This post probably contains affiliate links from which I earn a small commission if you buy from them, at no extra cost to you. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Tuk-tuks, street food, markets, temples… welcome to Southeast Asia in all its bustling, hustling glory!
During the past few years I’ve spent about 6 months over 2 different trips travelling around Southeast Asia and I love it!
Before my first ever backpacking trip around the world, I had a million and one questions. I was about to dive head first into 3 months in Southeast Asia where I was landing in Hanoi in Vietnam and flying out from Bangkok. From this, the biggest question I had was how on earth was I going to get from Vietnam to Bangkok?
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?
All I kept hearing was how easy it is to travel overland in Southeast Asia and it turned out to be so true, once you know a few tips and tricks anyway. So if you’re about to head out on your first trip there, this is perfect for you! Here’s my guide to finding and using cheap transport in Southeast Asia.
You might also like:
- My epic Bangkok itinerary, perfect for first timers
- How to spend 4 days in Singapore
- Top things to do in Penang
- How to get from Penang to Langkawi (mostly) overland
- How to visit Kuala Lumpur on a budget
- My guide to island hopping around Thailand
- How to visit Angkor Wat in 3 days
- 5 incredible islands you have to visit in the Philippines
If you don’t already follow me on YouTube, take a look at my Southeast Asia vlogs to find out more!
My Southeast Asia travel route (x 2)
Southeast Asia is a backpacker mecca and the most prominent route sees people travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, The Philippines and Singapore. Of course, these are not all the countries in Southeast Asia but this is the main cluster that most people aim for, including me. They’re amazing places to explore with huge diversity and have the added benefit of being super budget friendly. I spent 3 months there for each of my trips so here are my 2 Southeast Asia travel routes.
The first trip: The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, back to Thailand
The second trip: Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, back to Thailand
Things to remember when planning your route
You will most likely be flying in and out of one of the major airports (e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore) and this will affect your route. However, because it is so easy to travel between countries in Southeast Asia, it’s pretty easy to jump in and out of countries to see more and then go back to your final departure destination. This is why on both of my trips I end up hopping in and out of Thailand as I was flying out of Asia from there.
Be sure to also check all of your visa requirements as per your passport as well! It would be pretty intimidating to get to a border and not be able to get any further!
Types of cheap transport in Southeast Asia and what to expect
Southeast Asia has a huge transport network making it pretty easy to get to most parts of the countries as well as across borders. Over the course of my trips, I used a combination of bus, trains, boats and planes to get around. What you decide to use will depend on your budget and how long you’re willing be transiting for. On my first trip to Asia I was happy with taking the cheap options each time. Fast forward 5 years and I was fine with spending a little more to be a bit comfier. Travelling overland is definitely an experience but it’s the easiest and most cost-effective way to see what Southeast Asia has to offer.
Bus – The cheap and cheerful option
This is the most common mode of transport used to get around in Southeast Asia. It’s cheap, convenient and they travel huge distances meaning you can pack a lot of stuff into your trip. There may not be train routes where you’re going or a convenient flight for you, but there will always be a bus you can catch.
What to expect
Buses in Southeast Asia vary a fair amount. You can get buses for travelling in the day and overnight buses also. Overnight buses are a great way to save some money as you get to a new place and get your nights accommodation (albeit a bus) in one go.
The buses range from minivans to reclining chairs right up to fully flat beds for overnight buses. Generally, I’ve found them to be pretty comfy but as with lots of things in this part of the world, you can’t be too sure what you might get. There have definitely been cases where we haven’t got what we quite expected and I’ve heard stories of things such as air conditioning not working and livestock being shoved into the storage. Yep, you read that right!
The roads can be pretty crazy as well, as you will have seen from walking around. Being on the road in a bus is certainly an experience but the drivers are used to the roads and used to driving the buses. Although it may seem extreme to most of us, it’s kind of a good idea to think of the roads as organised chaos.
