What I Wonder When I Wander: How close are we to dying on a night bus, really?

Posted on 24. Mar, 2013 by in Travel Reflections

The night bus: perhaps the most common (and the most economical) transportation option for travelers covering long distances.

From a rational standpoint, the night bus makes perfect sense. Get on the bus, allow the bouncing tires to lull you to sleep and wake up at your destination.

For Dani, this is exactly how it works. With just a jacket under her head to soften the bumpy ride, she’s out like a light most the night. For me, however, the longer I travel the less I sleep on buses for one simple reason: I’m keeping watch over the bus driver.

This isn’t exactly because I don’t trust the driver. I really do, considering that night buses around the world arrive in tact every single day. And of all the ‘types’ of bus drivers, overnight, long haul drivers are by far the more professional than the others.

Chicken buses lined up in Antigua

Chicken buses in Guatemala

Pimp My Bus – A Bus Driver Break Down

The short distance drivers – two hours or under – tend to treat the road like a popularity contest. The actual driving taking a back seat to all the honking and waving at locals and fellow drivers passing in the opposite direction. When they have no assistant to handle the money, passengers pay up front, and one or two inevitably join the driver, standing up front holding chummy, jovial conversations with the driver for lengthy blocks of time.

These drivers also tend to have this deep need to express their personality through their bus decorations. In Panama we took a trip out to the less visited Gatun locks from Colón, and the bus driver had converted his chicken bus into a reggaton disco decorated with acres of fuzzy neon fabric. Other times, the drivers are no-nonsense sticklers for rules, with signs all over the bus – don’t talk to the driver, pay in exact change, no standing, no exiting from the front of the bus, etc.

chiang rai bus inside

The driver’s cabin in a pimped out bus in Thailand, decorated with Buddha statues

Then there are the middle distance drivers, who cover anywhere from three to eight hours. Some of these guys (and no matter what, bus drivers are almost always guys) seem like they’ve just been bumped up into the minor leagues, but are still playing the popularity contest. Some drivers wear uniforms and work for companies, others wear jeans and holy t-shirts. There is less need for an assistant on these buses as tickets are often paid for in advance, so these drivers are social in other ways. They’re the ones who love letting food vendors on, or people selling Bibles or Band-Aids, pens or sewing kits on, who then sell at the top of their lungs for a dozen kilometers before getting off at the next stop. Making the same stops along the same routes every day, these drivers often have a restaurant where someone packages them a lunch or dinner at one stop, and have a group of driver buddies to smoke cigarettes with at others.

We once had a chicken bus driver in Guatemala who had hooked up a flat screen TV in the front and run surround sound around the bus and had movies blaring for the hundreds of indigenous people crammed six to a school bus seat for hours at a time. A few months later on a bus in Nicaragua, on the way to the Costa Rican border, our driver had a full-sized (non-flat screen) TV somehow hoisted up to the front showing non-stop Europop videos from the 90s. It was an…interesting…experience, and Dani was able to school me in a genre of music I’d thankfully not had to personally experience in the mid-90s, when I was balancing a life-affirming mix of grunge and gangsta rap.

chicken bus dani

A chicken bus in Panama (how does the driver even see?)

All of this individual personality is erased once drivers make it up to the major leagues. Long-haul bus drivers work mainly for larger companies and are responsible for driving 10, 12, sometimes up to 30 hours like our recent trip through Patagonia.

Regardless of the country or part of the world, drivers in the long-haul big leagues almost always have short, gelled hair, a button down embroidered with the company logo, maybe a sweater vest, nice slacks and shiny shoes. These drivers never deal with cash or pick up anyone at unofficial stops. In reality they have more in common with airline pilots than other types of bus drivers, as passengers are served meals, shown movies and have bathroom access on board.

Often times, there are two drivers who switch off between sleeping and driving; other times new drivers get on at a stop and take over for the rest of the trip. The companies run a well-oiled operation, and I am sure that these drivers are also well-paid and well-rested.

argentina bus

One of the better night buses we’ve taken: 1st class from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile

Night bus nightmares: Dozing off and the time we almost died

But it’s not like I don’t know what it is like to drive long distances at night. I’m no professional, but I know how hard driving becomes at the six, seven, ten hour mark, no matter how loud the music plays, how much coffee I drink, how long I have the windows open. And doing anything that requires such intense concentration at night is always so much more challenging. I think we can all remember attempting an all-nighter during college finals and waking up in a pool of drool hours later, remembering nothing.

