Alternative Transportation in Southeast Asia
Plenty of ways to get around from buses, to trains or ferryboats
By Marie Javins
Sure, you can take planes all over Southeast Asia. By Western standards, the fares are low, the schedules are convenient, and tickets are readily available. But if you opt to GoNOMAD with ground transportation instead, you’ll hobnob with locals, see amazing scenery, get to know countries up close, and save a lot of money that can go towards your adventure.
You also won’t have to worry about the State Department’s warnings that the FAA has not yet assessed the air service of some countries, or even worse, that the FAA has already assessed it and recommends taking the bus instead.
Local transport in Southeast Asia varies widely from country to country. But it’s all part of the fun. So get the proper land-border visa, steel yourself for a little inconvenience and unusual toilets, and take the long way down the Mekong.
Take the Bus
Tourist buses are the easiest way to get around most countries. These can be anything from small minivans to deluxe, air-conditioned buses. All are booked through local travel agents. Depending on the country and the distance, fares can range from $6 to $20. Thai “VIP” overnight buses feature reclining seats with footrests, a small lounge, and a feature film shown in English.
Minivans are less comfortable, and may be overcrowded, but can be the most direct way to get to remote destinations. Vietnam even features “hop-on hop-off” tourist buses, where you can get on and off at will as long as you travel a prescribed route (see Café Society). Unfortunately, the only people you will meet on a tourist bus are other tourists.
Local buses are not posh, and usually cost just a few dollars for a trip of several hours. Quality varies depending on the country. Tickets are available at the local bus station. Trips may be oversold and you may end up standing in the aisle after offering your seat to a local grandmother. Loud, irritating videos are often shown on buses throughout the world.
Hint: If you are easily frightened by tailgating, blind passing into oncoming traffic or potential loss of life, sit in the back of any Asian bus.
- Catch a Train
Railways, like buses, vary greatly in quality depending on what country you’re in and what class of ticket you buy. Some countries, such as Laos and most of Indonesia, don’t have trains at all. Other countries, like Vietnam and Malaysia, feature different classes of trains, with the tourist and sleeper classes selling out several days in advance.
Trains can be more comfortable than buses, but are sometimes slower. You can pay just a few dollars for a hard seat in a crowded, smoke-filled carriage, or you can pay around $100 for a deluxe sleeper berth on an overnight train. Tickets are available from some travel agents, or can always be purchased at local railway stations.
Popular overnight trains operate between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. They are all quite comfortable. Most cars have an attendant and some erratic food service, but it is wise to bring your own meal. Train toilets, clean at the beginning of a trip, can be pretty grim at the end of an overnight journey. Most are Asian-style squat toilets, which may imbalance Westerners when the train is in motion and the toilet is little more than a hole in the floor. Anchor yourself with something sturdy.
- Sail Away
It’s hard to get around Southeast Asia without using some form of water transport. Ferries provide the main service between the islands of Indonesia, while in Laos and Vietnam, small speedboats use the Mekong as an aquatic highway. In Bangkok, longtail boats can cut hours off of a trip across town. Passenger and cargo ships connect the Philippines and Borneo to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Tickets for long-haul boat trips are available from local travel agents. Short-hop ferries are first-come, first-served. Small tourist cruises are available from travel agencies.
- Rent your Own Wheels
You can hire a motorbike or car in most countries. Usually, “motorbike” refers to a moped or scooter, not to a motorcycle. Helmet laws, if there are any, are seldom enforced and license restrictions vary from country to country (bring an International Driver’s License). Tourists often overestimate their motorbike abilities, so be honest about your skills.
Driving rules are different and in some countries, appear nonexistent. As the U.S. State Department puts it on their consular warnings website, “while in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.”
The consular warning on Vietnam continues to say that, “there is little adherence to traffic laws. As a rule most drivers, including bicyclists, do not yield. Accidents therefore are frequent on city streets. Horns are used constantly.”
In short, unless you are extremely alert, adaptable and have nerves of steel, don’t drive.
But, you can rent bicycles in many places, especially in Thailand and Vietnam. Take advantage of the two-wheeled transport and feel like a real local!
- City Travel
Various motorized and people-powered forms of transport are available in cities. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous — these are tiny two-stroke, three-wheel, open-air vehicles closely resembling a lawnmower with a passenger seat. Larger models in Laos are called “jumbos,” and hold up to six people. Small open-air pickup trucks (“bemos,” “songthaew,” “linegas”) operate on set routes as local buses in most countries. Pedicabs (“cyclos,” “becaks,”) can be a tourist gimmick in Penang or a very practical and cheap way to get around in small Indonesian cities. Avoid taking a cyclo through Ho Chi Minh City’s chaotic traffic. In larger cities, you can hail a regular taxi, just like at home.
Motos, or motorcycle taxis, are the most efficient way to get around most cities. The unhelmeted tourist hops on the back of a motorbike driven by a local. Prices are very reasonable. A trip around Siem Reap, Cambodia, for example, may cost only fifty cents. A trip from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat might set a good haggler back two dollars. Check with your travel insurer in advance to see if they cover riding helmetless on the back of a stranger’s motorbike.
The cost of most local transport, with the exception of a metered taxi or local bus, depends on the haggling abilities of the traveler. Watch what others pay and use that as a guide. Be forewarned that in a few countries, there are government-sanctioned foreigner surcharges.
Whichever alternative way you choose to travel in Southeast Asia, you’re sure to get a real feel for the local way of life. While it may take longer than flying, you’re sure to meet more locals and experience the country at ground level.