Budget Travel Asia: Our Ultimate Southeast Asia Transportation Guide for Backpacking Asia


How to get around Southeast Asia: One of the apprehensions and burning questions that many people have when they are planning their Southeast Asia itinerary is how to go about physically travelling around this vast region. From the practicalities of booking transport to crossing borders and navigating the many different options for transport when planning your Asia backpacking route. Here is our ultimate Southeast Asia transportation guide after spending 9 months travelling around South East Asia via buses, trains, boats, ferries, planes and even motorbikes!

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Southeast Asia Transportation Guide: How Easy is Travelling Around Southeast Asia?

Well the good news is that if you are flexible with your Southeast Asia itinerary and following generally known routes then it is incredibly easy and often there are many different options for Southeast Asia transportation. Even taking routes not usually frequented by backpackers there are often more local transport options that can be used, though they are sometimes a little convoluted it always seems in Southeast Asia that if you’re willing then there is a way to get there!

Being a backpacker hub we’ve found that Southeast Asia is a great place to travel around freely without much stress and hassle. Organising transport is simple and booking that far ahead not generally necessary when you plan your Asia backpacking route. There are usually many options from buses aimed at backpackers that can be booked at your hostel to more local transport that can be a bit more uncomfortable and an interesting experience in itself!

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Ultimately Southeast Asia transportation can be as easy or as complicated as you make it. If you stick to the main routes you can easily book a bus the night or so before at your hostel and away you go, or you can even get a flight with budget airlines such as Air Asia if you’re time in more limited and budget allows. It’s also an area that isn’t too difficult to get off the beaten track with a little bit more effort! Your Southeast Asia itinerary doesn’t need to revolve around transportation complications which is one reason that travelling around this area is really enjoyable. Of course, we recommend following some simple light backpacking tips as it always makes getting around that much easier and fun if you pack as light as you can!

Buses Around Southeast Asia: The Most Common Method of Transport Both Long and Short Distance

When travelling around Southeast Asia the most common form of transport you will likely use is the bus! Buses are versatile, cheap and cover huge distances both internally and across borders and is the principal Southeast Asia transportation method for any Asia backpacking route.

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There are large comfortable air conditioned coaches with power points and even on board wifi designed for backpackers to take overnight trips. But in some areas there are buses that are pretty basic and even borderline dangerous that are used for these long trips. One thing to realise is that depending on the country and region you are travelling around within Southeast Asia there might not be many other options in terms of quality and that’s the reality of transport in Southeast Asia at times!

Generally speaking you should ask your hostel or look online to see what the best companies in the region are for comfort and safety but it really shouldn’t impact your Southeast Asia itinerary or your Asia backpacking route.

Travelling by bus is by far the most cost effective way of travelling around Southeast Asia and with that come sacrifices. Buses might be cramped, hot and uncomfortable for hours taking winding roads without toilets and enough breaks. BUT, they are a true part of the backpacking experience and a necessary part of travelling on a budget! Even on a comfortable night bus you’ll likely have a restless evening but the benefit in night buses is covering accommodation and transport costs in one! No matter what Asia backpacking route you take they will feature in your Southeast Asia itinerary if you’re on a budget!

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How To Get Around Southeast Asia: Tips for Buses in Southeast Asia:

* They are the best Southeast Asia transportation option for sticking to a tight budget and allow great flexibility for any Southeast Asia itinerary.

* They are ideal for travelling at short notice, book via your hostel, online or at the bus stations/ depots. All routes vary in popularity and availability but often you can book just the day or two before and some you can just jump straight on that very day. They’re great for flexibility in your Asia backpacking route.

* Night buses are good for saving on accommodation for the night!

* Be sure to prepare yourself with travel pillows, correct and comfortable clothing, food, drink and entertainment!

* Be sure to keep your valuables with you at all times especially on night buses which is wise on all Southeast Asia transportation!

* Ask others in your hostel which bus they took and how it was, ask the hostel which companies are the best to use and have a look online if you are worried about safety and comfort.

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Trains In Southeast Asia, The Best Southeast Asia Transportation!

Trains are probably our favourite way to travel not only in Southeast Asia but anywhere in the world! Often they can be a little more expensive than buses but the advantage is that they are often more comfortable and you’ve got more freedom to move around. The negative is that they don’t allow as much flexibility when planning your Asia backpacking route.

