When we first got Thailand, we could not wait to take advantage of budget traveling. We had heard talk of traveling for months at a time on only a few hundred dollars. With much excitement, we launched into planning our first trip. Using our flight planning strategies, which we used to travel throughout Europe, we went to work. In little time, we realized flying across Thailand and Southeast Asia is not as cheap as we thought. We were disappointed and confused how people do. That’s when we did more research and found budget bus travel is the cheapest form of travel in Thailand and much of Southeast Asia.
Flights can be cheap, but are typically much more expensive than buses, especially when traveling from country to country. As a result, we altered our strategy. Bus travel just about cut the cost of the trip in half. Now, having gained some experience in bus travel, we wanted to share some of the things we learned.
Bus Travel by night:
For most longer trips there will be a night bus option. Night buses depart at around 5-7pm and will get you to your destination around 6-7am. While staying overnight on a bus may not seem thrilling, it is one of the most effective forms of travel. A 16-hour bus ride can take an entire day of your trip from you, but if you go at night, then you can save money on accommodations and maximize your time doing what you want to do.
Night buses are also more efficient because, during the day, buses will often pick up other travelers or make other stops. Night buses limit these stops because there are fewer people, if any, to pick up at 3 am.
Okay. So you’ve opted for bus travel. Great. Next, when do you pee? Excellent question. Most of the larger buses have bathrooms, but they are closet-sized and often dirty. For emergencies, they will do, but don’t expect it to be pleasant. For women, my wife can attest to the difficulty of peeing on a moving bus while going 80 KPM.
Not all hope is lost, don’t abandon your tickets. You just need a plan. The bus typically will make a stop for new passengers, gas, or food every 3-4 hours. These are the times to strike. You will typically either pull over at a bus station, 7-11, or restaurant. Note, most bus stations charge you a small fee to use the restroom, usually no more than 10 baht (roughly 30 cents). Try to make sure the bus attendant sees that you have exited because it will help ensure they don’t leave without you.
Another thing to be careful of with long bus travel and bathroom breaks is that amount of water you drink. It may be tempting to not drink anything at all in order to prevent any issues, but this is not always a good option. Thailand is hot and muggy, and it is very easy to become dehydrated, even while sitting on an air-conditioned bus. Be careful to not drink excess water unnecessarily, but don’t skip it altogether.
Finally, we have had a third experience. On one overnight bus, they didn’t stop at a restaurant or offer an on-bus meal. Instead, they made an extended stop at a 7-11. We were at a loss. Now, having more experience in Thailand, we realize this was our meal break. 7-11 offers a host of pre-packed meals, which they will heat for you. Many of them are delicious.
If you don’t want to roll the dice on your meal experience, then do what the locals do and swing by 7-11 before the trip. Grab a hot meal before you go and pick up so other snacks for the long journey. You won’t regret having packed a bag of chips when you are on hour 12.
Bus Travel and Temperature:
Depending on your bus, prepare to be hot or cold. For the sake of this tip, we break bus travel into two large categories, short day buses and longer night buses. In reality, there are several tiers of buses ranging from air-conditioned, new, and expensive to hot, old, and cheap. In general, shorter day buses are hot, old and cheap. If you are taking a 3-6 hour day bus prepare for it to be hot. Even if they have AC, you will likely be packed in with 10+ people baking in the heat. Dress accordingly.
If you are going on a long trip by night (or a longer, more expensive trip by day), prepare to be cold. These buses are often updated and less crowded. To compensate for the heat, they crank the AC. You will have control over your own unit above you, but if everyone else is cranking theirs, it gets cold fast. If you wore shorts and a T-shirt expecting to face the heat, you may be surprised to find how cold a bus in Thailand can be. Again, dress accordingly. We often bring a coat on board, even though it might ridiculous. Some buses will offer blankets, but it can be hit or miss.
This tip is especially true if you are going somewhere far away or over a holiday. If your trip is going to be longer than 5-6 hours, then you may want to try to book it in advance. For shorter trips, this probably isn’t necessary, but it’s often better to be safe than sorry. We learned this lesson when we took a trip to Chiang Mai from North East Thailand. It almost didn’t happen because we only booked a week in advance. Normally, a week would have been more than enough, but it was a holiday weekend. I think we secured the last two seats on the bus. You can purchase tickets a week or two in advance to ensure your travel. It’s not always necessary, but it’s helpful to know its an option.
Compare with flights:
I know I started this article by telling you bus travel in Thailand is the best option, but sometimes it’s better to go by air. It all depends on your trip. If you are trying to maximize your time, it might be worth the extra couple hundred baht to go by plane. This is especially true if you are traveling from major city to major city (i.e. Chiang Mai-Bangkok). If penny-pinching is your goal or your destination is more remote, then buses are probably still your best bet.