10 hours on a sleeper bus = my living hell

I hate to be one of those travel writers that resorts to rants and complaining, because even though long-term travel can be frustrating at times, when you look at the big picture, my life experiences at the moment are pretty damn good. However, I think it’s always beneficial to document the good, the bad, and the ugly, and my last 15 hours have been pretty hilarious, at least now in retrospect, so I thought I would share a story of my first sleeper bus experience in Asia.

It should come as no surprise that for sleeper buses in Asia, being a petite person is highly desirable. I love my lanky height, yet this was the first time I genuinely wished I was a foot shorter – I’m almost 5’10. I can’t even imagine what a 6’4 guy would go through on one of these buses.

I apologize ahead of time for the lack of pictures, at the time of this story I was miserable, sleep-deprived and in no mood to rummage through my pack for a camera, but the story still deserves to be told.

We bought the luxurious “hotel” bus in Sihanoukville for the 10 hour ride to Siem Reap, a whole 2 extra dollars than the standard night bus. When we were picked up from the store, we were crammed into a little van with more people than there were seats, and all of our luggage was surrounding us, taking up what little oxygen was left inside the vehicle.

When we arrived at the actual “hotel” bus, we knew that we had been slightly duped with what the transportation store had advertised to us. We were supposed to get extra amenities for the slightly higher price, including wi-fi, free water, a bathroom on board. There were none of these. The key selling point for the luxurious bus was that you had an actual bed to sleep on for the ride and not just a reclining seat.

When I stepped into the cramped bus aisle I could tell that I already regretted not just getting the reclining seats, if anything just for the leg room. The “beds” were less than the width of a single bed for two people, and a little over 5 feet long. I also had to carry my duffle with me into this sleeping space because it holds all of my valuables.

I’ve never really had an issue with claustrophobia, but I was so closed in and cramped I actually felt myself becoming more and more claustrophobic by the second. I couldn’t curl up my legs because then they would float over to Laura’s side of the single bed. I kind of just had to have them straight legged and extremely elevated the whole time for them to fit into the space, at times letting them curl when Laura was asleep and she wouldn’t notice me creeping into her space.

I’m not a person who gets homesick easily, I tend to try and make the best of any situation in which I find myself, and I’m a chameleon when it comes to new transitions. Spending 10 hours in this tiny space was the first time I genuinely wished with my whole heart to be home, and no longer on the road. I felt myself let out a shudder and a few tears in the pitch black, the first time I’ve cried in a long time, until I realized how pointless my tears were, I just had to bite the bullet to get to the other side of the bus ride. I took a deep breath and turned up my iPod to tune out the uneasiness I felt through my whole body.

I’m usually fine with dreaded travel times, I actually love tuning out with my music, my writing, my thoughts. But I felt helpless on the bus, unable to even move an inch, my legs spasming often from being in such a position. It was the bumpiest bus ride I’ve had in my life, it felt like the bus was going to tip over during some stretches it was so unstable.

Things took a turn for the worse when I realized, even by staying dehydrated as much as I could from the get-go, that I had to use the bathroom a few hours in, and yet there was the small problem of no toilet on the bus. At about 1am the bus stopped so the drivers could pee on the side of the road, I leapt at the chance. They didn’t speak any English, but I think they could tell from my desperation what it was I needed. It was pouring down rain, lightning in the sky, I had to run over some rough rocks in the pitch black completely bare foot to find a bush (we had to take off our shoes to get on the bus), all the while the three drivers were watching me in the darkness.

I was terrified the whole time that the bus would pull away and I would be stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night in rural Cambodia. I ran back to the bus, the driver laughing at my situation, I laughed too, understanding how ridiculous I must seem to these Cambodian men, and laughing at the bad luck I seem to get myself into sometimes. I realized when I got back onto the bus that I had cut open my foot during my scramble in the dark Cambodian wilderness, my disinfectant of course was in my backpack at the bottom of the bus.

At about 3am we stopped for our one and only proper bathroom break, and the bus was suddenly stuck in a muddy ditch. It was still pouring down rain, everyone had to evacuate and they called a tow truck to help pull out the bus. Everyone cheered when the bus pulled through, we all groggily stumbled back on around 3:30am and kept traveling to Siem Reap for three more hours.

Needless to say, the only way I got through that bus ride from hell is music. I didn’t sleep a wink, but I had some solid moments by myself and Ben Howard consoling me through the experience.

But let’s be honest, this is all a daily part of backpacker life and sometimes you just have to suck it up, and find the humor in less than desirable situations. At the moment, I’m ecstatic to be in Siem Reap and to be exploring the ancient temple of Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow morning. At least now I know what to expect with my next sleeper bus in Asia.

Bring it.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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