In Southeast Asia train travel is sporadic and only covers certain areas of each country, they are best used to travel between major cities and require you to have some flexibility in your Southeast Asia itinerary to use them!

A good example is that Cambodia and Laos don’t have any passenger train networks, Vietnam has one main line that runs down the coast and Thailand has a large network that connects with those in Malaysia which are further connected to Singapore! If you get the chance then the train is the best Southeast Asia transportation method in our opinion, we just wish it covered more places!

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Train travel in Southeast Asia can generally be broken down by class and length. In places like Vietnam and Thailand sleeper trains are very popular and a great way to travel long distances in comfort. Many of these trains have first and second class areas that offer great sleeper compartments and particularly those in Thailand are really impressive, comfortable and modern. These trains however also offer third class seating for those on a really tight budget and willing to “rough it” on a long journey or for shorter rides.

Taking the train in Southeast Asia, particularly in the third and second class areas is also a great way to meet local people and travel alongside regular people rather than just backpackers. They offer a much more comfortable sleeping experience than night buses with the ability to lie on an actual bed, move freely around the carriage to stretch your legs, go to the toilet or visit the food cart which is also quite common. The routes that trains take are often more scenic too and some of our best travel experiences have been on incredible train rides through Asia, so be sure to include some in your Southeast Asia itinerary.

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How To Get Around Southeast Asia: Tips for Taking The Train in Southeast Asia

* Train travel is often more expensive than bus travel for longer trips but they offer a much more comfortable experience that is often still very affordable for backpackers in second class.

* Sleeper trains often come with fresh linen, pillows and have food carts meaning you have to prepare yourself less than for the brutality of a night bus! You also often have access to all your bags too. However you should still bring entertainment and food just incase!

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* Sleeper trains usually have to be booked further in advance than night buses as the services are often more limited and a more sought after Southeast Asia transportation method. Plan some extra time in your Southeast Asia itinerary for this.

* Longer train travel usually has to be booked online or at the station rather than through your hostel

* Short local train trips and third class tickets can often be bought on the day of travel

* Routes are limited but often a better experience so you might have to tailor your Asia backpacking route for them.

* This website is a great resource: Seat 61

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Flights in Southeast Asia

Flights are usually our last port of call as I hate flying and do anything to avoid it! However Southeast Asia has a great network of budget airlines that make travel across the region easy, quick and relatively cheap. Though this is by far the most expensive Southeast Asia transportation method beyond private transport.

Most major cities in Southeast Asia are connected via flights with various airlines, some more reputable than others. We most often used Air Asia or Jetstar.

Plane travel around Southeast Asia using budget airlines is pretty basic, you have to pay extra for luggage, they are often delayed and can take you airports that aren’t as well connected.

However they do save a lot of time and an overnight 18hr bus can be replaced by a hour long flight! If your Southeast Asia itinerary is on a tight schedule then flying is a must when you plan out your Asia backpacking route. So if you’re wondering how to get around Southeast Asia on a strict timescale then this is it.

Depending on which part of Southeast Asia you are travelling within you can quite easily get away with travelling overland rather than flying. For example Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam are very easy to travel solely overland. However heading further south to Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines, countries made up of many islands, flying is much more convenient.

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Tips for flying around Southeast Asia:

* Try to book as soon as you can as prices tend to fluctuate the way buses and trains stay consistent so it can be a hit and miss type of transport in Southeast Asia price wise.

* Be flexible in your Southeast Asia itinerary in order to get the best price

* Air Asia is the most reputable airline for budget travel and has a loyalty program where you can collect points

* Check which airport the flights leave and arrive into as some, notably in Bangkok, can differ from the main airport and be sure to check transport options to and from and at the time you will arrive.

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Planning Your Asia Backpacking Route: Ferries and Boat Transport

Ferries and boat travel is also another widely used albeit rarer method of transport for the region. This can be in countries that are made up mostly of islands or can be in places such as between Thailand and Laos where rivers can be utilised for boat travel. Boat and ferry travel is usually pretty slow but much more scenic and more of an experience in itself! For us boats are the most fun Southeast Asia transportation method if you want to know how to get around Southeast Asia in the most scenic fashion then take the ferry whenever you can!