But night bus drivers can never, ever (ever, ever) have a moment of drool – with up to one hundred people in their charge. Except in our experience, some actually do…

On a 2010 trip from Valladolid to Chetumal in Mexico (a mid-range, day time trip) the driver was slowly hypnotized into sleep by the rows of perfectly planted palm trees lining a never-ending straight road for hours and hours. Dani and I watched, as his blinks lasted longer and longer. Eventually his neck gave in to gravity and for one second he fell asleep before snapping up and driving flawlessly, adrenaline likely now pulsing through his veins as much as it was through ours.

But the time we thought we really might die happened last year, when, after a few weeks of travel through Laos, we joined a minivan of 10 other ‘Farang’, or foreigners, headed back to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

laos bus

A long-distance bus in Laos

One hour in, the driver stopped at a 7-Eleven off the highway for a ‘bathroom break’ and laid down in the front seat for ten minutes. Back on the road and he starting swerving on either side of the white line for an hour until he pulled over again at a different 7-Eleven, this time napping for 20 minutes. In the back, the silent stress among us 12 strangers had been building until the point when the driver’s head snapped down asleep and the minivan swerved uncontrollably a few times just as the clock struck midnight. He incessantly rubbed his eyes and had conversations with himself which I translated as “Wake up champ, you can do this, don’t kill the nice people.”  This is when we all knew we’d have to take matters into our own hands.

Sixty very slow kilometers and another couple of unplanned stops later, including one at a hospital (we had no idea what it was about and were scared to ask), he pulled into another rest stop, put his hands together and asked our forgiveness – ‘Twenty minutes I sleep,” he begged and parked his carload of tall white foreigners in another empty parking lot at 3am. One British farang who spoke enough Thai gathered that the driver had been forced to do this 12-hour trip back, forth and back, three times in the last 48 hours. The Brit told the driver to get in the back and sleep, and he drove us the rest of the way back to Chiang Mai. When we arrived to town 16 hours later, the driver was still passed out in the back with a blanket pulled right up over his face.

The same blind panic I felt that in Thailand shot over me just last month in Argentina as I drifted off to sleep on our 27-hour bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten. The bus was shoddy, the drivers less put together than most, and the journey traversed hundreds of miles of barren nothingness on unpaved gravel roads.

driving through argentina

A 27-hour bus ride through Argentina, mainly on this unpaved road

My Late Night Patagonian Game Show

As Dani slept peacefully, I created a game show where contestants could win $1,000,000 for sitting in front of a screen and successfully watching just one hour of the bleak, unchanging Patagonian landscape go by without falling asleep. None of the contestants won the game show in my head – so how could I possibly conceive of these two bus drivers successfully doing this for 27 hours without falling asleep?

How do any of these drivers do it? Do they undergo some kind of secret army-level training and what-if scenarios?

I highly doubt it, which is why I always wonder just how many times we have been on buses where drivers doze off like ours did in Mexico and Thailand?

One thing is certain – if we actually do die on a bus, or a train or a plane for that matter, at least we both will have no regrets with the lives we have made for ourselves. I’d just rather not deal with that, that’s all.

Have you ever had a driver fall asleep during an overnight bus ride? 

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38 Responses to “What I Wonder When I Wander: How close are we to dying on a night bus, really?”

  1. My near death driver falling asleep experience was in a taxi traveling from the Perth, Australia airport to Freemantle. Our plane arrived at midnight along with several other international flights. It took us two hours to clear an agricultural check—passports in order, but we could have been trying to smuggle an apple into Australia. We had no choice but to take a taxi at 2:00 a.m. My husband could not understand why I insisted on making inane conversation with the taxi driver, but from my vantage point, I could see that he was falling asleep. I really did not want to start our Australia sojourn upside down in a ditch or wrapped around a tree.
    Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..Philadelphia Phriday* — Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market

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    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      Late night drivers is a scary thing – even just short distances can be frightening, that’s definitely true! I don’t know how they do it (and I don’t want to know, either).

      Reply to this comment
  2. Adventurous Kate

    25. Mar, 2013

    This is something I worry about too, Jess. I didn’t realize until midway through my Asia trip that so many of the long-distance bus drivers are hopped up on various drugs to keep them awake on the road. Scary stuff.

