport in my hometown. The worst in SE asia are the sleeper buses which are so cramped up AND apparently one birth is for TWO people – and it can barely fit one – Trying to snuggle up to a stranger just to get some room – Jeez – Go figure.

  • Reply
    Travel Pockets (Crystal)
    February 17, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    Haha, wow, didn’t know you have to go through all this with SE Asia transportation! Loud music on the buses is kinda funny. Good to know!

  • Reply
    February 17, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    Funny! I enjoyed reading.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 2:57 am

    Oh wow on these experiences! Funny one though 😄

  • Reply
    Eva Casey
    February 18, 2016 at 3:07 am

    This actually does sound remarkably similar to the experiences I’ve had in Central America! Except for the cockroach part. Nope. Can’t do that. Will you tell me where that happened so I can avoid taking a bus there? Hahaha jk. But not really.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Erin @
    February 18, 2016 at 4:28 am

    AHAHA I love bus travel…..tho not the creepy crawlies…. I do love the loud music tho, they do the same thing in Central America is great ahaha…for me 😛
    Kimberly Erin @ recently posted…Baños, Ecuador: a Guide for AdventurersMy Profile

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 5:21 am

    Oh my gosh! Currently living in Korea and after just returning from a month around SEA, I can totally relate to ALL of this! Glad to know I’m not in this alone lol.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    Sounds really funny and will definitely part of such experiences. Transport in the Philippines (where I came from) will certainly fit in some of your points. People living in Metro Manila can just read this for a bit of fun relaxation amidst the heavy traffic. 😉
    Jessica recently posted…Ultimate List of The Best Hostels in ArmeniaMy Profile

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Leaving next month to backpack SEA for the first time. I can’t wait. This post made me really excited! I’m used to the hocking as I live in Korea and people here do it ALL THE TIME. It’s gross but whatever. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Kevin Wagar
    February 18, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Fun read! It’s amazing how immersing yourself in the local culture and travel styles really helps to bring a new dimension to a destination!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Well, you have definitely convinced me to never travel that way! I’m afraid my tolerance for creepy crawlers and coughing, spitting men is too low for that!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Haha all the stops. The first time I took a bus in Asia by myself with no one who spoke English I was SO confused as to where I was supposed to get off!

  • Reply
    February 19, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Lol! So you enjoyed it?! 😉

  • Reply
    Amanda Williams
    February 19, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Lol, great post and I remember all this. The hardest train journey I ever took was from Mumbai to Trivandrum, and 20 years ago that took 48 hours. Great scenery along the way though 🙂

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 3:15 am

    The loud obnoxious music…I thought it was just a Southeast Asian thing, but apparently it’s Asian wide?!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    Hahaha this sounds sooooo familiar! 🙂 I just wrote articles about the spitting in China (there even was pooing and peeing, no kidding) and about how I once had a ride in a bus where a guy was singing karaoke during the whole ride!!! Even though it can be uncomfortable, I absolutely LOVE these moments, they are often what makes the trip really memorable!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    lol Seems like I would not be that happy of a camper with creepy crawlies and no real personal space.
    Holly recently posted…Things To Know Before You Go – Costa RicaMy Profile

  • Reply
    February 22, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    OHHH this brings back so many memories. Driver blasting loud EDM at 6 am, crowded to the point of sitting on strangers laps, and of course beeping. I never could stand the honking.

  • Reply
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