Ferries are great for travelling between regional areas, remote islands and more local routes. Booking depends on which area you are within but it can often be done online, at local travel agencies and at ferry ports. Quite often these trips need to be booked a day or two in advance as there might only be one or two trips along that route each day so factor that in to your Southeast Asia itinerary.

Some of the boats and ferries used around Southeast Asia aren’t the safest but most do have life jackets at least! Some we’ve been on have been quite cramped and uncomfortable especially very popular or very local routes. However we’ve also had some great experiences travelling on boats in Southeast Asia, being able to move around freely and take in some incredible scenery particularly those we took in Thailand and The Philippines.

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Tips For Ferry Travel In Southeast Asia:

* Taking the boat might be an alternative option, even in areas away from the coast do some research to see if it is an option as it’s a much more relaxing Southeast Asia transportation method!

* Book online or at the docks if you can and be sure to check if you need to book in advance. Some routes we’ve taken there has only been one service a day!

* For longer trips be sure to bring some food, drink and entertainment as many ferries don’t have these available and once you’re on the boat then that’s that!

* Be aware that some of these ferries aren’t the safest Southeast Asia transportation method so maybe make sure you can at least swim!

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Using Your Own Transport: Motorbikes and Scooters 

Another way to travel around Southeast Asia is to buy or rent your own motorbike or scooter and this is an incredible way to see so much, visit far off places and have complete control over your journey. However the roads in these regions can be dangerous, taking bikes across borders adds a complications and is sometimes not possible and long journeys can be extremely tiring and hard work!

One of our best experiences in Southeast Asia was buying motorbikes in Southern Vietnam and riding all the way up to the north of the country. This was an incredible way to see the country and we got to see some really remote places, stopping whenever and wherever we wanted. This truly is my favourite way to see a place as I love to stop and take photos along the way, explore little villages and speak to locals. It’s a challenging but rewarding Southeast Asia transportation method.

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It’s very rewarding but it can be hard work! Riding all days is tiring and you can’t cover anywhere near the distance you could in a car or bus on the unpredictable roads and a small bike. Sometimes it can take a few days of solid riding to get from one destination to another, stopping in remote towns with very few places to stay and then setting off again very early to ride all day again. You’re exposed to everything the weather can throw at you too and carrying you bags on the bike adds to the challenge even more.

We usually try to rent out bikes/ scooters in each place we can to use to explore the place itself and then use other transport to travel long distances. But doing a full bike tour for those willing to deal with the rough side of it is the ultimate way to travel around this region! If you were to ask me how to get around Southeast Asia in the most experiential way, then by bike it the ultimate!

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Top tips for how to get around Southeast Asia on a motorbike

* Be sure to practice first and be confident and comfortable riding a bike before heading off on long trips

* Be aware of traffic laws in each country and speed limits, some countries have areas of corrupt police that target foreigners on bikes so research this before. Also some countries in the region drive on the left, some on the right!

* Try to buy a bike in good condition and be aware if you want to do the whole region on a bike it might mean buying and selling in one country before crossing the border and buying again in the next country due to some complications with certain border crossings. Research this ahead of travelling.

* Be prepared for the trip to take much longer! This is a slower Southeast Asia transportation method and that is what makes it good, but be aware of this when it comes to visas or other practical matters. We ended up spending 7 weeks in Vietnam when we only planned on being there for a month, so plan your Asia backpacking route properly if travelling by bike.

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Read more about some motorbike related trips we took on our Asia backpacking route:

The ultimate guide to Vietnam by motorbike: Advice from a 7 week adventure!

Staying with a local tribal family in a bamboo house in Yen Bai, Vietnam. A true off the beaten track adventure made possible by our motorbikes!

How to avoid the corrupt traffic police of Mui Ne, Vietnam…for those on motorbikes and scooters!

Exploring Vietnam’s central highlands on a motorbike and discovering the amazing Dalat Waterfalls!

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Southeast Asia transportation: Travelling across borders and between countries

One apprehension you might have about when thinking about how to get around Southeast Asia is crossing over county borders. Well the good news is that it is incredibly easy across the entire region, the only slight complication is Myanmar but generally speaking Southeast Asia is very backpacker friendly and border crossings despite sometimes being a little time consuming are usually simple and easy. Mostly when planning your Asia backpacking route border crossings shouldn’t complicate matters.

