You finally land at your first destination in SE Asia on what will be a trip to you won’t soon forget – congratulations! You’ve budgeted everything down to a daily allowance. You’ve packed all you would need to spend the next few months on the road. You’ve mapped out a general idea of where you want to go. But now how will you plan on getting there once you stepped foot out of the airport?
DON’T FRET FELLOW BACKPACKER! Traveling throughout SE Asia has NEVER BEEN EASIER. Full stop. With the advent of modern technologies (smartphones), apps that allow you booking on the fly, local sim cards to ensure your mobile is connected, and offline maps – getting around is a breeze. Getting around on a budget to make your money last is a completely different story!
From my five months abroad I have experienced every possible mode of transport through all the countries I’ve visited. Some were a great surprise, while others I wish not to repeat so quickly. I’ve also gotten stranded a couple of times in a few cities because there were simply not transport out. Fear not my would-be backpacker for I’ve amassed some great tips on getting around SE Asia on the cheap!
I’ll make it easier for you by breaking it down by country, travel time, and some cost examples so you can have idea of what you’ll be getting yourself into.
The best way to travel around Thailand if you’re going city to city on long hauls is the train system. Not only do they run daily but if you book well in advance (a week or more ahead of time) you can snag yourself a first class cart. Traveling by train is a very good way to see the countryside of Thailand, especially if you are going from Bangkok in the south to Chiang Mai in the north. There’s something to be said for falling asleep at night and waking up in the mountains to first light from your bed on the train.
Book early for the good cart, but if you are alright with a 2nd class sleeper then there are plenty to choose from. Costs can range from $25-$40 (2nd class air-con & non air-con boxes) to $50 (1st class.) The price gets cheaper, with less amenities of course, if you want to save a few extra dollars book the local box, but know you’ll be sitting up all night. The train ride I took to Chiang Mai departed from Ayutthaya and was around eleven hours in total.
Thailand also boasts a very great bus system for long haul travel as well. The fares are USUALLY CHEAPER than the train options and for good reasons. You can take them for rides anywhere from four hours (Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai for $3) to fourteen hours (Bangkok to Phuket for $15) and they cover the whole of the country. The buses itself proved to be very reliable, clean, and of course WELL AIR-CONDITIONED (pack a light jacket, it gets cold.)
For further distances you can always fly as an option. Logistically this proved to be the best choice if time isn’t on your side. Flights are cheap and can always be booked the day before (I haven’t had bad luck with that.) Fares can range from $40-$120 depending on where you’re flying to and how heavy traffic to the destination is. More traffic means cheaper air fare, less traffic… well you’ll be paying more. My flight from Phuket to Koh Samui for $110 ONE WAY was by far the most expensive travel mode I encountered during my entire trip, but saved me A LOT on travel time.
Ferries are another way you can get around in Thailand, especially on the islands. They’re not cheap when comparing it to other modes of transports, but they are certainly cheaper than flying, when permitted, and sometimes are the ONLY way to arrive.
The ferry from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi roundtrip booked through my hostel with shuttle was about $23. The price wasn’t bad at all considering it runs inline with what the other ferry companies were charging.
I took an overnight ferry from Koh Tao to Surat Thani to get to Malaysia and boy was that a mistake. Take it from me – overnight ferries are NOT WORTH IT. The ride was about nine hours long departing at 8PM. The boat on cast-off rocked back and forth on choppy waters for three hours! I nearly threw up on the lad sleeping on a small cushion pad next to me. Of course the entire trip from Koh Tao to George Town only cost me $30, but in hindsight I probably won’t be doing that again.
Getting around Vietnam is a MUCH BETTER EXPERIENCE now than it was when I was there back in 1994. Back then there were very little infrastructure and even less airports. Driving was the only real way to get anywhere so driving everywhere was what we did. This makes riding the buses in Vietnam the EASIEST and MOST LOGICAL way to get around, not to mention the cheapest.
Their sleeper buses are extremely comfortable for long hauls, unless you are a six foot tall European then best of luck to you! Instead of seats they’re usually pods stacked two up and three rows across. They are set in a fixed reclined position so you can be relaxed on your entire bus ride. Equipped with charge ports, air-con units, and even a light it can make the longest of all journeys seem short. I took a bus seven hours from Da Lat to Saigon for a mere $10, from Hoi An to Hue for $7.
