Most serious travelers are familiar with the joys and pains of the overnight bus. Each country has its own style of bus, some more comfortable than others, each having their pros and cons–mostly cons. Here is what you can expect of overnight travel in three Asian countries.
Vietnam: The half sleeper
Vietnam’s half-sleeper offers you the illusion of comfort. You look at the layout of the bus—two aisles, three rows of bunk beds, each bed shaped like a chaise lounge—and you think you’ve got a great deal, bus and hotel in on. As soon as you pull yourself up into that seat you realize that you’ve made a huge mistake. The half sleeper is barely long enough to accommodate your legs sitting up, let alone laying down. The forced incline of the seat make is impossible for side-sleepers and stomach-sleepers to get comfortable at all. There is very little to appreciate about the Vietnamese overnight bus, except perhaps the guarantee of air conditioning. Be sure to bring a blanket or wear long sleeves (with short sleeves underneath, just in case)!
Thailand: The deep recline
If you though Vietnam’s sleeper buses were uncomfortable, that’s because you haven’t yet been on one in Thailand. Thailand is such a long (geographically-speaking) country that sleeper buses are often the only option for travel unless you want all the waking hours of your trip to be spent staring through the window of a public bus. Travel companies will offer you something called a VIP bus, which means nothing, except that everyone else on the bus will also be a tourist.
Buses vary widely. Sometimes you get a movie played with words you can actually hear and understand, sometimes you have a toilet available, sometimes your reclining seats have footrests… if you’re lucky. Otherwise, you might not have air conditioning, your seat could be a sticky pleather-upholstered monstrosity that’s been in use for 30 years or more and luckily still reclines (or unluckily, not). The only good thing about the overnight bus in Thailand is the deep recline—sometimes you can get an angle of recline equal to approximately 145 degrees of sleeping allongement (or 35 degrees if you measure the unavailable space from the horizontal). Unfortunately, this also thwarts the side- and stomach-sleepers. Settle down. It’s gonna be a long ride.
India: Dorm bed on wheels
In India sleeper buses can be like palaces in comparison to Vietnam and Thailand. This is likely because, in comparison, India is a HUGE country and it’s hard to get anywhere without a taking a sleeper bus. In India, for a few dollars more than a sitting overnight ticket, you can get a full on bed. You can book a single or a double bed, depending on your level of comfort with your travel companion. Each bed is like a capsule, separated from the rest of the passengers by a sliding door (or if you’re unlucky, a curtain). You get your own window, which usually opens far enough for you to fall out if you try hard enough.
The cons of the Indian sleeper buses are many, though. First, there is no toilet, and how often you stop depends entirely on the driver. I, myself, have only had to beg the driver to stop one time, which he eventually did out of pity. Second, Indian bus drivers are always looking for an extra buck; they may stop several times throughout the night to pick up passengers who may sit or sleep on the floor of the bus, for a reduced fee (which goes right into the driver’s pocket, I’m sure). Third, if you get a spot near the back, you can’t count on the quality of Indian roads, and you will likely be bounced around all night long (PRO-TIP: be sure to ask for a bed near the front of the bus. Even if they guarantee one, don’t count on it, though.) Despite the cons, Indian buses remain my favorite. As long as you’re prepared–blanket, wad of clothes to make a pillow, and a controlled intake and output of liquids–you might actually wake up refreshed the next morning… maybe.
Sleeper class on the Indian rail system. BYO Bedding and EARPLUGS. Also your money belt. And maybe ziptie your bags to a rail. No private compartments here!
One thing that is true about all overnight travle is that you never know exactly what you’re gonna get until you step on the bus/train/boat/van. No matter what the travel agent promised you when you booked it, take it with a grain of salt, sometimes travel agents exaggerate, embellish and outright lie. And no two vehicles are exactly alike, except in that you can’t ever really expect a good night’s sleep.