Running the Backpacker Marathon

Travel, particularly budget travel, is all about jet-setting from one glamorous destination to the next. When you have to watch your wallet getting from one point to the next can be a tedious and time consuming process. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that transportation is many people’s least favorite aspect of travel. Short of train buffs (and awesome road trips), transportation is actually a major pain in the ass.

Take for example, my journey from Ko Samui, Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:

3:00 PM Monday– Leave our fabulous guest house in Ko Samui and walk up to the main road where a shuttle us supposed to pick us up. It’s pouring rain and the bus is late. We stand in the rain for about 45 minutes until the bus finally arrives. It’s already packed to the gills with other people so Mike and I squeeze into the front seat with the driver.

4:00 PM– Arrive at the bus depot and play Russian roulette with the bus drivers until we finally find the correct bus. Earlier we had decided on the mid-range (700 baht) option because it was supposed to have more leg room and a bathroom on board. Quickly we realize that our seats in the front row actually give us LESS leg room and that the lights don’t work in the bathroom, requiring some acrobatic magic.

4:30 PM– The bus takes us to a ferryboat (Ko Samui being an island and all) where we are required to offload. The ferry itself is quite massive and it’s stopped raining by now, so our two hour sea journey is not too bad. We feast on pocky, home made potato chips and cups of noodles.

sunset on the ferry

6:30 PM– Ferry reaches the mainland so we climb back onto the bus. Sometimes these overnight buses show movies (last time we watched Step Up 3 dubbed in Thai), but tonight all is quiet. Mike and I play Trivial Pursuit on my ipod- we each win two games.

8:30 PM– Stop for dinner- included in the ticket price. It consists of somewhat dodgy looking communal thai food served at small tables.

9:00 PM– Back onto the bus which, by the way, is colder than my refrigerator at home. WHY DO BUSES DO THIS? Every single night bus I’ve ever been on, no matter the country, has been hypothermia inducing. Do people enjoy this? The thin pink blanket they hand out I absolutely no match for the unending torrent of freezing air. Huddled together to conserve heat, we watch the Motorcycle Diaries on Mike’s computer. It’s a great movie, but I find myself drifting…

Banahaw Transport
photo credit: Chοkz

1:00 AM Tuesday– AWAKE. Slowly lull back to sleep then again blaste AWAKE. Driver sure loves his horn. It’s a vicious cycle that continues until daybreak, making sure I get little to no useful sleep.

5:00 AM– We arrive in Bangkok and clamor off the bus. Immediately half a dozen taxi drivers pounce on me asking where I want to go. I push them away and try to get my bearings. There’s a problem: We have no idea where we are. We’d assumed we’d alight at the Southern Bus Station, since we left from there and we were, you know, coming from the south. Not so- this place is totally unfamiliar and we are stumped. Attempts to ask at the information desk prove fruitless.

5:30 AM– Jump in a taxi towards the airport. Our flight doesn’t leave for many, many house but we figure it’s cheapest to go directly there. I hold my breath that this driver will not take us on a “scenic tour” of Bangkok and luckily he doesn’t. He must be tired too.

6:15 AM– Arrive at the airport. Our flight doesn’t leave until 3:55 PM, which means we’ve got massive amounts of time to kill. Sleepily eat an overpriced breakfast. Beg the check in lady at Air Asia to let us check in REALLY early but she says no way, we have to come back at 1pm. Crap.

1:00 PM- At 1 pm on the dot we are at the counter to check our luggage. We are slightly concerned because, due to bad math, we’ve accidentally overstayed our Thai visa by one day. According to the internet this means we just need to pay 500 baht fine, but we want to get through customs early in case there are any issues.

1:30 PM- Go through customs and security. Things go smoothly- we don’t even have to pay the fine- apparently overstaying by one day is okay- any more is a problem.

2:00 PM– We decide to celebrate our departure by spending our extra baht on absurdly expensive cocktails and sushi. I never remember to change my money after departure so I always try to spend it all before I leave.

3:55 PM- Hop on our flight to Vietnam! It’s only an hour and a half so not much chance to catch up on sleep.

5:30 PM– Land in Ho Chi Minh City, excited but exhausted. We bought our Vietnam visas online so we need to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops before we can cross through customs. Our lovely guest house has sent someone to pick us up from the airport which saves us the trouble of trying to navigate the city on our own.

6:30 PM– Finally arrive at our guest house. Time to eat and relax after 26 hours of straight travel. And SLEEP.

These kind of endurance travel marathons are pretty typical when your priority is getting somewhere cheaply, not rapidly. Could we have simply flown from Ko Samui to HCMC? Yes, and it would have taken us maybe 3 hours. But it would have cost us hundreds of dollars more.

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25 thoughts on “Running the Backpacker Marathon”

  1. Hi there, I’m going to Ho Chi Minh City with my bf in October, we’re flying in from Hong Kong and arrive at about 11pm at night. Can you recommend a hostel that is cheap but clean with transport from the airport (like the one you mentioned in this post). Also, did you book it far in advance? I have read a lot about people booking hostels, turning up and they are told to go somewhere else because there is no availability. Please advise! Thanks. Karin

    1. Hi Karin,

      We stayed at the NgocThao GuestHouse which we booked on hostel world. They were totally helpful and professional and charged something like $10 extra to pick us up at the airport. The family was really sweet and they even hosted a free Tet themed dinner for all the residences since we were there in February.

      I think this was the only hostel we booked in advance in Vietnam, for the most part it was really easy to just show up in a city and find accommodation. Most double rooms cost under $20 a night.

      Hope that helps,


  2. The lights in the bathroom of an overnight bus I took in Thailand also didn’t work – my guess is it was the same bus. 🙂

    Surprised at two things: dinner being included and the fact that they gave you a blanket. Didn’t experience either one of those on my overnight buses!

    The worst part was how – after you finally fell asleep – the drivers would scream and turn on the lights to wake you up!

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