Bus Breakdown in Laos

Journeys from Hell

Since leaving the UK all those months ago we’ve travelled thousands of miles across the world. In the process we’ve taken a staggering 55 buses, 39 trains, 16 flights, 42 boats and 117 other journeys by taxi, tuk tuk, jeepney or songtheaw. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours that we’ve actually spent just moving from one place to the next, and while we enjoy catching a glimpse of real life on public transport and watching beautiful scenery roll by the windows, some of the journeys we’ve taken have been nothing short of horrific.

Bus Breakdown in Laos

Bus breakdown in Laos

Worst Journeys from Hell

The days of zipping around in the comfort of a rental car at the beginning of our trip in New Zealand and Australia became a thing of the past once we hit Asia and were relegated to often cramped, delayed, dirty, noisy public transport. From breakdowns and delays to cramped conditions and travel sickness, here are the worst journeys we’ve been through since beginning our trip:

The 13-hour bus ride from Sam Neua to Luang Prabang in Laos. As well as being battered by freezing air from the open windows and assaulted by loud music, we had to contend with locals throwing up all around us because of the windy roads and lobbing their sick bags out of the windows. As is so often the case in Laos, every inch of space on the bus was crammed with luggage or bags of rice and every available seat was full, with many passengers perching on the tiny fold-up seats in the aisles. These conditions wouldn’t have been so bad over just a few hours though, it was the fact that we were on the bus for 13 hours straight that made it so hellish – never again.

Cramped Jeepney in the Philippines

Cramped Jeepney in the Philippines

The journey from Malaysia to the Philippines. While our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Clark itself was only around four hours long, our flight was changed to six in the morning, meaning we needed to arrive at the airport around four. To save money we decided not to book a room for that night and simply camp out at the airport instead, settling down on the hard floor while we waited to get on the plane. On arriving in Clark we then got the bus straight to Manila; unfortunately, we hadn’t written down the name of our hotel so we had to traipse around with all our stuff, exhausted, looking for somewhere with internet when all we wanted to do was get to the hotel and collapse into bed.

The overnight bus from Manila to Banaue.  I was sick with a bad cold the night we took the nine-hour bus ride from Manila to Banaue in the Philippines. As well as leaving almost an hour late, we were pelted with freezing cold air conditioning for the entire journey as we climbed high into the mountains along windy, steep roads, being thrown from side to side. I managed to doze off at one point only to awake and find my ears completely blocked because of my cold and how high up we’d gone; I found it impossible to equalise them for the next couple of days. Being sick on overnight buses, especially when they have freezing air con is not a fun experience.

Hiding from air con on a bus

Hiding from air con on a bus

Getting squashed in a jeepney. One of the scariest journeys we’ve taken was by public jeepney in the Philippines. We were the first to board the colourful, open-ended van and settled on to one of the benches for the hour-long journey. As we moved along more and more passengers piled on, some carrying luggage and kids until all the benches were full and another had been slid into the middle of the van. Eventually there were about 40 people crammed into the tiny space while others hung onto the back and sides of the vehicle and school boys climbed up onto the roof. It was sweltering and suffocating inside the jeepney and I began to feel claustrophobic, every time we went over a pot hole the roof would buckle and I’d imagine it was going to collapse on us all; when we swerved around a corner I  felt the whole vehicle was about to tip over. I was so glad to finally get off that jeepney.

Camping out in the airport

Camping out in the airport

The 21-hour night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  This journey was supposed to take 15 hours but was late leaving and then stopped and started so much that it actually ended up taking 21 hours. If the air con wasn’t on so fiercely all night and the toilets weren’t so disgusting things wouldn’t have been so bad.  To cap it all off, we paid £10 extra per person to board this particular train because all the public tickets were sold out and we had to go to a tour operator instead.

Goats on a Bus in the Philippines

Goats on a bus in the Philippines

What to Expect from Travel Journeys

Here are some of the annoying things you can expect to experience when you travel, particularly in Asia:

