The Wheels on the Bus: Traveling Solo By Bus and Loving It

Recycled old truck at Suan Sati yoga retreat in Chiang Mai Thailand
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Fields and villages and palm trees and cows roll by on the Cambodian plains. I’m strapped safely in (I haven’t been on a bus with working seatbelts in week) munching on a croissant handed to me by the smiling Cambodian bus attendant, settling in for the six hour ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.

This is one of my favorite ways to travel.

Not just because I hate flying (I do! So so much, especially budget airlines) or because it’s cheap (it is!), though those are factors. I adore trains too, but they’re not an option in most of Southeast Asia.

Why I love bus rides when traveling alone

But only on a bus do you get to watch as a country unfolds before you. It’s a glimpse into the lives of those you roll past: a little Cambodian boy splashing naked under a water pump on a sultry afternoon, a cow and a chicken deep in conversation in a Thai field so green it looks like AstroTurf, a whole Lao family piled on a motorbike with a baby strapped in and grinning calmly.

You get a feel for the little idiosyncrasies of each place too. Thailand businesses are in love with the wacky waving inflatable men they prop at the front door, beckoning you in with a fixed and unseeing smile. Brooms are big business in Laos, with villagers collecting and drying the fronds of a river plant and every woman in sight sweeping her patch of land methodically.

And in Cambodia, cows are ubiquitous and totally free range. You see them wandering into schoolyards, picnic grounds, front yards, businesses, anywhere they please. And as the sun shifts lower, they’re led home by their need for dinner or by straight-backed Cambodian women wearing conical straw hats.

My favorite thing I’ve noticed everywhere?

Nap culture reigns supreme.

Thai tuktuk drivers nap in the backseat while between customers. Lao and Cambodian ones take it to the next level by hanging a hammock up on the bar in the back, enabling a shady nap spot wherever the mood strikes. Out in the countryside, little cabanas line scenic spots full of slowly swaying hammocks for the weary traveler. Behind an ornate temple, in a one-room hut, on the bank of a sluggish brown river – it’s all fair game.

In this heat? I get it. In the afternoons in Phnom Penh it’s too hot to even move. You get up early here to enjoy the relative cool of the morning and pause for a siesta in the blinding afternoon heat. I got sunburned sitting by a pool in the shade here: Cambodian sun does not fuck around. Best to swing away under a plan tree until it’s a more livable temperature.

If I flew over all these routes, which is possible, I would miss all of this.

So instead, I put on my bus ride playlist (yes I really have one now) and sink into my seat, ignoring the boxes of chickens behind me and the groans of the tired old engine and float into reverie.

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