    That British guy who took over the minibus is a hero — he very well could have saved your lives.
    Adventurous Kate recently posted..Ask Kate: Should I Give Up My Great Life To Travel?

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    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      I figure they have to be hopped up on something, and to be honest, I’d like it to be coffee or maybe easy over the counter ‘awake’ pills. We treated the Brit like a hero for sure, I always wanted to buy him a beer when we saw him around Chiang Mai but for some reason he’s the only person we didn’t run in to again and again!

      At first I never worried about this stuff, but after Thailand I really started to worry more and more about it – unfortunately here in South America it’s so common to take night buses, too.

      Reply to this comment
  3. Edna

    25. Mar, 2013

    I’m even scared of that back at home — on the Beltway that runs around DC and Baltimore, people go 80-90 mph and it’s always busy due to the high number of commuters in the area. So I worry about the 5-, 6-, 7-am drivers on the road who didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and are then falling asleep at the wheel going 80 mph. Worrisome stuff, the world round.

    (And I agree with Kate, thank goodness you had that British guy on board to make sense of things and take over!)
    Edna recently posted..The 5 best things I ate in Singapore — #3: Bak Kut Teh

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    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      That’s definitely true, Edna. Isn’t it weird how much power individual drivers have, all wielding our own 2 tonne weapons, speeding down highways at all hours, essentially unregulated?

      Reply to this comment
    • Mindy and Ligeia

      11. Apr, 2013

      Hi Edna, I am from Baltimore so I know the beltway you’re speaking of – 695. It was nice to see a location mentioned of “back home” when I am so far away from home. It’s a small world. :)
      Mindy and Ligeia recently posted..Bounding’s Bucket List: Our Top Ten

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  4. Steph

    25. Mar, 2013

    Have you guys been to Vietnam? The bus drivers there scared me the most- they drove like they were playing chicken! I usually try to force myself to sleep so I don’t have to see the death defying moves.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      Oooh, Steph, you’re right. I should have mentioned the Chicken playing! We haven’t been to Vietnam, but the same was true in Guatemala. Once we took a night bus from Flores to Antigua, but I had Dengue Fever so I actually slept the whole way. When we stopped in Guatemala City, Dani’s face was white as a sheet. The driver had apparently been playing chicken all night long, almost killing us any number of times. I was actually glad to have Dengue that night!

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  5. Kim

    25. Mar, 2013

    OMG that story in Thailand. That is so crazy! I worry about the buses too. As far as I know we’ve never had any close calls but I try to avoid them when I can (impossible in SA). It’s just a crapshoot.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      I laughed out loud when I read your ‘It’s just a crapshoot’. Because not only are you right, but it’s like, ah, well, if I die, I die. There’s really no way around it though most times.

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  6. I live in the northern part of Costa Rica so we travel often to Nicaragua and the buses there are similar. Jam packed with people and they drive like they just got news their mother died lol You just have to hold on and hope for the best!
    Happy Travels~Erin

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      Like they got news their mother died. That’s right. And they do it everyday. I’ll never understand that!

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  7. Pauline

    25. Mar, 2013

    I have never done any overnight bus trip outside of North America. The one time I did overnight was going from Toronto to New York and that wasn’t a very smooth ride (our bus broke down and was left stranded on the side of the road for a good hour or so). I really have no clue about this, but is it really worth the stress and the scares to take the over night bus in S.A.? I guess what I’m asking is – is it that much cheaper?
    Pauline recently posted..Ottawa: Where -30°C is Normal

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    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      Surprised you had to go overnight from Toronto to New York as they’re so close? But to answer your question – it is much, much cheaper to take the bus and if you are going to take a bus, the long-distance ones are almost always overnight options only. For example, right now we are planning a trip that is either over night bus for $150 each (and possibly 30 hours total if we don’t break it up), or flights for $440 each! In South East Asia it is possible that flights might be fairly economical options, but we also don’t want to fly constantly if we don’t have to because, well, there’s the question there, too, how close are we to dying on a plane! :)

      Reply to this comment
  8. Brian

    25. Mar, 2013

    Oh, I know the value vs. life/safety game all too well. So far, my cheapness always wins out. Maybe that with change in SE Asia after reading this…
    Brian recently posted..The Legend of Boggy Creek