Whilst buses are the cheapest transport in Southeast Asia, it’s best to expect most long trips to take longer than you expect, especially in the day. A lot longer. Day time travel will normally write off the whole day and can be pretty tiring. It’s also worth noting that you sometimes need to change buses and wait around a while for the next one, making the journey longer as well.
To bring it all back to reality a little though, it’s important to remember that these bus journeys are so cheap and too convenient not to use them. You can pay roughly $10 for an overnight bus and wake up at the other end of a country and that’s awesome! Most countries in Southeast Asia are poor so don’t go in expecting luxury and you’ll be fine!
Train – A bit more pricey
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.
What to expect
As with buses, trains can vary due to the class options available when you book tickets. I’ve had everything from wooden benches to sleeper trains with blissfully cold air conditioning. It all depends on what you want to pay. Unlike buses, I’ve found trains to run a bit more on time but I haven’t really used them too much, so may have just been lucky.
I personally love using the sleeper trains and find them so comfortable and less intense than being on the roads in a bus. A member of staff will come around and make the bed up (they are bunk beds) and you have a privacy curtain and blanket for a good nights sleep.
Boat – Pretty cheap
For most of your overland travel, boats obviously won’t be an option but if you’re visiting islands such as the Nusa islands in Bali, the Thai Islands of Malaysian islands, the easiest way to get around is by boat. Some islands do have airports but this can be costly and they often don’t fly too frequently.
What to expect
The type of boats you will use depend on where you are and where you’re going. Between the Thai islands they run pretty normal looking ferries with loads of seating and luggage gets stored outside to make space. In Bali however, the boats can be smaller with luggage secured to the roof, and you’ll have to wade into the sea a little to climb onto the boat.
One thing to consider is that bad weather can cause boats to not run so be sure to leave plenty of time to get places if you’re on a schedule. At the time I was in Bali, no boats were running between the Gilli islands and I also spent a few extra days on Nusa Lembongan as no boats were running back to Bali either. Additionally, some boats don’t run in the low season so be sure to check if you’re travelling then.
Plane – the most expensive (but not always)
Southeast Asia does have a number of budget airlines and a great network of routes to get you around. Generally though, this is the most expensive way to travel but of course, what you pay out in money is what you get back in time.
However, there are some serious bargains to be found when it comes to budget airlines. Tom and I had had enough of overnight buses so took a look at flights from Chiang Rai to Bangkok and found one for a tiny $7 with Lion Air! That’s insane! The only issue was, as with a lot of airlines, is that this didn’t include the airport taxes and check-in luggage but we still did it anyway to save heaps of time.
What to expect
There’s nothing really different about flying within Southeast Asia than flying anywhere else in the world. I’ve flown with Scoot, Jetstar and LionAir and they were no different to any other budget airline. You don’t get given food or drinks on the flight and there’s usually no entertainment, but cheap is cheap and there’s nothing wrong with the no-thrills approach!
How to find cheap transport in Southeast Asia
Asia tends to have this awesome system where not all prices are always fixed. Great prices can be found both in person and also on some really handy websites.
Top websites to find cheap flights
This is always my go-to website when finding flights anywhere in the world. In terms of Southeast Asian budget airlines they have Jetstar, Nok Air, VietJet, Scoot, Air Asia and Lion Air. I’ve personally used Jetstar and Lion Air and they are what you would expect from a budget airline anywhere in the world- no frills. Be sure to look into the cost of checked in baggage for each of the airlines as it might work out cheaper to not go with the cheapest search result Skyscanner brings up. Click here to search for cheap flights!
Check individual airline websites
Although Skyscanner is generally pretty good at finding great deals, I would recommend checking the individual airlines websites as well. Sometimes you might find a sale on so it could be well worth checking this way.