  • Loud music or music videos – don’t ever expect a quiet journey. In Borneo we were subjected to endless amateur Malaysian music videos on buses, while on countless other journeys around the rest of Asia we’ve had to put up with loud, sometimes awful, music – which can be especially annoying when all you want to do is sleep.
  • Cramped conditions – you will often be squashed while travelling, particularly on public transport in Asia. People will continue to pile onto vehicles even if there aren’t any seats left; they’ll take out tiny plastic stools and sit in the aisles and they’ll hang onto the sides or climb on the roof. In addition, there will be luggage everywhere, live chickens under seats or goats strapped to the roof.  In short, you will not be comfortable (but if you are short, it’s a bit more comfortable).
  • Manic drivers – there will be times when you’ll sit, fearing for your life while a driver nonchalantly speeds over narrow, pot-holed roads or around the edge of cliffs. Count yourself lucky if you ever manage to locate a seat belt too.
  • Horrid toilets – toilet stops are one of the things I used to dread about travelling in Asia, but after nine months I’ve gotten used to dealing with the disgusting conditions and squat toilets we’re often forced to endure. Some toilets are better than others but rest stops are never really a fun experience, especially when you’re paranoid the bus will leave without you while you’re trying to pee.
  • Dangerous roads – be prepared to experience pot-holes, sheer drops, dirt paths and windy, steep roads when you travel, don’t expect your driver to slow down or care about any of these things either.
  • Odd hours – chances are, you’ll end up travelling at odd hours, especially if you book cheap flights. Night buses and trains are bad enough already but they also tend to leave and arrive at odd hours, sometimes getting in at three in the morning.
  • Freezing air con – this is the thing I dread the most; being unable to escape the freezing air conditioning that seems to always be turned up full blast on buses and trains in Asia. Even the locals get on wearing jumpers and hats because it’s so cold. I often end up covering my entire face with a sarong and wearing half my wardrobe.
  • Locals throwing up – if you’re travelling on windy roads, be prepared for lots of vomiting. While westerners seem better able to cope with these kinds of journeys (or perhaps they simply take travel sickness pills), there’s usually at least one local spewing into a sick bag.
  • Delays – having lived in London, I thought I was used to transport problems but we’ve experienced some epic delays since we’ve been travelling. The longest was the six-hour train delay mentioned above but it’s rare not to experience at least an hour’s delay when you’re travelling by bus or train in Asia; flight delays are another hazard.
  • Breakdowns – we’ve been pretty lucky actually that we’ve only experienced one breakdown so far on our trip; in Laos we were delayed 45 minutes while the driver of our bus bashed about underneath the vehicle before we got going again.
  • Locals peeing by the side of the road – locals, especially in the Philippines and Laos for some reason, think nothing of just peeing by the side of the road; men and women alike. So far I haven’t been so desperate that I’ve had to join them.
  • Paying ‘Tourist Tax’ – you will often find that as a tourist, you will be charged extra for the same journey a local takes, there is very little that you can do about it.

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So, want to tell us about your journeys from hell?

  • Carmel
    Posted at 10:49h, 12 December Reply

    Given the info you gave us about the locals puking on the bus in Laos, we were (somewhat) prepared. I gave the guy next to me on the bus a travel sickness pill, which I watched him discreetly spit out almost immediately after I gave it to him. I think he thought it was a mint.

    I’m surprised you had such a horrific time getting to Chiang Mai! We paid a bit much for our bus, but it was luxurious and only took 10 hours. If it wasn’t for the snoring woman behind me, it would have been great. Although we did get to listen to 2 movies at full volume on the way – never wanted to see Real Steel before, but I got to watch it dubbed with English subtitles…sigh.

    I reason (with myself) that the driver doesn’t want to die, so it’s likely that we’ll make it ok. Of course we saw a turned over truck on our way to Vang Vieng and almost got sideswiped by another bus on the same trip. We also saw a tour bus stranded about 15 km outside of town. That was quite the eventful ride…

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:27h, 12 December Reply

      That does sound like an eventful ride! I forgot to mention the movies, ‘Rambo’ was the last one we had to endure in Thailand. A few days after the 21-hour train journey we got the same train and were delayed six hours, shortly after that I read in the Bangkok Post that the line was being closed for maintenance as it was in such bad repair and there had been nine derailments in the last year – from then on we got the bus instead which was much quicker and less prone to delays. Quite amusing that the local spat out his travel sickness pill; I’m glad he didn’t puke on you too 🙂

  • Kellie
    Posted at 15:22h, 12 December Reply

    Wow some of these really do sound horrific but at least you survived to tell the tale and share it with us for our entertainment 😉 I’m sure we’ll have our own stories of horrible journeys once we start ‘properly’ travelling too.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 16:55h, 12 December Reply

      I’m sure you’ll get your fair share of hellish journeys Kellie, just you wait! 🙂

  • Patti
    Posted at 05:38h, 13 December Reply

    I’d be one of those vomiting – I’m super sensitive to motion/car sickness. 😉

    You’re amazing to me, Amy, you’re doing so much that I’d never attempt because it is way too far out of my comfort zone. Do you feel you’re becoming stronger in mind and spirit as you travel?

    • Amy
      Posted at 09:02h, 13 December Reply

      Thanks Patti! I do think I’m becoming stronger and more able to just cope with bad/uncomfortable situations rather than avoid them as I would back home. I’m still pretty impatient though and prone to loosing my cool so horrible journeys do push me to my limits. We will draw the line sometimes though; for instance we made the decision a few weeks ago to fly from Laos to Vietnam rather than take a 24-hour bus journey because we just couldn’t face it!

