You’re not a “real” traveller until you’ve survived a nightmare trip on public transport in some far flung corner of the world. WORDS: Conal Hanna

As our bus careered sideways towards the cliff face, I was too exhausted to be afraid. Fellow passengers gasped aloud and assumed looks of intense horror as our back wheels slid out in a giant fish tail; all I could do was watch the approaching precipice with a look of resigned indifference. At least it meant the trip would be over.

The downside of being a traveller is the travelling – subjecting yourself to some of the world’s most dubious transport systems. Of course, once they’re over, these horror trips become sources of pride for the hapless backpackers they’ve befallen, who gather in pubs to compare stories like extreme sports junkies compare scars, telling each other it’s all part of the experience”.”

But I’d be lying if I said I was similarly chirpy ahead of our eight-hour trip from Phonsovan in eastern Laos to Luang Prabang. To be fair, I wasn’t feeling well, having spent more of the night before on the toilet than in bed. Chock-full of Immodium, I watched the driver load on all the people, bags and sacks of vegetables (no chickens, thankfully) and get our 8.30am bus moving only five minutes late – the UK would be proud.

But our progress was shortlived, the bus stopping three times in the first 15 minutes to pick up passengers. As the bus was already full, I wondered where they were going to sit, only to see the driver’s assistant pull out a stack of plastic stools and place them in the aisle. My own seat no longer seemed too bad, but as the roads got rougher I soon discovered the steel bar right across my lower back. Surely too prominent to be accidental, I could only guess at some form of anti-slouching campaign by the Lao government.

As I continually readjusted, my constant whingeing led my wife to hesitantly bring up the two friends of ours who’d completed the same Phonsovan-Luang Prabang route two years earlier – before the road was paved. Back then the trip took 16 hours, and the jarring must have been much worse. But I didn’t care. I was on death’s door – well, mildly nauseous – and as such, couldn’t do anything but wallow in my own misery (I am a man, after all).

Not that there was nothing else to focus on. The bus’ continual violent shaking – suspension hasn’t reached Lao buses yet – made reading impossible, while the driver’s frequent use of the horn, justified by the narrow road and frequent bends, meant any attempt at sleep was shortlived. And as we travelled over the winding mountain ranges, the gorgeous scenery soon became obscured by an all-encompassing mist – I chose not to think about how the driver could see.

After a few hours, the monotony was broken by a toilet break. Well, ‘toilet’ is slightly misleading – it was more a ‘piss on the hillside’ break which, while presenting no problems for myself, was a little more hazardous for the women on the bus.

Without my nagging bladder to think about, I soon began thinking about my nagging stomach. Unfortunately, the fruit we’d purchased the day before for just this scenario had been scattered around our room by a rat overnight, a discovery which did wonders for my queasy stomach, especially coming, as it did, slightly before I found a snail residing on my toothbrush.

By 1.30pm, having tortured myself with Colonel Sanders-related fantasies long enough, I focused my full attention on sending the driver psychic messages to stop for lunch. And stop he did. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I looked up to see, not a roadside restaurant but a monster traffic jam. After an hour standing in the misty rain, still with no idea what the hold up was, I actually became nostalgic about being on the bus.

Our collective relief upon moving again was further enhanced by the sight of what had held us up – a landslide, a biggie, too, which had required a bulldozer to come and clear the way. Now, of course, we were stuck behind 15 or so trucks – the only things in Laos apparently slower than our bus. It was only the sight of further landslides, plus the dusty wooden shacks that passed as houses, that kept my whining to a minimum.

Having finally stopped for lunch at around 3.30pm – fried rice never tasted so good – my mood improved dramatically. Unfortunately, the landslide situation didn’t. By now we’d passed at least a dozen, including one that caused the road to all but disintegrate. Then we hit another big one.

Our bus pulled over to the edge of the road – and I do mean edge; less than a metre away was a 100m drop. Not surprisingly, everybody chose to disembark, joining the growing chorus checking out the landslide. As we contemplated another lengthy wait for a bulldozer, one truck driver decided to give it a crack. Much to everyone’s surprised delight, he actually got through, flattening part of the dirt hill and prompting another truckie to take his place. This one, however, wasn’t so lucky, and was soon well and truly bogged.

A crowd of Lao men gathered round, like dads to a barbecue, all offering suggestions, while ultimately being useless. Eventually, a 4WD, some rope and a lot of toing and froing got the truck moving again, and no sooner was it out of the way than our bus driver started tooting his horn. Being relatively close to the front of the queue, we assumed he was just hoping to get everyone onboard before the road was cleared. But with only half our passengers re-embarked, he suddenly cranked the ignition, and pulled out onto the road as we looked at each other in stunned silence. Surely, he’s not gonna … ” – the sentence was broken off by the groan of the engine as the driver pushed our old bus to its limited limits, trying to build up enough speed to cross the mound of dirt. Somehow, we actually got through, but just as I released my iron grip on the railing beside me, our back wheels fishtailed and we began careering for the cliff face.

How close we came to the edge varies, depending now on how many beers I’ve had, and how good your ‘horror bus trip’ story was. Suffice to say, upon getting to Luang Prabang, some five hours after our scheduled arrival, with nerves shot to pieces, we treated ourselves to a hostel with hot water then a steak dinner, complete with red wine. Not very authentic, I know, but it’s still the best £8 I’ve ever spent. Except for maybe the VIP minibus we took out of Luang Prabang three days later.

Bus rides from hell

On a bus from Uyuni to Sucre in Bolivia, we got dropped off at 1am in Potosi and were told to wait beside the road until 6am for our connection. Naturally, I kicked off in broken Spanish with the driver for not telling us in advance, only to attract the attention of the local police, who revelled in our bemusement. Thankfully, we befriended the only other two English-speaking people on the bus. They were a little more fluent in Spanish and helped calm the situation before we found a hostel for the next four hours. – RICHARD HINCHELWOOD

I spent 26 hours on an unheated bus while driving through the Peruvian Andes – cold to the point of having to put on all the clothes in my pack – surrounded by the nice, but very noisy, members of a Lima salsa band. Their keyboard was wedged into the stow space above me and threatened to fall onto my head every time we turned a corner. I’d had to rush to catch the bus so the only food I had with me were Oreos, not that it mattered, though, as I had acute mountain sickness and was throwing up everything I ate. – AMY MACPHERSON

What was supposed to be a 12-hour overnight journey from Luxor to Dahab ended up a hellish 17 hours. We were woken approximately every one to two hours throughout the night by guards checking passports. The bus was completely full, and there were no open windows – not much fun when you’re seated near the toilet. The toilet on board was like nothing I can even begin to describe. I was warned by other passengers not to risk it but my bladder got the better of me after about five hours – needless to say I was almost sick when I opened the door to find the contents of the toilet spilling over onto the floor and walls. I decided I would hold or wet myself. Never, I repeat, never again. – JANELLE ESTREICH

Our original bus for the overnight trip from Iguazu Falls to Salta (Argentina) failed to materialise and, in the confusion, we nabbed the last seats on a replacement bus, conveniently situated behind a screaming, vomiting toddler and right beside the stinking toilet. Blasted by icy wind through the tattered piece of plastic taped across the non-existent window, I genuinely thought we might freeze to death. Only after several hours did we eventually stop for petrol and food – well, week-old pastries. We reluctantly stocked up while being eyed menacingly by the drunken lorry drivers and prostitutes who appeared to be holding an all-night party there, then got out our sleeping bags – and our valium – for the remainder of the hellish journey. – ELISE RANA”