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Jun 11

Slow Travel By Bus, From Bus Trips To Coach Holidays

Chinatown Bus, Bangkok.

Buses must be the most unglamorous and unromantic form of travel, but they can be very handy, are increasingly comfy, are very affordable, and there’s nothing like gazing out the window all day as fascinating landscapes rolls by. We’ve travelled on a lot more buses than we normally do over the last year  – mainly for the convenience, sometimes because there were no other options – and those journeys have got me thinking about slow travel by bus, everything from the bus trips that get travellers from A to B to multi-country coach holidays of the kind my mum loved to take.

If Terence and I aren’t road-tripping, trains will usually be our first choice when it comes to transport. But after years of taking trains in Europe and loving them, a frustrating time on the tracks a few summers ago, marked by constant strikes, cancellations and overcrowding, put me off train travel. You expect no-shows and booked seats to be taken in developing countries, but you’re often paying very little for the fares so are more forgiving. When you’re paying a small fortune, you have the right to get riled when the air-conditioning doesn’t work and you have to sit on your luggage. When you’re 20 it’s an adventure, when you’re older…well, it’s just not.

There are many more great train journeys I’m still dreaming of doing. The Trans Siberian/Mongolian tops the list. And we had a fabulous time aboard the luxurious Eastern & Oriental on their Epic Thailand trip last year, even though organized travel isn’t really our thing. That had something to do with the private cabin with butler, welcome glasses of bubbly, whistle-stop tours, interesting whistle-stop tours, gorgeous Thai countryside, and sunset gin and tonics in the observation car, and twice-daily gourmet meals.

But unfortunately that brief renewal of affection for train travel was curtailed a couple of months later after two appalling overnight trips between Hanoi and the hill-town of Sapa that involved the possibility of sharing sleeper cabins with strangers (again, getting too old for that sort of thing), horrible food, hard beds, and horrendously dirty toilets.

My romanticization of Vietnam’s Reunification Express (not one train, but an epic route of daily trains that run between Hanoi and Saigon) was quickly proven to be just that when we boarded at Danang for the never-ending trip to Nha Trang to find the carriage stinking of vomit, the floor and seats littered with rubbish, and the bathroom even more putrid than that on the Sapa train.

We were relieved to find the just-abandoned seats and table covered in puke and food were not ours, but unfortunately we were right behind, close enough to still be able to smell the stench. If it hadn’t been for the pushiness of the family allocated those last four seats, the conductors would have been very happy to leave the mess as it was for the rest of the days-long journey. Our fellow-passengers, many passed out or wearing face masks, didn’t seem fussed.

Determined to continue by land, we decided to try the bus for the remaining legs of our Vietnam travels and were relieved to find it not only more convenient – the buses collected us from our hotels (yes!) and staff swiftly took our luggage and secured it underneath (no bags to drag across train tracks and haul up high onto the train and racks, risking injury to the Vietnamese strangers who insisted on helping – there’s always one amongst a crowd, thankfully), and more affordable (yes, strangely enough, trains are comparatively expensive in Vietnam), they were also comfortable with pretty good legroom.

While we didn’t like the ‘luxury’ lie-down bus at all that one of our hotels booked for us – we have no interest in sleeping all day when there’s lush scenery to be seen out the window and books to read, but our Vietnamese companions seemed to love it – the seated buses were just fine. The sweet-natured hostesses handed out bottles of water and snacks, continually collected rubbish, and occasionally delivered amusing tourist guide-like commentary. On the trip between Saigon and Phnom Penh we were given a lunch box and they distributed immigration and customs forms, collected our visa fees and passports, and took care of border formalities. Bliss!

After years of being fans of trains, associating buses with the sort of long distance travel we did as young backpackers in Latin America (i.e. cheap), I’m suddenly finding buses more appealing. Getting old? Getting lazy? Or just getting more picky? Luxury trains aside, has bus travel improved so much that it’s now better than train travel? Or is it just the case in South East Asia? And Latin America. Because even 20 years ago the buses were brilliant in countries like Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, with clean toilets, meal boxes, and kitchenettes with soft-drinks and coffee machines.