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    • Jess

      25. Mar, 2013

      The thing is, Brian, if you take a real night ‘bus’ they’re almost even nicer than in South America, and, of course, cheaper. What happened with us is we all loaded up onto a legit bus to go from Vientiane and cross the border, and then all those going to Chiang Mai had to get out and load into this minivan as there were only 12 of us. The bus continued on to Bangkok, most likely with no issues at all, while we pummeled to our near deaths :)

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  9. Kayla

    25. Mar, 2013

    Really enjoyed the “Pimp My Bus” section of the article–your commentary of the personality displayed by the lower rungs of bus drivers is spot on! I’ve also found that taxi drivers provide a similar display of personality, especially when it comes to religion. They hang crosses from the rear view and play Christian music on the radio; of course, with the way people drive here in Lima, maybe you need to have a little faith!

    Scary about the dozing bus drivers—something I’d prefer not to investigate on my travels…
    Kayla recently posted..Inca Army: Weapons of Choice

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    • Jess

      26. Mar, 2013

      I like it when the bus drivers have crosses or buddha statues on the bus, makes me feel like there could be a slight chance this is a god-fearing individual who respects human life. The over-religious ones, though, who make the cross on the their chest when passing every single church – I’m always like – keep your hands on the wheel buddy, alright?! :)

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  10. Michael

    25. Mar, 2013

    I’ve had my fair share of horrible bus journeys in the States, looks like it’s the same all over the world.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      26. Mar, 2013

      One of our best break-down stories took place in the desert in the middle of nowhere between Vegas and Los Angeles, so yeah, it seems like it’s all over the world the same.

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  11. I love this post because I HATE overnight bus journeys. I generally only get an hour or two of sleep because I am consumed with fear the entire time. In Laos, where the roads are extra bumpy, this has certainly been the case.

    When I arrived at the 4000 islands, some other folks who recently arrived told me how they saw an overturned ‘VIP’ bus on the side of the road.

    My next big journey is Luang Prabang to Hanoi, and it is so notoriously awful that I’ve met quite a few backpackers who have chosen to fly instead and pay $100 more. But I’m going to brave the bus – eeeeeep.
    David @ That Gay Backpacker recently posted..Stuff you can buy at Luang Prabang’s awesome night market.

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    • Jess

      26. Mar, 2013

      See! Why do we do this? We hate night buses, get all up in a tizzy about them, but then even when we know they’re dangerous, we opt for them over flights most of the time. It seems all serious travelers have a tendency to do this…someone should study our brains :)

      Reply to this comment
  12. Oh my! We have never taken an over night bus and after reading this post Im not sure if I want to lol

    We have been on our fair share of buses during the day, especially here in mexico. And let me tell you – There are some days I fear for my life! But when its 85 cents to get anywhere, its really hard to go another option!
    Nicole @ Suitcasestories.com recently posted..Lets get off our high horses – Full time travel isnt the only way to travel!

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  13. OMG how scary!!!!!

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  14. ConfusedJulia

    27. Mar, 2013

    Scares me too, for sure. Except until now I’d always only worried about having my stuff stolen as opposed to dying. The problem is that when you fall asleep yourself you never really know what’s happening up front, unless they do something like swerve suddenly and that wakes you up.
    Despite all that, we’ve all taken our lives into our own hands multiple times every time we’ve driven on a motorway with other people who may be as tired or as drugged-up as these bus drivers are. Like you said, we never really have any control over it, we just have to hope it doesn’t happen!
    ConfusedJulia recently posted..New Orleans, You’re So Purdy

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  15. Flora

    28. Mar, 2013

    I’m planning my first set of long haul South America bus journeys for next month: Cuenca – Mancora – Lima – Cusco, which totals about 50 hours of drive time in about a week.. I get the feeling I should make the decision now whether I want to be able to watch the drivers blinking timespans or not!
    Flora recently posted..Coping with Cuenca’s Crazy Weather

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  16. Jessica of HolaYessica

    29. Mar, 2013

    Wowww, you were so lucky the British guy was there! That’s absolutely terrifying.

    I’ve only taken night buses around Spain, and they are quite strict about them here (or at least the company I go with is). They have to stop every couple of hours for a 30-60 minute break, and can only drive a certain number of hours before having to change. After reading this, I’m even more relieved about those rules!
    Jessica of HolaYessica recently posted..4 Things I Like Better About Spain Than the U.S.

