Southeast Asia is an amazing part of the World to explore. It’s famously known as the ‘Backpacker Trail’ so who was I to not join in on that? It generally it refers to 6 countries – Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. I honestly think everyone I met was travelling to many if not all of these during their time there, and very nearly everyone was travelling to them overland. If you’re travelling, it’s normal to fly into one country, explore for a couple of months or however long you want, and then fly out of another to continue with your travels, so the questions on how to get there arrises!
When I was planning my round the World trip, this was something that I (unnecessarily) freaked out about. What if we just couldn’t get to somewhere we needed to be? What if we just got full on stuck somewhere? What if we missed our flight? Yeah, you get the picture. But the reality is, it is pretty damn easy to get around the countries and also across borders. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it was just bloody weird and an interesting journey, but I made it so you can too!
Transport in Southeast Asia
Putting it simply, the roads are pretty iffy. They are well worn, poorly maintained and journeys can take a long time. For longer journeys, I always travelled overnight so I didn’t waste a day getting somewhere – so important if you’re on a deadline for a flight or visa! However, I nearly always struggled to sleep when travelling overnight and just had to power through the next day. It’s worth it though!
The main, best set up and cheapest way to get around is by bus. They are well prepared to travel to the main destinations and run regularly during the day as well as overnight. The buses can vary from basic to double-decker modern style buses. Try and travel with the more modern ones where you can as they will obviously be more comfortable and safer.
One thing that really sucks about buses is that some of them, for some reason unknown to me, have karaoke music blasting out the TV and speaker. Bring earplugs. Do not think you will be fine like I did. It was a lot of torturous hours of droning.
Travel by train is also cheap and the routes give you the option of day or night time travel. However, the trains don’t go to as many places and do not generally run as often as the buses. It’s well worth doing it at some point though for the experience and a day trip is a great way to see some more of the country
There are more and more budget flights becoming available nowadays, which is great if you’re in a real rush or you just want to hop off to a few places. I jumped on a plane to get me from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai when I was backpacking and it saved a tonne of time trying to get there by land!
Get haggling! I know it might seem awkward when it comes to buying tickets, but honestly, for bus tickets, they are expecting it. You won’t be able to do this for trains and planes but for buses, it’s 100% worth a go. Always buy a bus ticket from an office rather than just trying to jump on as you’ll probably get overcharged. The ticket offices are usually clustered together on a main street so are easy to find. Don’t just go to the first one you come across though, go to a few and compare prices and what you get for your money. When you do buy the ticket make sure you check where the bus will be leaving from – it’s probably not going to be too far away from the ticket office but it’s better to make sure!
For train tickets just head to the main train station and speak to someone in the office there. English is quite well spoken in Southeast Asia as it’s so touristy but consider taking a map with you or having the name of where you want to go to hand to show to make sure you get to where you want to go.
What to take on an overnight bus journey
Keeping your stuff and yourself safe is the most important thing. Your main case/backpack will be in the storage under the bus so whatever you have on you is the only stuff you will have in your sight. You probably won’t see the rest of it until you get to your destination hours later. Without meaning to sound like backpacking here is mega dodgy, there are stories of people’s stuff going missing or robberies happening on the bus. My advice would be to keep money, passport and personal documents/ID on you and not have them stored underneath. If you have one of those pig ugly under-clothes bum bags then stuff it in there and wear it. I always keep my handbag shoved by my feet to keep it secure. I say all this, but nothing happened at all while I was travelling overnight, but it would be a massive ball ache to have it all pinched hours before I even realised.
On a lighter note, stock your music up, get a good book ready, have snacks and water to hand and just sit back and enjoy the experience! It’s normal to stop for a break and a meal at some point as well so you don’t need to go crazy with the food, but personally, travel isn’t travel without crisps. Also, wear something super comfortable I.e something as close you pyjamas as possible (is that just me?). You’re gonna be sat down for a long time and the last thing you need is to have jeans digging in or whatever!
Border Crossings in Southeast Asia
I’m gonna give it to you straight, these are super weird. On one hand they seem ridiculously informal, but on the o, her hand it feels pretty regimented. I crossed from Vietnam to Cambodia, Cambodia to Thailand and Thailand to Malaysia and it was like nothing I had experienced before. It’s normal to change from a large coach to a bunch of smaller minibuses. Or to get off the bus and walk through and just find the bus at the other side, or walk through and find a different bus waiting for you. My advice here is to have your documents to hand, make sure your visa stuff is sorted before you get to this stage, and generally just go with the flow.
Word of warning, the drivers or staff might ask to ‘help you’ with some bits of paperwork. What this means basically is that they will do a very simple form for you and you will have to pay them. They can get pretty pushy but don’t let them and just insist you are going to do it yourself. Also try to find out how much a visa will cost if it’s one you get on entry as tourists are targets to try and sneakily charge a higher amount.
- The Man on Seat 61 is amazing. The site has a crazy amount of information about how to get around on pubic transport in Southeast Asia and all over the World. It has saved my ass on more than one occasion and I cannot rate it highly enough.
- The 2 main budget airlines are Tiger Airways and Jetstar. Keep an eye out for deals or sales if you’re after a bargain or need to get somewhere sharpish.
- To do your best to avoid borer crossing scams make sure you look at the countries government websites where it should tell you how much you should be paying or what visa is required for entry. What could be worse than being turned away at that point!