We’ve done most border crossings in this area via bus transport and each has been a little different! We’ve done a few via flying and even one using a boat. Generally speaking we would say that arriving at the airport is always the easiest and simplest way as its usually more organised and often there are more options for visas, however buses have also been pretty straight forward.

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Here’s a brief summary of our border crossings for each country and the Southeast Asia transportation method we used.

Thailand:

One of the easiest, we didn’t need a visa so we just got stamped in with our arrivals card.

We’ve arrived via a flight, bus and on the slow boat from Laos that required us to take a shuttle bus over the “Friendship bridge” between the two countries. Every time it was very simple.

* In Thailand we travelled using buses and motorbikes

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Cambodia:

Cambodia is a visa on arrival border crossing.

You should bring along the correct money in USD if you can, at the time is was $30 (check before travelling and always bring extra just in case). Also bring a passport sized photo. You fill in the form, hand it in, you wait around 10 mins and they shout you over with it stuck in a full page of your passport. After that you queue to actually enter the country where they stamp you in.

We arrived via bus from Thailand and technically crossed over the border on foot, our bus met us on the other side of the border and we continued on. They process of actually crossing over was quick and easy.

* In Cambodia we travelled using mostly mini buses

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Laos:

Crossing over into Laos was very similar to Cambodia only a little more hectic and chaotic! It was a similar process where you gain a visa on arrival, fill out the forms, pay the fee ($30-$35) and get the visa stuck in a full page of your passport. Then you queue again to get your entry stamp.

Our driver gave all our passports to the clerk together and once we had them all back we got on the same bus and drove over the border. We crossed from Vietnam to Laos on the overnight bus, we had to wait at the border for a few hours before for it to open at 7am!

* In Laos we travelled using buses and boats

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Vietnam:

Vietnam is a little more complicated as there are more visa options. Many people choose the two week visa free option. However we needed longer so we applied for our Vietnamese visa before travelling at the embassy in Bangkok, that took a week for processing.

The border crossing was a little chaotic and more serious than some of the others in the area. Some people were applying for visas on arrival, some visa free entry and some like us had visas so it took a while. The queuing system also wasn’t great and it was pretty chaotic.

They then added a $1 “health check fee” onto the border crossing which was clearly a bit of a scam. It’s not a lot of money but you could come unstuck if you don’t carry some extra USD on you at border crossings. I also recall we had to bring all our luggage with us which was scanned. It did seem to take a lot longer but it was still all pretty straight forward.

We travelled from Cambodia into Vietnam via bus but ended up somehow on 3 different buses. One to the border, one from the border to the nearest town and then one from there to Saigon!

* In Vietnam we travelled using motorbikes and night buses

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Myanmar:

Crossing into Myanmar via the land border can be hit and miss given the ever changing political situation over there. So this was one place we decided to fly to instead as it is a lot easier. However via Thailand is the best way if you do want to go overland but do bear this in mind when you plan your Southeast Asia itinerary. We did change our Asia backpacking route to fit with the border situation at the time.

With Myanmar you have to apply for your visa before you travel, however this can be done online and is pretty simple and accepted pretty quickly. It cost around $50 when we visited.

We flew from Bangkok to Mandalay. At check in they checked our visa but didn’t ask for onward travel info.

Arrival into Myanmar was easy and straightforward, the queue wasn’t too big and as our visa was online the border agent just scanned our passport and then stamped us in. Be sure to fly to a major airport such as Mandalay or Yangon as some of the others might be a problem.

* In Myanmar we travelled using buses and mini buses

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Malaysia:

Malaysia is one of the easiest countries for border crossings for most. We didn’t need a visa so were stamped in with our arrival card.

We arrived into Malaysia overland via Singapore and continued on the same bus after the border the first time. The second was returning from Brunei via a boat where we were once again just stamped back in on a new entry stamp.

The only thing with Malaysia is that even when you travel internally if you fly they will stamp you again in each region. We flew a few times as well as exiting and returning when we visited Brunei so we go A LOT of stamps from Malaysia!! If you wish to visit Borneo you will need to fly internally!