  • Shane
    Posted at 19:09h, 14 December Reply

    I remember our first long bus journey, to Cusco. That was 16 hours long but the real horror was chatting to some of our fellow passengers and learning they had already been on the bus for 24 hours before we had even boarded. It must have traumatised us: we stayed put in Cusco, not taking another bus until we had to do our visa run three months later.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:18h, 15 December Reply

      Yuck – that sounds horrid Shane, I’m not surprised you were traumatised. Coincidentally we are taking a 16-hour bus journey tonight from Hoi An to Mui Ne in Vietnam; we are dreading it!

  • Rhonda
    Posted at 19:09h, 16 December Reply

    Oh, the memories your post invokes! And not good ones! I admit that, when faced with more than an 8hr bus ride compared to a $100, 40min flight in Asia we tend to splurge on the flight. We have had enough crappy experiences to know what we think is worth it and what not… if you head to South America at some point, their long distance buses are heaven… reclining seats, food service sometimes, etc!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 03:26h, 17 December Reply

      Haha, yeah, we have been very tempted to fly Rhonda but our funds just don’t allow it at the moment. We have just completed a 20hr bus ride, although I hear in comparison to South America this can be just a short trip! 🙂

  • Kerri
    Posted at 12:46h, 18 December Reply

    LOL! I can just picture the vomit bags flying. I unfortunately was one of those people on a recent bus ride in Turkey. Nothing silences a bus quicker than someone vomiting next to you.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 16:00h, 18 December Reply

      Exactly Kerri! Vomiting really is the worst – I saw a little boy on the bus in Vietnam the other day peeing into a plastic bottle which was nice too!

  • Manfred
    Posted at 07:47h, 19 December Reply

    Now I know what journeys not to take. Luckily, most of ours have been ok so far. Not first class, but nothing much to complain about.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 08:14h, 19 December Reply

      I’ve heard some people rave about some of the journeys we have taken, but sometimes it is worth getting an hour’s flight rather than spending 20+ hours on a bus. Glad you haven’t had any journeys from hell Manfred! 🙂

  • Heidi (@WagonersAbroad)
    Posted at 08:27h, 19 December Reply

    Oh boy, we are in for a treat when we get there. I am not sure I am up for that treat! The vomit and cramped transportation doesn’t sit well with me. Thanks for the warnings.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 08:32h, 19 December Reply

      Hope you can go long periods of time without going to the toilet too Heidi, fun times ahead! 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:32h, 19 December Reply

      Sorry to scare you Heidi – better to be prepared though!

  • Alyson
    Posted at 08:55h, 19 December Reply

    The planes trains and buses are often my favourite part of this whole travel thing. It’s enforced down time, I get a rare chance to relax while the kids sleep or read. But yep, your bum does get numb sometimes!

    • Amy
      Posted at 10:10h, 19 December Reply

      I know what you mean, I quite like journeys too when they’re no longer than around six hours and I have a relatively comfy seat, sometimes they can just be downright grueling though!

  • Victoria
    Posted at 23:51h, 04 May Reply

    OMG. I know what you mean. The amount of film and music is non-stop and really noisy, the crampness leaves a lot to be desired and the air-con. Yikes! I became ill because of the air-con on my Aeroflot flight and I couldn’t shake it off the whole time that i was in Vietnam – a month!
    I also once almost got left behind on an overnight bus journey during the bathroom break and I was looking around for water to wash my hands so I lost a bit of my orientation and couldn’t figure out which bus I was on. It was only when I saw the back of my bus driving off and I began to scream ‘cos I was so scared of being in the middle of no-where. Thankfully, some of the locals started running after the bus and shouting so that the driver actually stopped. I almost had a heart attack.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:52h, 05 May Reply

      That is a terrifying story – I always have the worry of being left behind at a rest stop in the back of my head but with two of us it’s easier to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m glad your bus didn’t leave you behind!

  • Mike
    Posted at 02:23h, 04 August Reply

    Bus rides are always a giant risk in these countries, part of the excitement I guess, and fun for the price. Heres a cartoon I made about a trip I had in Laos.

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:14h, 04 August Reply

      Hi Mike, thanks for commenting. We love your cartoon, it’s amazing and so true 🙂

  • Alice Teacake
    Posted at 12:09h, 09 January Reply

    That train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the absolute goddamn worst! Night buses are also such a killer sometimes >< I got stranded at a petrol station once with feral dogs in Cambodia. That was…nice. Haha.

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:48h, 10 January Reply

      Ha! That sounds like an experience you’ll never forget! I’m so glad we haven’t had to use night trains and buses for some time now 🙂

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