Vietnam is also home to the sleeper trains much like that of Thailand. Riding these are one of the best ways to travel when here. It’s wise to book early for a good cart as their first class carts (starts from $55-$90) can get sell out quickly. I made the mistake of booking a second class sleeper ($35-$55) thinking it would be an OK ride much like my Thailand trip, but holy cow was I wrong. Stuffing six full grown adults into a “sleeper cart” meant really for four people is an evil I wish upon no one whatsoever. The experience itself was something I can do without in the near future.
NOTE: If you have time I would suggest you ride the train on the Reunification Trail from either Hanoi or Saigon and end up in the other city.
Motorbikes as I have mentioned in my last couple of blogs is also one of the best ways to travel around the country. You can literally buy a bike in one city, ride it around for a couple of weeks, resell it in another and lose little money on it. It’s a bike crazed nation so supply and demand are always both high. You won’t ever know what kind of adventures you can get yourself into, the different kind of people you meet or places you will find yourself in, making it so much fun. If buying isn’t your thing you can do the same with renting one in one city and dropping it off in another. Prices for buying and renting are usually around the same from what I have seen – about $500 any which way you cut it.
You won’t ever know what kind of adventures you can get yourself into…
Cambodia was truly the one place out of all my destinations on this trip that proved itself to be leaving me wanting more. Getting around the country wasn’t extremely difficult, but it proved itself to be a nightmare at times. THE ONLY RELIABLE WAY TO GET AROUND WAS ON THE BUSES. Correction: all they had were buses, really. You can go anywhere in the country cheaply on the bus system, but you sacrifice a lot because the buses tend to be super old, at times no air-con, they were slow, maxed out their occupancy levels, and once they even LEFT WITHOUT PICKING ME UP.
They do boast an overnight bus service from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap (about a fourteen hour ride) for $15. The only caveats I had with this is the length of time it took to complete the trip and the lack of comfortability when compared with buses in other countries. Half of Cambodia isn’t developed so the roads doesn’t connect to the west of the country, making travel time TWICE as long because you have to double back.
Their sleeper bus seats was just a mat sewn into the floor that provided little to no comfort. If you happen to so hit a bump on your ride then it’s sayonara to your back. The buses are positioned as a 2-1 sleeper with two tiers, meaning two on the left side, then the walkway, and one sleeper on the right. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting robbed while they slept on the bus by the person next to them so when I rode on mine I was EXTRA careful with all of my belongings!
There aren’t really a good option for trains or airports as there are only three major ones (airport) in the country. Cambodia is STILL developing and I expect infrastructure here to only get better with time and investment. Hopefully in a few years they get it all sorted out and travel through the kingdom is better. Deep inside though all the mishaps added to my adventures for sure.
To get to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, the two islands off the coast of Cambodia, the only way is to take the ferry. Although MANY options are available I chose to ride the speed boat option. With a return ticket and only a 45 minute travel time there (coming back was 1 hour 45 because it made stops to the rest of the islands) the cost was $20-25. There are cheaper and thus slower options so you have a range to choose your from to fit your needs and budget.
The buses in both mainland Malaysia and their Bornean counterparts was the fastest and cheapest modes of transport taken during my trip. Most of the time I spent in the country was either on a bus or a shuttle service hired through my hostels going from place to place. Booking was easy and there were usually seats free at anytime you want them. Going from Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok cost me around $10 for a four hour bus ride, from Koh Tao, Thailand to George Town, Penang was around $30 (ferry, shuttle and boarder crossing!)
The train and subway system are also CHEAP and EFFICIENT if you find yourself traveling into or out of Kuala Lumpur. It services a lot of the country from the capital so if you find yourself landing there first be assured that you’re in good hands. Their trains are some of the cleanest I’ve been on not to mention the seats are super comfortable. The air-con is on ARTIC ICE COLD BLAST as it should with Malaysia’s heat bearing down on you at all times. A KLIA Ekspres ride from the airport into the heart of the city is around $10 while rides throughout the city can range from $1-$4 on their subway system. With the train you can ride it up to Cameron Highlands or all the way to Penang island/Butterworth (some tasty food can be had here!)