Top websites to find cheap bus, train and boat tickets
This was a lifesaver when I was travelling and the easiest way to find and book cheap tickets. If you’re in a hurry to book or want to get an idea of transport costs, there is no easier way. It’s a really simple website where you just put your start and end destination in and the dates you want to travel and it will show you all the options. You can also select a mode of transport if you have a preference and it will show availability and cost. They do also show flights but I personally prefer using Skyscanner or going to the airline directly.
The Man in Seat 61
This website is an amazing resource! It covers predominantly train travel for all over the world and breaks down confusing routes step-by-step so you know exactly how to get from A to B as well as up to date timetables, fare prices and the types of tickets you can buy. It also covers bus and ferry travel so it really is a wealth of information. You can’t buy tickets through the website but he does link to the reputable sites so you know you’re not buying fake tickets. You can check it out here.
Imagine a website which can tell you how to get to anywhere in the world…well, that’s exactly what Rome2Rio does. Seriously, you could put anything, for example, Mildura (a small country town in Australia) to Brighton (in the UK) and it will tell you how to get there. You can also book transport tickets but I’ve not used this feature so I’m not sure who good it compares in terms of prices. It’s a great resource to help make route planning simple.
How to buy transport tickets in person
If there’s one thing I wish I’d known about travelling overland in Southeast Asia is how incredibly easy it is to buy transport tickets. No matter where you are, you will find loads of tour shops selling them and hostels are more often than not able to book tickets for you also. They will most likely sell bus, train and ferry tickets (if you’re close to a route that uses them) and will have a couple of different options for each.
Buying bus and ferry tickets
On my first Asia trip, you could pretty much haggle the price of any ticket, however, people seem to have toughened up to that and won’t go along with it as easily nowadays. Either that or my haggling skills have got really bad. You can only really have a go at haggling the price of the bus and ferry tickets in tour shops selling tickets, not at the official company offices.
Things to check when buying tickets
- What type of seats will be on the bus – reclining or fully flat bed.
- How big the bus or ferry is – sometimes they offer minibus services and sometimes they run big double decker buses. The same for ferries – they might be small ones where your luggage goes on the roof or bigger ferries that we’re probably more used to outside of Asia.
- How long the journey is going to take – although take this with a pinch of salt as it’s definitely no guarantee!
Buying train tickets
If you’re not going to use 12goAsia to book your train tickets or another reputable source listed on Man in seat 61, 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.
General tips for booking transport in Southeast Asia
- Book in advance if possible, especially for trains and planes. You probably already know that booking flights in advance can save you lots of money and this is the same world wide. When it comes to the trains, they can sometimes fill up pretty quickly and once the seats have gone, they’re gone.
- Shop around for tickets – be sure to speak to the tourist shops selling them and to check the prices on 12goAsia to make sure you’re not paying more where you don’t need to be. Don’t be afraid to use this when haggling as well. Being able to honestly say you’ve seen tickets cheaper elsewhere might work in your favour.
- Speak to other travellers and find out what their experiences were like. You will probably hear some stories as you travel around but these can sometimes be blown out of the water when you find someone who has done it first hand.
- Speak to the staff who run the accommodation you’re staying at. They may well know some awesome local tips to make your journey easier and cheaper.
What to take on an overnight bus or train journey
On overnight buses, your luggage will be put in the underneath storage but on trains, you will keep it with you and use the racks near your seat. However, either way, getting to your main luggage can be a bit of a hassle so it’s a good idea to have essentials to hand and keep your valuables safe.
My advice for keeping your things safe is to have your valuables in a small day bag that you can keep either right under your seat or next to your feet. The first time I went backpacking I actually used an under-clothes security pouch and kept money and my passport in there. This was great for peace but in reality, wasn’t that comfy.
I always make sure I have some snacks packed just in case there’s nowhere to get food and a bottle of water. I also like to make sure I’m wearing something super comfy (i.e. elasticated and close to pyjamas) as you’re going to be sat for a long time and have a well stocked up phone for films, music and podcasts.
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 other 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.