Bus Travel; Southeast Asia Transportation Fun
Although bus travel in Southeast Asia comes with many frustrations and discomforts, it is an unforgettably unique experience everyone should try at least once while visiting this part of the world, especially if you find a fabulous double decker Hello Kitty ride...
Traveling Between Countries by Bus
Railroad travel is lovely, and boat travel can be very fun, but train and boat routes in SE Asia are limited and bus travel is often your only, or easiest, option. For shorter distances, I strongly suggest taking a local bus! These are not usually the most comfortable though, so for long distances you may choose a private/tourist bus. Both have their pros and cons...
Public Bus Transportation
Transportation in Southeast Asia by public bus is the most affordable option and an amazing way to experience life as a local. Popular routes often see buses overflowing with passengers, animals, and luggage. The people watching is amazing! People know that eavesdropping is one of my favorite activities, especially in languages I don't know, and guessing people's relationships and what they are talking about on public buses is an absolute wonderland! Try to get a window seat, so you have the option of watching the people or watching the scenery, depending on your mood.
Another great aspect of a window seat can be bus stop food options. On local bus rides from northern to southern Laos, women crowd against the windows at the bigger stops to sell snacks of all sorts through the windows (similar to the train stops in India). Just seeing all the diverse eating options and diverse people hawking them is an amazing experience. And then the food itself... holy cannoli, so good!
Food at some smaller stops can be dicey though. Traveling by local bus around northern Laos, you stop every now and then at collections of buildings along the road, where the only food options are dried fish and what I call "garbage soup." I do not know what this soup is made of, but it is displayed and dished out of plastic garbage bins, the kind Oscar the Grouch lives in on Sesame Street. I am an adventurous eater, but these soups look like a sure instigator of Bangkok Belly...
Private/Tourist Bus Transportation
Private buses, also called tourist busses, are their own beast. Often the quickest and most direct option between tourist spots, they are also more expensive, filled with (often obnoxious) tourists, and include the ubiquitous food stop around 45 minutes from your final destination. But they are also air conditioned, with more comfortable seats, and sometimes a toilet on board.
You can buy tickets for tourist busses in the tourist ghetto of whatever city or town you are in. Sometimes they will schedule a pickup time for you at your guest house, but more often you meet the bus at a designated place and time. You will be surrounded by other tourists for the duration of this sort of travel. Unfortunately, in Southeast Asia, that usually includes at least one group of very loud and often drunk white dudes. You do have the opportunity to meet some lovely tourists on these trips, but it is the exact opposite of an authentic local experience.
I think the thing that riles me the most about these busses are the way all of them stop at their friend's restaurant on the outskirts of your final destination. You are so close to where you want to be that you can taste it, and you are also very hungry by then. All you want to do is get there and get to a local restaurant/food stall. But your tourist bus will not let you. Every single tourist bus stops at their friend's terrible restaurant 45 minutes away from your destination in the middle of nowhere. Here you have the choice of digging your heels in and waiting an hour for the bus to continue, or caving to their plan by ordering mediocre at best food at super inflated prices. I vacillate between starving for the principle of the matter and begrudgingly ordering tea and fried rice (usually the safest options).
The choice is yours, and all the pros and cons must be weighed according to your priorities at the time. Regardless which kind of bus you choose, you will undoubtedly have an experience you will remember the rest of your life!
p.s. If taking a fabulous double decker Hello Kitty bus is your dream (totally understandable), this bad boy falls into the private bus category.