A lot of the incredible sights and adventures you can have in Southeast Asia are dependent on some sometimes unpleasant transportation. Here are the best transport options, when to use them and price guidelines.
Something to bear in mind..
A lot of travel agents in Southeast Asia will suggest the transport options that have the best profit margin for them, rather than the best option for you. It is always good to go to a few different travel agents near you (note: these are on almost every street in SE Asia) to find the best price. When possible, book ongoing trains at the train stations, buses at the bus stations and boats at the ports for the best prices. Obviously, loose schedules, time constraints and peace of mind don't always allow for this but book directly when you can. Booking your transport with a travel agent will cost a little more but it usually pays off in convenience if you don't have a military-precise plan.
Flights are usually your first method of transport in Southeast Asia. Return flights from major locations in Europe to a transport hub like Bangkok or Hanoi will cost between £400-600. Considering the flight is around 13 hours to Bangkok, these are some of the best value flights you'll find, almost anywhere. This is down to a combination of low airport taxes, high competition and well-travelled routes. Luckily, this doesn't mean compromising on comfort as most flights stopover in the Middle East (like Emirates, Etihad, Oman Air, Qatar Airways) and are some of the highest rated airlines in the world. You can also fly directly with companies like Thai Airways for a similar price. Our preference has always been a 6 + 7 hour flight with a short stopover, than 13 hours in one seat, but there are benefits to either option. All the major long-haul flights include all of your food and drinks (including alcohol) and have a good selection of films, TV and entertainment with your own screen.
There are some times in Asia when flying makes a lot more sense than going by land especially when there are inexpensive routes where you can find excellent deals. When doing a full circuit around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, often a 1-hour flight can save you 24 hours on a bus - well worth paying a little more for. Good examples - travelling from Laos to Hanoi (or reversed) is generally 20-36 hours on a bus or a flight for around $80. Time and money can also be saved travelling from Saigon to Phu Quoc Island as well as in and out of Burma. Due to the wild-west nature of the Poipet (Cambodia/Thailand) border and the (up to) 14-hour journey, there are arguments for flying instead from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh to Bangkok on many of the budget airlines peddling this route.
One of the best websites for price compare. We have often found Skyscanner's app can have even better prices than the site. Tip: clear your browsing data or change your location to find occasional differences in prices.
Booking directly with an airline can sometimes save you some money, so it is worth checking the airlines individual website just before you book with a comparison website.
Related article: The best routes around Southeast Asia
Trains are our number one option for transport in Southeast Asia. Thailand and Vietnam both have an excellent train service so should be used for any long journeys on train routes. Travel agents make a lot more money on overnight bus tickets than they do the train, so be polite but firm that you would like a train ticket.
A second (air conditioned) sleeper from Bangkok north to Chaing Mai or south to Chumphon/Surathani (for the islands) costs 650-750 baht (£13 - £15), with the bottom bunks being slightly more expensive. The setup is double bunks either side of a long corridor which come with fresh bedding, your own curtain and it is generally very quiet, clean and comfortable. There is a dinner and breakfast service served to your seat by expertly efficient staff. You can padlock your backpack to the outside of your bunk and keep your valuables with you as there is more than enough space. On some of the trains, the bottom bunk can even sleep two people. Be warned to bring warm clothes in the A/C classes as it can get pretty cold. When you book a train/boat combo at the station or with an agent, it will include pick up and transport to the pier. See below for more details. There is usually a delay of an hour or so on most sleeper routes. The train conductor will come by and let you know when they are approaching your station, so no fear of oversleeping. There are plug sockets in most carriages as well as sinks with running water and basic toilets. Locals get on and off the train at many stops, offering meals, snacks and drinks (alcohol is prohibited on Thai railways, so be careful if you do purchase beer.)
