Getting around Southeast Asia is never dull, rarely on time and always a gamble. What seems like a straightforward journey can be an epic adventure, so be prepared for just about anything. You’ve got dozens of options at your disposal on how to get around, so why not try a little bit of each? Here are my tips on transportation in Southeast Asia.
Flying isn’t usually the cheapest way to get around Southeast Asia, but it’s certainly the quickest. We flew JetStar from Darwin, Australia through Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand. From there, we hopped on a Thai Smile, Thai Airways’ budget carrier, flight to Chiang Mai. Later we flew from Bangkok (Don Mueang) and Hanoi on AirAsia for around $70 USD. It makes sense between major cities like Bangkok and Saigon, but not for smaller destinations where you’ll have to drive far to get to the airport. Nok Air, AirAsia, JetStar, Bangkok Airways and Thai Smile frequently have deals if you know when to look.
Trains are one of the most glamorous ways to travel in Europe, but in Asia it can be a mixed bag. There is no train line in Cambodia or Laos at all, so you only might take it in Thailand or Vietnam. Our first train was the overnight between Bangkok and Surat Thani, where we had a top and bottom berth in what resembled a long hallway with beds on both sides and privacy curtains. This was the second class option, but some trains don’t have first class sleepers. Trains run late in Thailand, but are comfortable enough. You can buy food on board from vendors who hop on at stations. Thai second class sleepers can get loud at night, so bring earplugs. We also had problems with the fans and AC not working.
The trains in Vietnam, however, were much nicer. Known as the Reunification Line, it runs the entire length of the country. We booked a train from Hanoi to Hue, where we ended up in a cabin with two other American girls. The beds were already folded down and had real pillows and comforters, as well as places to store your bags. They had sliding doors that closed, which keep out noise and intruders. We made sure to grab the brochure, pictured on the table above, from Vietnam Railways, which gives you the timetables in English. Vietnamese trains ran even later than Thai ones, usually three hours, but were comfortable enough. We also took an all day seated train, which wasn’t quite as nice, but very cheap.
We rarely had problems buying tickets from the station the day of the journey, but occasionally booked through a travel agent or our hotel at a higher price for the convenience. Be sure to research your station ahead of time, as not all are close to the town you’ll want to visit, as was the case with Mui Ne. Sometimes it may make more sense to take a bus for one leg since they pick you up, cutting down costs of getting to and from the stations. I highly recommend the website Seat 61 for up-to-date information on trains in Thailand and Vietnam, as well as how to get tickets and what to expect.
Buses were our transportation of choice in Southeast Asia, as they’re always cheap and go pretty much everywhere, which differs from trains. Most tickets are also in English and they’ll tell you where to get off. The downside is that they’re hardly ever on time and it’s not uncommon to get a lower quality bus than you paid for. We took a very nice bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, pictured above and covered in Hello Kitty stickers, but were surprised how different the bus was on the way back. Our “VIP” bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, a ten hour bus, overheated and didn’t have air conditioning. Whatever your expected time is, I would add a two hour cushion just to be safe. Prepare for anything, especially arriving late at night when no restaurants are open.
We took a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, which went directly to the border, waited for you and continued on both ways without much incident. Many advertise this, but there’s only one company I know of that does it. They will, however, try to make you buy your visa at their office, which you don’t have to do. Our time on the way back nearly doubled, as a passenger had problems at the border and was left behind. Also note that when you arrive at the office in Siem Reap, they’ll offer you a “free tuk tuk” to your hotel, but this is only if you book them again to go to Angkor.
We expected the buses in Vietnam to be similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia, but here you either have “sleeping” or “sitting” buses. The first time we boarded a sleeping bus, we weren’t sure how to even get into our seats. You’ll see above that they’re double decker and have two aisles and a bathroom, leaving little room for much comfort. Drivers always told the foreigners to sit up top, which made you feel the bumps of the bus. They stop randomly and you’re never sure for how long. When possible, I recommend sitting buses, but you’re never sure until it arrives. It also depends on the time it leaves. Thankfully they’re the cheapest way to travel in Vietnam.
The only place we ever took a local bus was in Bangkok, which we did twice to get from Mo Chit Bus Station to the Mo Chit BTS station. It was very straightforward, as the signs at the depot told us all the stops, but you could signal to get off earlier. It cost maybe $1 for the ride.
Some places aren’t accessible by large buses, so minibuses operate in their place. You may think that you’ll be more comfortable this way, but they usually stuff your luggage underneath your feet and fill the bus to the maximum before leaving. I don’t recommend taking them for long journeys like the road between Bangkok and Surat Thani. We took the minibus to and from Pai, which can make you a little green when you’re going through the curvy roads. They also throw your bags on top and put mesh down, so make sure you can lift your bag.
We later took a minibus both ways between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, which was downright painful. Not only were the roads in such bad shape that we hit everything twice as hard in the back, but we had our bags at our feet with no room to stretch. Minibuses in Vietnam are more like small buses than vans, so they’re a great alternative to the large sleeper buses.
Thailand is home to plenty of boats, including the public transportation ferries in Bangkok, pictured above, that drop you off up and down the river. They’re also known for the ferries between islands in both the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Coast. Speedboats are an alternative as well, but each company runs at different times between the islands. I found them to be the same level of comfort and price. I’ve also heard about the slow boat to Laos, but didn’t take it myself. Most of the time, buses are a better value than boats.
Motorbikes, Taxis and Tuk Tuks
Everything on two to four wheels is how locals get around, from the red songthaews in Thailand to the cyclos of Vietnam. Shared taxis, known as songthaews in Thailand, are common for getting around town. We took them to Doi Suthep and to and from the bus station in Chiang Mai. You’ll tell the driver where you’re going and he’ll give you a price. You can try to haggle if you’re up to it. Bags go at your feet or on top and you’ll likely wait until it’s full to leave. The driver will stop when you’re at your destination and you will go pay him. We got asked to switch songthaews once, which I found odd, but we arrived safely at our destination.
If you’re looking to get around cities like Bangkok, I recommend skipping tuk tuks, which inflate their prices for tourists, and instead get a metered taxi or take public transportation. Taxis that aren’t metered can charge you more, as I unfortunately found out, but the BTS and MRT systems are very efficient.
Tuk tuks may look great for photos, but be prepared to negotiate the rate before getting in one, whether it be in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. You won’t have other options in Cambodia, and will be frequently asked, “Hello lady, you want tuk tuk?” They’re a must for getting around Angkor Wat. The cyclo in Vietnam is another tourist trap, where one or two people can fit in the front seat pushed by a bicycle. Avoid when possible. Motorbike taxis are very common, especially for locals, but I never took one since there were two of us traveling together. You can do the same as other taxis, negotiating a rate and destination, but use caution.
Perhaps one of the most common ways to get around, particularly for backpackers, is to rent a motorbike. I find it easier to rent one to get around a city rather than keeping it for the whole trip, as you may be subject to taxes at the border. I only rented a motorbike once, in Pai, and found it to be reasonably priced. Check the bike before you go, wear a helmet and be confident about your skills before going anywhere. I don’t recommend renting bikes in Vietnam at all because the drivers are much more aggressive. You may also find problems with parking, mechanical issues and opening yourself up to scams.