If you’ve been researching about your upcoming trip to Thailand, you’ll have learned about the Bangkok night bus. Perhaps you’re looking to save money, or maybe you’re trying to get somewhere over night so that you can make the most of your days in this special country, or perhaps its your only option because the train isn’t running. Whatever reason you’re choosing this land transit path, there are a few nuggets of wisdom that you should hear before committing to this wild ride.
First, we must establish why you are choosing the night bus. In my case, I wanted to travel up to Chiang Mai and the railways were under construction. Despite all of my research preparing to take the train up, I hadn’t come across the fact that it wasn’t actually going to be an option during my time there. Whilst exploring around Bangkok, I found a small hostel fairly near to Khao San Road, where I felt I could gather basic information on how to get around Thailand, alternatively to the train. After some investigation, I learned that there was an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was 300 baht, definitely doable and I was anxious to get out of Bangkok as soon as possible. There are several agencies and tour companies to be found on Khao San Road and throughout Bangkok, all promising to get you where you need to go at the lowest price possible.
What you need to be wary of when booking your bus trip is communicating to the agency where the bus will pick you up, where it will drop you, what condition the bus is in, and what are the accommodations on the bus and during the trip. Definitely try and bargain the price down. As a tourist, you will automatically be categorized as ignorant, and easily manipulated for as much money as possible. Even if their brochures and posters all say a certain price, it never hurts to attempt to get them to drop the price at least by 50 baht, which is the equivalent of a whole meal of phad thai and a fresh mango shake!
If you are choosing to buy your ticket directly from the bus station in Bangkok, then the process should be fairly straight forward, as they aren't as focused on the business of exploiting foreigners as tour companies are. That being said, it is still important to ask questions about the conditions of the bus and any other concerns you may relating to safety and authenticity. Purchasing a ticket from the bus terminal is going to be cheaper and more reliable than the potential scams of tourist operated buses. Public buses heading towards Chiang Mai can be found at the Chang Pheuak bus terminal, and once you’ve arrived and are looking for buses heading outside of Chiang Mai, use the Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal, which is also known as New Terminal.
So you've got your ticket, and you've arrived at the tourist office, the bus station or wherever else you have acquired a ticket. In my case, I had managed to find a deal that included cheap rates on other tours I was interested in with a tour company that was close to the hostel I had stayed in. It also happened that there was an Irish guy from my hostel that was traveling up north and we had booked our tickets together, which as a young woman travelling solo, I was very grateful to have the companionship on what could turn into a bad situation. When we showed up at the office, we were joined by two other backpackers and then escorted out of the office, down Khao San, through an alley, through a dark door that led into a Muay Thai boxing ring with a pack barking stray dogs, through another back alley, to another ticket office where there was a large congregation of backpackers, all waiting for their respective buses. We were given tickets and told to wait till the bus arrived, which we assumed would be expediently given how much importance they placed on us showing up on time.
An hour and a half later, a two-story bus finally arrived and all those heading to Chiang Mai were summoned. We handed our backpacks to the man who was loading them beneath the bus. Here is one of the most important aspects of taking the night bus: theft. By placing your bag in the hands of the tour bus operators, you are giving them access to everything inside your bag. What’s that? You put a padlock on it? Unfortunately, the scary truth is that these guys have devised several tactics for breaking a fair majority of locks that people utilize and getting into your bags. The good news is that they are mostly interested in important documents and expensive items like passports, money, electronics and all other valuables are called valuables for a reason, and should be kept on your person at all times. There have been several cases where bags have been broken into and rummaged through, but nothing taken or perhaps a few items missing, but nothing of great importance. Most travellers are wary of the fact that you should always have your valuables with you. The night bus is especially no exception to this, and in fact I recommend having a lock on your personal bag for when you doze off on the lovely twelve-hour jaunt you are about to embark on.
The bus was in very good condition and there was no off-putting stench or soiled seats, which was actually surprising. It was air conditioned, there were blankets on each of the seats and we had a full bus of foreigners. As soon as we began our route out of Bangkok, they began playing pirated copies of American movies such as Anchor Man and White House Down, which were great movies to laugh with and at, respectively. I had secured my belongings in my Pacsafe bag, locking and wrapping the lock cord around my foot. Feeling fairly safe, I managed to fall asleep in order to try and make the twelve hours pass quicker. Conditions will vary from bus to bus, but depending on your levels of desired comfort, I at least recommend securing a bus with air conditioner.
About four hours in we stopped at a restaurant-bathroom location. We were given enough time to buy a few snacks, use the bathrooms and then we were back on the road. Another four hours later, we made another stop at a gas station-esque location where again we were given time to buy snacks and relieve ourselves. It is imperative that you bring your carry-on belongings with you when you depart the bus, even if you figure you will only be gone for 5 minutes. There are too many times that I have heard tales of travellers that were too groggy to bring their things with them as they went out for a much needed stretch and it wasn't until they were at their destination that they realized anything had been taken. This trip is tiring, but that is absolutely no excuse for you to lose awareness of your surroundings and let yourself be careless with your valuables. This stop is also crucial for much needed stretching and breathing fresh air.
As we neared the ending hours of our trip, we turned into another gas station-bus stop area, but this was not the Chiang Mai Bus Arcade that we were expecting to arrive at. Confused, exhausted and extremely disoriented at 4:30 in the morning, we were all told that we had arrived at the stop. When we got off the bus, our backpacks were being unloaded and there was a line of Thai taxis, known as a sǎwngthǎew (pronounced song tao), waiting for us like vultures. Though we thought we had finally made it this far without being scammed, the night bus worked it’s magic and cornered us with the decision of being abandoned at the dark gas station next to the ghighway, or paying 50 baht each to be taken to the Chiang Mai Bus Arcade, as we had been initially informed would be our final destination. Without much choice, we hopped in a song tao and were taken to the bus arcade, where people found other modes of transport to get to their final destination. When we did eventually make it to the Chiang Mai Arcade, we were exhausted and ready to be at our destination. Thankfully, my route required only one more van ride and then the promise of paradise up in the oasis that is Pai.
All in all, the night bus did not harm me, nor did I feel particularly unsafe throughout the trip. There is no doubt that this is one of the most opportune moments for misfortune to show its ugly face, so be very cautious, ultra aware and extra prepared when it comes to the safety of your belongings and yourself. I would recommend this method of travel, but I would suggest going through the public bus system rather than the potentially scam-filled tourist organizations.