Recent changes mean you can now book tickets online, and collect from the station on arrival/print yourself. This comes with a 30 baht fee, which is considerably less than the fees from travel agents. Book tickets online on the official website here
The first-class trains in Vietnam are divided into cabins instead of set out in long corridors like in Thailand. Soft-sleeper is 4 person cabins and hard-sleeper is 6 berth. These are ideal if there are 4/6 of you traveling together, but if there is only one or two you could end up with people getting in and out of your cabin throughout the night at various stops. However, they are clean, air conditioned and you usually get fresh bedding (unless you get on in the middle of the night and swap with someone in that cabin! Bring a sleeping bag liner just in case. The trains are consistent and are favourite method of transport in Vietnam.
There are drinks and food on offer on most trains, along with toilets and running water. The trains in Vietnam are a little more expensive than Thailand for first-class (air con, 4 berth cabins) and should be bought at the train stations in advance for the best seats and prices (particularly in high season). The inspector will come and wake you up when you're approaching your stop. Like Thailand, many of the sleeper trains have an hour or two of delays.
There is no passenger rail service in Cambodia or Laos, there is in Burma but it is outdated, filthy and not at all comfortable. Burma is the only country in Southeast Asia where the buses are the preferable form of transport!
Related article: What to pack for Southeast Asia
Buses in Thailand and Vietnam are useful for short journeys, or to get to places that are not on the rail routes. For overnight and longer journeys, always take the train. Night buses are often not much more than a normal reclining seat, noisy (from other travelers and from the endless horn of the drivers), and affected by the road quality. They will stop several times throughout the night (often making all of the passengers get off) for rest breaks, toilet stops etc. Many do not have a working toilet. Not an ideal form of transport!
In Laos, the night buses wind their way through the mountain roads, and the beds are in three rows of narrow, open bunks. Caution should be taken with your valuables at all times, as pickpockets are rife.
In Cambodia, the night buses vary in quality. Giant Ibis are undoubtedly the best for safety and comfort and serve most routes.
VIP buses are two rows of double bunks, which recline 3/4 but have varying amounts of leg room and are open/non-private. For just a few dollars more you can get the 'Hotel Bus' which contains double and single flat 'beds', usually with a curtain. Be sure to book a single if you are travelling alone as the doubles are pretty cosy to share with a stranger!
Top tip from fellow Cambodia resident and travel blogger Tanya Korteling from Can Travel Will Travel - You can now book tickets online with Cambo Ticket an online service to book buses, ferries and private cars in Cambodia, safely and easily. Tanya also recommends a new airline - JC airlines which provide great value short-haul flights around the region. These can only be booked on the ground by local travel agents or on the Ctrip website.
Minibuses are an inevitable part of traveling around SE Asia as most of the 1-6 hour tourist routes are served by minibuses. Positives - they are usually inexpensive, pick you up from your hotel and stop for bathroom/food breaks. Negatives - somehow, the companies consistently book them up to the maximum capacity, so 15 people and their giant backpacks are usually crammed into one tiny van. This makes them pretty uncomfortable for anything more than a few hours. All travel companies have a specific minibus company that they use, so it is worth shopping around for the best price.
Providing the sea is not overly rough, most of the boat journeys in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are pleasant and comfortable. Catamarans are usually the most expensive, but arrive the quickest and are worth a few extra bucks. Regular ferries service most of the nearby islands at very reasonable prices. Night ferries are available from some Thai islands to the mainland, which involve sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the hold. You are joined by hundreds of other travellers and there are regular problems with theft. There are long
There are multi-day slow boats which can be taken from Chiang Rai into Laos which takes 2 days (with an overnight in Pakbeng). You can also take a similar boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (10-12 hours). These are atmospheric, unique and a really interesting way of getting around if you have the time to spare. When you book a bus/train and boat (particularly from Bangkok to the Thai islands), transport to the pier will be included. You will be marked with a company sticker so that you are herded onto the right boat by the crew.
Next read: What visas do you need for Southeast Asia?
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