NOTE: Get the daily pass and fill it with money so you don’t have to continually buy tokens if traveling in the city.
Flying is another great option if time isn’t on your side or you want to escape a bit of rain like I did. I booked a one way flight from George Town, Penang to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah on Borneo island the day before I decided to leave for about $40. I don’t know about you but $40 to escape torrential rains for sunny skies is worth it to me. I also bought a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching for $12! Yes TWELVE FUCKING DOLLARS for a 1.5 hour flight! With baggage it came out to be $20!
I also bought a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching for $12!
It’s amazing how cheap it is to fly in Asia as compared to the United States.
Leaving torrential rains for sunny skies – greatest decision ever.
The Emerald of the Equator, otherwise known as Indonesia, was always the one gem I didn’t know I was looking for, but glad that I found. I spent time on both Bali and the capital island Java and got a good idea of how to get around this sprawling country. Do note that it’s comprised of 18,000+ islands!
This makes flying and boats the obvious choice when island hopping, but what if you’re on Java or Sumatra? The best way to travel on the big islands hands down has to be through their train systems. On Java you can literally ride a train from West Java to East Java, hop on a ferry and end up on Bali. I would suggest making FREQUENT stops on Java as the island is simply amazing to explore.
I know I have boasted about the quality of trains throughout this post of various other countries, but Indonesia’s trains TAKE THE CAKE. The fares are super affordable, even their first class (executive as they call it) carts are top notch – think airline seat, but bigger, more comfortable, has a table and charge ports! There’s even a snack cart that roams around! If you are looking for MORE SAVINGS then book their cheapest fares, but do so knowing that with a cheaper fare the quality diminishes.
…Indonesia’s trains TAKE THE CAKE.
TALK ABOUT COMFORT!
An eight hour train ride in first class from Bandung to Yogyjakarta cost me around $12 while a six hour train ride from Banyuwangi to Surabaya in their executive cart was $18. I can’t stress this enough: BOOK EARLY! I went to Java during Ramadan and the island being mainly of Muslim religion cause the trains to be booked SOLID! Locals here love to explore their own country wen on holiday so definitely book your seat before it all sells out!
There are also plenty of buses to choose from but if I am to be frank they are no where as good or as reliable as their train system. Often the buses were late, departed late, didn’t make the stop it was to make, and worse it smelled of something rancid, especially when the AC would run at full blast. Use them as a LAST RESORT only if you can’t get that train ticket. Prices are cheaper than that of the trains so for all the hassle it may worth it to save the couple of extra bucks.
A bustling metropolis in the heart of SE Asia is how I can describe Singapore. The city-state is probably one of the easiest to get around in when visiting. Their buses and train systems are top notch and ALWAYS ON TIME, can’t say the same thing about the MBTA, ha.
During my three day stint here I primarily took the bus around since it was plentiful and stops were always nearby. Costs of rides varied from $1-$2.50 depending on where you were headed. Sweet tip is to load up on a metro card, fill it with money, and tap on and off whenever you take the bus, they won’t give you change if you pay with cash!
The seats are comfortable, for city buses, and the air-con is always on! I looked forward to hopping (double deckers were my favorite) on these after a long walk in that jungle heat! There is even a bus that heads to the airport so if you are trying to save a few bucks it’ll cost you less than $3 to get there, post connections.
The underground rail system is also fantastic. It runs throughout the city and keeps running even when there are holidays or special events, when the bus system will shut down. It’s quick to destinations and navigating is easy with maps on the walls and people who work there to assist you. Plus those spoke English! Costs varies a little more than the bus system but overall it didn’t hurt the wallet when using this method. Do remember to grab a metro card, same deal as the bus down here!
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT!
In the world of apps these days you bet there are ones that will help you navigate your bookings while traveling through SE Asia. I wish I had known about these BEFORE I left for Asia to put my mind at ease, but this is why you’re here – to get prepared! Some of them are multi-country, meaning they can help you book transportation in more than one country, while others are exclusive to that country alone.
My favorite site that I used a lot during Thailand and Vietnam was 12GOAsia. From this one portal you can book tickets for trains, planes, buses, shuttles, cabs and even ferries. The website boasts a mobile app that allows you all the functionality of the website on your mobile, easy for on the go bookings.
