How to survive your next bumpy bus ride

Bumpy bus rides are never fun. But bumpy, winding, crowded, cross-country bus rides with a driver who might need Ritalin can rattle even the most sedated nerves. And what do you do when the bus breaks down?

One such ride across Laos was scheduled to take my husband and me 8-10 hours. After about 11 hours of braking across muddy turns tighter than my great aunt’s hatpin on Easter, the driver stopped and motioned for us to get off. We filed off into the night and stood around in the muck while the driver put chains on the tires in an attempt to get us through some seriously muddy patches. The jungle hovered over us and it was unusually cold; a few women built sad little fires out of green twigs that did little more than smoke. After about an hour and a half of shivering around on the road, we all filed back on the bus. We traveled about 100 feet before getting stuck again, so we all filed back off the bus. Again came the smoky fires, which we pathetically huddled around. After a good hour we obediently got back on the bus and took our seats. This time we didn’t go far at all, and from what I could understand there was now a mechanical problem. Off the bus. Huddle around fire.

By now it was after midnight, we were out of water, and the lunch we had 10 hours earlier was long gone from our stomachs. Our backpacks were on top of the bus, along with warmer clothes. At some point in the middle of the night we all filed back on, and we knew it was to sleep. It was so cold that another traveler, in desperation, ripped the pages from his magazine and tried to cover his arms and legs with them. At one point I asked Lael to reach under our seat and grab my purse, and when he did so a shrill SQWWWWAK jolted everyone from their meager slumbers. We had a chicken under our seat, which we lovingly named H5N1.

In the morning, we were still stuck (see photo, and note the sad little fire on the bottom left), and Lael and I contemplated walking the remaining 25 kilometers to Luang Nam Tha, our destination. We got our packs down and readied ourselves to walk a good 20 miles with no food or water, but just as we were ready to go, the bus began working. We all piled on, stepping over the sacks of rice in the aisle, and took our seats. This time, we traveled a good hour before we had to pull over again and when we did, it was to take the chains off.

We were unprepared for this kind of traveling unknown, but we could’ve been. Here’s what I learned (and I had about 29 hours to think about it on that trip):

  • Bring a snack, water, and toilet paper. You’ll be happy you brought all three, even if your bus doesn’t break down.
  • Bring a warm shirt — even if you don’t wear it, it makes a good pillow or backrest.
  • Bring a light, even if you can’t read while in motion. It’ll come in handy for reading maps, checking a guidebook, or helping your driver put chains on in the pitch dark.
  • I’m not advocating sedatives here, but those pills you popped to get through that transatlantic flight? They’ll calm those same nerves that might get a bit ruffled in the face of a driver who continually taunts death.
  • Bring reading material — again, even if you can’t read in a moving vehicle, you’ll be happy you brought it if you find yourself standing around for 13.2 hours.
  • Make friends. The local travelers were our best source of information (only one Laotian spoke English, but he was able to communicate what was happening).

Any tips I’m forgetting? Leave a a comment and share it with us!