Along with buckets and beer singlets, “VIP” mini-van rides are an experience that almost every traveler in Southeast Asia knows all too well. Like the hangover after those buckets, or second guessing how cool you actually look with the “Chang” logo across your chest, overnight mini-van rides are also an experience that most travelers quickly regret.
Companies offering mini-van rides are incredibly convenient, particularly when you’re new to Southeast Asia and feeling unsure about how to get from city to city. Scattered throughout pretty much every major tourist area, these mini-van companies look so tempting with their signs advertising direct trips to other cities and countries in SE Asia. In Bangkok? Hop on an overnight mini-van and tomorrow you could be in Phuket or Phnom Phen or Luang Prabang. Even though I know I despise mini-vans, I still sometimes find myself getting caught up in the ease of simply jumping on a van and having the whole journey easily laid out for me.
Don’t Take a Mini-Van
Whether your destination is an hour away or 12 hours, there are almost always public buses that will take you there. These public buses are both cheaper and more comfortable than tourist-geared mini-vans. The headrests in mini-vans are exactly like the ones you’d find in any family van – it’s like laying your head against a table – and a particularly hard one at that. The seats in public buses, on the other hand, are generally pretty cushy and the chairs almost always recline to a nearly horizontal position, ideal for sleeping.
Plus, public buses offer way more space than a cramped mini-van, and the overall ride is just smoother. In a mini-van, you feel every chaotic swerve and bump along the way, but the bigger buses seem to lessen this effect, so you don’t feel like you’re being tossed around for the entire ride. Plus, public buses have toilets (more on that later). And again, for all that extra comfort, you’re usually paying half the price you would pay for a mini-van, simply because you’re using a local service, rather than one in place for tourists.
Public buses might not be available right outside your guesthouse door like mini-van rides, but, regardless of what city you’re in, it’s pretty easy to find the local bus station, and it’s worth the effort of doing a little research online or asking around to figure out exactly how to get there.
But if you must take a mini-van…
Never Sit in the Back Seat
Mini-vans usually have about a dozen seats, including one long seat in the very back. So you think, “Sweet, I’m going to stretch out in that back seat and sleep the whole time”. Occasionally, it works out that way, but more often than not, mini-vans are packed to capacity, which means you’ll be sharing that nice spacious back seat with at least 2 other people. Then, as the long journey begins and everyone in front of you reclines their seats, encroaching on your existing 3 inches of leg room, you realize it gets worse: Your seat doesn’t recline.
Sometimes it’s a structural feature of the mini-van; other times, there’s so much baggage jammed behind you in the van’s trunk that your seat can’t physically move back, but either way, the result is the same. You’ll live, of course, but I’ve sat bolt upright on enough 12-hour overnight mini-van rides to say that this situation is best avoided, if possible.
I’m a pretty big advocate for hydration, particularly in Southeast Asia’s hot, sweaty climates; but, (and forgive me if this is an over-share) an overnight mini-van ride means a 10-14 hour journey with 2-3 stops for toilet breaks, which, obviously, is not the best time to need frequent meetings with the porcelain god . My strategy is to eat and drink very little leading up to the ride, and then take small sips of water throughout the journey. Then I drink water like crazy once we arrive at our destination. It’s not ideal, but there are few things worse than needing a serious bathroom break and knowing that the van won’t be stopping for upwards of 2 hours.
Bring a Pillow and a Blanket
It seems to be an unspoken rule in mini-vans that the air-conditioning must be cranked up to its maximum capacity for the entire ride, which gets cold pretty fast if you’re wearing the usual T-shirt and shorts combo to survive SE Asia’s heat. That’s why I consider shawls to be a mini-van ride essential. A shawl is light and easy to carry, and I can wrap it around my shoulders when I’m cold, or spread it over myself to feel a little cozier when I’m ready to sleep. If not a shawl, it’s a good idea to have a sweater, blanket or some other layer handy, because I can almost guarantee that the temperature will be freezing inside the van.
It’s also well worth it to bring a small pillow or a piece of clothing that you can bundle up to act as an extra head rest. As I already mentioned, the seats are incredibly uncomfortable, so every bit of additional cushioning gives you a better chance of actually getting some sleep.
Have you done the infamous overnight VIP mini-van ride in Southeast Asia? What are your tips?