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  17. jaime

    29. Mar, 2013

    Ah I have wondered this my self many times. I remember wondering this most in Guatemala when sometimes I’d swear the bus I was getting on was about to fall apart and on top of that they drive like crazy through the mountains. I’d talk about India, but y’all were there for our worst train ride where i got off crying. Lucky for me though no I’ve never had a driver fall asleep, at least not that I know of.
    jaime recently posted..Random statistics from a 2 year backpacking trip around the world.

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  18. OCDemon

    31. Mar, 2013

    Night buses are the worst. I die a little inside every time I even think of one. Trains forever! Oh, and occasional boat rides up the coast if you can find them.
    OCDemon recently posted..Why Americans Should Travel

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  19. This was one of my biggest travel fears.

    I learned on my very first overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza that some companies (at least the reputable ones) have two drivers who take turns sleeping. I got to ride shotgun for a bit (long story), and that is when I saw a shirtless man stumble out from behind a curtain and learned about the second driver.

    My first overnight ride in Bolivia scared the crap out of me though because there was no second driver, and I had heard too many stories about them drinking alcohol to stay awake…. cause that totally makes sense.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Grandeur of Buenos Aires: It’s all in the details

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    • Jess

      04. Apr, 2013

      I mean, if there is only one driver, then they are definitely taking something strong to stay awake, right? The two drivers makes more sense, but I really think still they have to be doing more than drinking coffee or mate to stay awake especially when the landscape is so boring and monotonous, like in Patagonia.

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  20. Kristin Addis

    01. Apr, 2013

    I definitely wonder the same. The roads were so scary in Laos, the overnight bus was probably a bad move. I slept anyways, but, it was one bumpy ride.
    Kristin Addis recently posted..Offbeat Travel: Hiking Your Own Trail on Waiheke Island

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    • Jess

      04. Apr, 2013

      An overnight bus in Laos? The land of semi-paved roads? Yeah, that would be really hard. Laos was one of the only countries we have ever visited where even the locals got terrible bouts of motion sickness, too – enhanced only by that LOVELY traditional music blared over the speakers. We took one overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and though it wasn’t ‘scary’ it was bumpy and nauseating for sure.

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  21. Mindy and Ligeia

    11. Apr, 2013

    Wow, those are quite the night bus adventures! On our recent trip to the Philippines we took 4 night buses in all and we must admit that the only thing we can complain about is the speed with which the drivers went and the fact that they blasted the air-conditioning to the point where we had to use our travel towels as blankets. This of course pales in comparison to almost dying a couple of times and watching the driver actually fall asleep. And that poor bus driver who was forced to drive for WAY longer than he should have even been awake, let alone driving. We wonder how often this happens in the overnight bus industry. At any rate, we’re glad you survived all these rides to continue traveling. :)
    Mindy and Ligeia recently posted..Batad: Hiking Among the Banaue Rice Terraces

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    • Jess

      11. Apr, 2013

      Oh, air conditioning – that is another definite risk factor for a slower death on a bus :) I remember Mexico being the absolute worst for that, too! We actually completely forgot about almost getting robbed BLIND on a night bus in Thailand that we had to fight to even get on and then the taxi/bus-station-scam that came at the end of the ride. So many buses, so many stories :)

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  22. Megan

    16. Apr, 2013

    Thankfully I’ve never had that type of experience, but I absolutely hated taking the night bus between Guate and Flores. On the way to Flores, it was ok, because I was smushed in the middle of the bus between the window and a rather large man, but on the way back I was seated in the front row on the second floor of the double decker bus. I spent the whole night having nightmares about getting into accidents. Somehow, sitting behind a steering wheel makes me feel safer than feeling like I’ve gotten a front row seat to my own demise. Never again! Unless, of course, that’s the seat I get assigned…

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  23. Alex the Traveler

    17. Apr, 2013

    I cannot sleep when traveling by bus. I simply cannot. The only time I managed to sleep was when we went on a trip to Italy, and the bus driver would not stop until we had reached the destination.
    He drove for 2 days straight and we managed to sleep underneath the chairs of the bus for about an hour.
    most horrific experience I had on the bus.

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