What does this mean for my future of travel? If we don’t want to fly, and, for whatever reason, we don’t want to drive, will I start to think more about buses as an option? And what about holidays when these two travel writers eventually retire? We’re not fans of organized tours at this stage in our lives, so a bus tour is not an option. But what about later on in our lives, I’m starting to wonder. I travel very differently now to how I travelled in my 20s. How will I travel in my 70s? Will we always self-drive when we really want to see a country?

After my dad died I took my mother to Europe for a two-month summer holiday. When I returned to work in Dubai she stayed on and did some coach holidays in the UK, Scandinavia, and a multi-country trip around Europe. At the time I questioned her choice, as she and dad had always travelled independently. Though I felt secure that someone was looking after her. To my surprise, she absolutely loved it, seeing iconic sights she’d long dreamed of visiting, and making loads of new friends in the process.

Mum loved it so much, when she returned to stay with us in Dubai she said she could easily go straight back and do it all over again. She wasn’t tired, she wasn’t stressed; it was all too easy, she said. Could coach holidays be in my distant future? I’m not so sure. Ask me in 20 years. Though after our recent travels, they’re certainly sounding more appealing than trains.

Have you ever done a coach holiday or bus tour? Or travelled long distances by bus? If not, if you’re a ‘train person’, do you see yourself doing them in the future? Do you prefer the bus or train? Just curious.

7 comments

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  1. Gabriel

    Yea if I am in a country I have never been to before, or haven’t spent much time in, I will definitely not be bus napping and checking out the scenery.

    1. Lara Dunston

      I’m with you – I get transfixed too. Although bus-napping is good too :)

  2. Claire

    I did a train trip from Ayuthaya to Chang Mai, Thailand. The trip was pleasant but the windows weren’t any good for looking out. The bed was comfortable enough but I’m 6’1 and struggled to stretch out.
    The Reunification Express from Hanoi to Dong Hoi was not as good. I still felt weird about a squat toilet on a train, but the worst thing was that the beds were perpendicular to the tracks so as you were sleeping it was rocking you head to toe rather than side to side. I don’t think I slept much, if at all.
    I also did a bus trip from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City which was booked last minute just after Tet so it was our only option. It was pretty horrible. The bus was nearly full when we got on. My friend and I ended up being in the section at the back, over the engine, with no windows, on a stretch of mattress for five people. Including us, there were 5 adults and a child who shared the space. We could smell the carbon monoxide. There was no bathroom on board as promised. I could stretch out while lying down by hanging my feet in the aisle, but sitting up I was hunched over with my neck touching the bunk above us.
    In America I did travel a lot by bus because it was my only option, however the one train trip I did take was much better. So based on my experience I’d choose train travel hands down.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Claire – oh dear, your bus trips and train trips sound equally as bad as eachother. We were just in Vietnam for six months and we frequently heard reports from travellers who’d taken the Open Bus services who did journeys sitting in the aisles because they’d overbooked. We always try to opt for the ‘luxury’ bus services, which are generally only a few dollars more and way better in terms of seat allocation/service/comfort etc.
      I do still love trains when I can get the seats I’ve booked or at least get seats, and they’re clean (they don’t have to be luxurious). I also enjoy being able to walk around and stretch the legs and love the larger windows and being able to see both sides of a carriage – something not always possible on a bus, especially when people close their curtains. I need to do a good trip to restore my faith in trains I think!

  3. Teresa

    Lara I’m with you on coach travel! Not my thing at all. But then again, like you said, I travel much differently now that I have in the past… I worked a brief summer in a National Park when I was younger and there was always a steady stream of bus tours mostly filled with older travelers. Maybe that will be the way to go in the future after all.

    1. Lara Dunston

      I have realised over the years how differently we all travel at different times in our lives and depending upon our experience and even our moods and state of mind. When I’m exhausted from too much travel I look for easy and comfortable routes and forms of transport. When I’m full of energy I can handle almost anything! Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Noah @ Somewhere Or Bust

    I love bus travel. It’s a great way to see an entire country or continent. On my first trip to Central America, in one month, I calculated that I had spent exactly 8.5 days on buses. I wouldn’t do it again, but I also would have missed out on some incredible waves. My 50 hour bus trip from Peru to Chile also provided me with some great stories.

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