How it works is this: you make a purchase on the site, a person on the other end receiving the ticket order then physically goes to the train, bus or airplane ticket service desk and acquire said ticket for you. In essence there is a middle who gets a cut of the sale, but you get your ticket. If they can’t ascertain a ticket for you then you are refunded. Notifications of acquisitions are sent in less than 24 hours. I never encountered any instances when they couldn’t acquire a ticket for me.
If you’re wondering whether or not there are Ubers in Asia then I am here to let you in on the secret: YESSSSSSSSSSS! But it’s called GRAB and GOJEK (mainly in Indonesia) respectively. It basically works as Uber or Lyft would back in the states and at times they are the best mode of transport within a city.
The options you can choose ranges from scooters (the cheapest and best way to mosey about), tuk-tuk (yes you can hail these on the apps too), all the way to the usual hired car. The price per ride is non-negotiable, but usually it is the lowest price you can get.
A good tip if you cant get solid service to hail a GRAB or GOJEK is to see what price they come in at on your app, usually quick enough data will allow for this, and then negotiate with a local driver. I have done this many times and it had SAVED ME A LOT with the hassle of negotiation as well as money.
NOTE: They also DELIVER FOOD!
Another great site I used (mainly in Vietnam) was Baolau. The web interface in SUPER intuitive to navigate and allows to you view what mode of transport is best for your needs. Choose from trains, airplanes, boats and buses. Like a one stop shop of 12GOAsia, but without the middle man. I used it to book a few trains in Vietnam and never once ran into any booking issues. Although the don’t have an app that I can find it’s best to do your bookings with strong internet or wifi connectivity. Last thing you want is to think you snagged a ticket only to get there and be told otherwise!
Predominantly used in Indonesia this web portal TravelOka, also boasting an app, is an alternative to the other portals I mentioned above when it comes to booking your transports. TravelOka also have options to book hotels and lodging as well, and as with the other sites theirs is VERY easy to use. I used it frequently when booking my trains in Indonesia, when they weren’t FULL! Their mobile site also allows you to check how many seats are left before they are at capacity, so procrastinate at your own peril!
Can’t figure how to get from A to B? Scratching your head at which bus to connect to which train will get you to that next destination without getting lost? Then head over to Rome2Rio.com and be amazed! It gives you all the data of all the possible route options, transport modes, travel time and even cost involved. This website has been so crucial in times when I doubted how to plan the next travel leg of my trip.
These apps and web portals made booking my transport around SE Asia such a freaking breeze that I almost couldn’t believe it! Aside from the occasional being stuck in a city, due to my procrastination of booking earlier, everything was easy and I don’t really have any horror stories to tell. Okay that one time the bus that was supposed to pick me up in Kampot decided to not come at all was pretty interesting. But other than that these apps/websites was CLUTCH for me!
NOTE: I do not get paid anything for mentioning any of these websites. I am simply listing those that I used during my trip that I found to be the best when booking travel. So feel free to click away and add them to your arsenal.
Would I Do it Again? OF COURSE!
My favorite country to travel through has to be both Thailand and Indonesia, simply because of their AMAZING landscapes. In Thailand if you can squeeze it DEFINITELY take the night train up north. When you wake up you’ll smell fresh, cool air and be greeted to lush green mountains. Indonesia is simply breathtaking. Every train ride I fought off the need to sleep so I can catch glimpses of passing towns and the volcano or two. Yes I said volcano, or two.
On the flip side Cambodia has to be the WORSE country on my list to travel through. Before you jump down my throat, hear me out. Up until that point on my trip the countries I have visited were more well off in terms of infrastructure. Cambodia was still on the up and up so they were busily building away more roads.
What does that mean? Well simply put the roads don’t connect to anything else, yet. It basically is just one road traversing the country in one direction. For example I had to go back through Phnom Penh to go up north towards Siem Reap from Sihanoukville because there were no roads built to the west of the country. This doubled travel time in any direction!
That being said I still would do it all again! Stories you get from traveling like locals always adds to your adventures. When you’re retelling your stories to your friends and family they will often look at you as a crazy person for not taking the most comfortable travel method, but what is the fun in that?!