Like most young travellers I’ve met on the road, I organised my trip with STA, back home in London. I booked all my flights through them along with a flexipass – which means I can change my flights if I want to – and also bought a few more services through them.
One of them was Bamba Experience’s “hop-on hop-off” bus tour of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam called Spicy Ways. I have, at best, mixed feelings about my experience about it so I thought I’d share to warn potential travellers…
Hop-on hop-off, except not
To me, hop-on hop-off means you’ve got a bus ticket that you can show up to a bus stop with, get on, get off, and again until it runs out. Since that’s the label with which STA sold me the package, that’s the way I understood it. Big red shining sign here: it’s not.
You’ll have to email Bamba anytime you want to make a bus journey, at least 24 hours in advance, and request to be booked on. Bamba and/or STA will have given you an itinerary brief before your departure that includes most bus departures. Don’t take that for gospel, as there are sometimes more or less. Be wary of the arrival times they give you, too; I booked a sleeper bus that I was told would arrive around 5 or 6am, and found myself alone in Phnom Penh at 2am, with every hostel closed.
In addition, there were a couple cases where I showed up to get on a bus and the bus company had no notice of my booking. Make sure you always have with you both the booking confirmation sent by Bamba, and the phone number for the local travel agent so they can be called to sort out the situation if need be.
My main problem with the whole system is that it lacked the spontaneity I was expecting the system to provide, and that I was relying on a daily basis on people I could only contact via the internet, which isn’t always easily accessible while on the road.
I was lucky that I never had a problem with a bus being full at the time I wanted it, I think it helped that I was travelling in the off-season. That’s one thing worth taking into account, too.
Aside from travel, the other thing included in this pass is a number of activities, ranging from bike tours to monument visits and mini-trips. Like the bus bookings, these need to be booked by email at least 24 hours in advance.
I enjoyed all the activities I did as part of the pass, and would’ve happily booked them myself if they hadn’t been pre-booked. But that’s the thing: I wish I’d just gone and booked them myself. This one’s my mistake – it was the first part of my trip and I wanted some reassurance, when really the best and easiest way to travel South-East Asia is just to wing it. I ended up on a lot of those activities by myself or with large tour groups, rather than with the pals I’d make in hostels. There were a few activities that I ended up not doing, or doing via a different company so I could join friends. Overall, I think this pass is better suited to groups of friends with limited time, rather than flexible solo travellers.
On the plus side, there were definitely some activities in there that I wouldn’t have done, or dared doing, if they hadn’t been pre-booked (cycling in Bangkok traffic on my third day? Hell no.) In that way, the pass has its upsides.
As for the money…
I’ll be honest, I didn’t keep precise track of the prices of the activities so I can’t exactly tally up what I paid against what it all would’ve costed had I paid as I went. However, South-East Asia is dead cheap, so I have no doubt it would’ve been cheaper to do without the pass. Besides, I would’ve selected lesser-class buses which would’ve no doubt reduced the price, too.
I think it’s rather obvious, but overall I would not recommend travelling South-East Asia with one of Bamba Experience’s bus passes unless you’ve got a strict schedule on a backpacker budget. I found it uncomfortable and hindering most of the time, which is at odds ends with what I wanted my trip to be. It won’t make the memories of this trip any less fantastic, but it was definitely the most unpleasant part of the trip, only second to losing my wallet on day one…
If you’ve travelled with Bamba Experience too, I’d love to hear your thoughts and how it went for you – I hope this post and its comment section can help future travellers.