* In Malaysia we travelled using buses and planes

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Brunei:

We arrived in Brunei from Malaysia on a boat. Again it was a simple process as we don’t require a visa. Our bags were scanned and we were stamped in, they simply asked us if we had visited before.

* In Brunei we travelled using ferries and buses

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Singapore:

We arrived in Singapore on a flight from Myanmar. We don’t require a visa so we were stamped in along with our arrival card without any questions.

* In Singapore we travelled using buses and the metro

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Philippines:

We flew into The Philippines from Malaysia and at check in we were asked to provide proof of onward travel, this was a fake photoshop document we had created beforehand!!

We don’t need a visa for The Philippines so we were just stamped in no questions asked.

The Philippines is a county where flying is required more due to it being islands that are separated quite far apart. We did take buses on each island and a ferry between El Nido and Coron.

* In The Philippines we travelled using mini buses, boats and planes

Indonesia:

We also flew into Indonesia from the Philippines but we weren’t asked for proof of onward travel this time.

We don’t need a visa for Indonesia so we were just stamped in no questions asked with an arrival card.

Interestingly enough we travelled around Indonesia mostly on buses and boats and didn’t take any internal flights. We travelled from Jakarta to Bali using just one ferry and then visited Lombok and the Gili islands using boats and ferries!

* In Indonesia we travelled using planes, Ferries, boats and buses

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What are your top tips for Southeast Asia transportation?

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Budget Travel Asia: Our Ultimate Southeast Asia Transportation Guide for Backpacking Asia


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Jas

Awesome guide! I just did a short SE Asia trip around Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore so kinda wish I’d read this before my trip. Also, I flew a lot with Air Asia although I was still surprised at how expensive flights were – especially going around Thailand or from Vietnam to Thailand! Who knew!

Wow! You’ve got so much info here, I honestly feel like I just purchased a guide book from my local bookstore! I would be so claustrophobic in the tiny bed on the train. Goodness, that one made me sweat. LOL I loved seeing the different pictures and ways you two have traveled around the country. My favorite will always be your motorbike pics and travels. You guys are rockstars!

Astrid Vinje

I remember riding the bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok once. It was long and bumpy, but pretty cheap. And I’ve also done the trains in Indonesia. I haven’t done and boats or ferries yet, though.

Milijana

Your post reminded me of my 6-month Southeast Asia trip. I was reading your post and literally I was thinking: Oh, I did that. Checked. Did that too, checked too … Been there, done that. 🙂

Great guide, Nic! I am sure many people who are planning to travel SE Asia will find your guide useful!

travelfuelslife

I see I’m not the only one that plans transportation for overnight to avoid hotel fees. Cool guide. It’s nice to know the ins and outs of the visa process, etc. In terms of budget airlines, if you only carry a backpack sized bag, do you still have baggage fees? I get away with my bags as personal items on a lot of airlines.

The photo of you on the cramped 24 hours bus is priceless! I also very much like the various brands throughout the photos featured on your t-shirt’s Nic … The North Face, Mammut and Harley Davidson? 😉 What an adventure you both shared! And there is one absolute truth you shared that is true anywhere in the word … “transportation can be as easy or as complicated as you make it.”

Great tips for backpackers, and travelers in general. Totally agree, no matter where you are – night buses are for the win. They are budget friendly and at least give the illusion of saving time. Thanks for this post, will surely use it once I finally make my way to the great Asia!

We visited Southeast Asia several years ago, but were not backpacking. Since we didn’t have much time (only 3 weeks), we paid for a private guide and driver in each place we went to. But this seems like a very helpful guide for those who want to backpack through SEAsia. Do you know if some countries in SEAsia also offer more luxurious train rides? We’d love to explore SEAsia by train someday, but would prefer a private room with private bathroom.

mohanaandaninda

Super awesome and super helpful guide! That’s one thing I like about South Asia and the Indian subcontinent : you can get by perfectly fine even if you don’t know how to drive! I love travelling by trains…something I missed so much while living in the PNW where train are so expensive (and infrequent). Your bike adventure looks pretty rad and I love all those stamps on your passport 🙂

Nice guide Nic. I know where you are in BKK, in the pic up top. We will be there in 3 days.