How to Travel Around South East Asia
You've book your flights, you've packed your bags and your first stop is (most probably) Bangkok. If you're just about to go to South East Asia or you're thinknig about going, this should help you figure out how to reach your dream destinations in the cheapest and most comfortable way. This is for city to city, country to country travel. As for inner city travel that's easy - tuk tuk, Taxi (on the meter) or train are your cheapest and best bets.
Before we go any further take a look at this map:
This is taken from seat61.com and is literally your best friend when you arrive. We used this religiously to plot our routes. If you click the map it will take you to the live map where you can click on any route, it will tell you the times that route goes, the cost and the time it takes to do it. It's so helpful and offers train and ferry combo tickets, train and bus tickets and overnight trains and buses and it also includes ferry routes! It's the only website you need when you're planning your adventure.
One of the best and most comfortable ways of getting about (especially on longer legs of journeys) is by train. When you go to book one these will be your options:
1st Class Sleepers
2nd Class Sleepers (Air Conditioned)
2nd Class Sleepers (Non Air Conditioned)
2nd Class Seats
Anything less than these and you probably won't be comfortable and you'll be too hot. Air conditioning (especially when it's the peak season) is a lifesaver. The compartments can be quite tight so there'll be nothing worse than being in a non air conditioned room with 3 other people who are farting to warm the place up even more.
A lot of the time you will get the option of 4 or 6 berth cabins, which is 4 beds or 6 beds. We did both in Vietnam and both were absolutely fine although there was a bit more room in the 4 berth.
We would suggest that if you're looking at going in peak season and you want to secure a decent bed instead of a seat for a 14 hour journey to book in advance at the train station. Make sure you take your passport and enough cash for your ticket, once we walked a few miles across Ho Chi Min city and forgot our passports; the walk back was so much fun and we laughed and skipped the whole way...
Example prices for trains:
Bangkok - Chiang Mai (467 Miles/ 15 hours)
1st Class Sleepers = £30 ($48 US)
2nd Class Sleepers (Air Conditioned) = £18 ($29 US)
2nd Class Sleepers (Air Conditioned) = £12 ($20 US)
2nd Class Seats = £5 ($9 US)
I could sit here and copy all of the different journeys from Seat61 but if you have a specific route you're after then you can find it easily by using that map. The examples above show you how nicely priced the travel is in Thailand. It costs Aimee and I more to get from Cardiff to London on a shitty bus than it does to go across a whole country in a bed with air conditioning; result!
Another way of travelling and sometimes the only option due to lack of train routes is via bus. We had some gnarly experienced on sleeper buses going through Cambodia- really cramped sweaty leather seats, gruelling 14 hour bumpy bus rides and drivers not being very communicative, when I say not very I mean they were rude and ignorant a few times, but not that often. If I had to drive a bus load of gobby tourists for 14 hours I would probably be pissed off too!
For as little as 50 pence for every 100 miles traveling by bus is hands down the cheapest way to travel. Even though sometimes it was tiring and stressful it was all part of the fun and we got to meet fellow travellers and share stories en route. A few bad things happened - once in Cambodia we were on a sleeper train, we got woken up at 1am and told to get off because the bus had broken down and we had to get another one. It's definitely not what you want when you're mid beauty sleep! Another time in Laos the bus broke down for 3 hours, but luckily it broke down right next to a bar so we just had a few beers, played a few games and then we were on our merry way.
If you're craving the islands of Thailand then a ferry is the best way to get there. You can either do a long slog from Bangkok to Koh Tao on a ferry and work your way down to Koh Phangan, or you can get a train to Chumpon and a shorter ferry to Koh Tao (1st Class Sleeper = £35 for train + Ferry from Bangkok to Koh Tao). As for Koh Phi Phi you can get there from Krabi on a ferry, you can usually just rock up to the dock and buy tickets on the day. It's reasonably cheap and pretty smooth, Aimee even managed it with her travel sickness! Again with the ferry you can usually book tickets at hostels, but be warned they will sometimes be more expensive then buying then at the dock.
The quickest, but most expensive way to get about is by flying. On our first 3 week trip to Thailand we were pretty rushed and we were (admittedly) bad tourists and flew more than we should have - poor environment! We decided we want to go to Koh Phi Phi so we ended up flying to Krabi, then getting a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Once we had explored that we got a ferry to Krabi, then a bus to Surat Thani and then a ferry to Koh Samui. We saw all three islands - Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao via ferry. Then when we were ready to get back to Bangkok we flew from Koh Samui (the only island with an airport). So if you are short on time then it is possible to skip long train journeys and get a few flights but think about the environment or all the hippies will consume your future children.
When you are thinking about going from Vietnam to Laos or North Thailand to Laos for example there is the option of a bus... however when we did some reading we read about some harrowing 24 bus journeys going up and down some risky cliff edges and thought for the price and the time saving we'd rather fly. We ended up getting the following flights:
Bangkok - Krabi (Air Asia)
Koh Samui - Bangkok (Air Asia)
Da Nang - Hanoi (Vietnam Airlines)
Hanoi - Vientiane (Laos) (Vietnam Airlines)
Luang Prabang - Chiang Mai (Laos Airlines)
Sometimes it's worth it to save yourself time and stress, we did a 12 hours overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh to Nah Trang and then to save another 12 hour bus we got an hours flight from Da Nang to Hanoi - easy!
Your best bet is to either use skyscanner.com or just go to the airline websites directly:
If you're feeling uber adventurous the other option is to get on a motorbike and do it yourself. We did some huge road trips in Bali and Vietnam on a scooter but never full on trips with our backpacks etc. We did however meet quite a few people on the road who had driven all over the place on motorbikes and had the time of their lives. It's defintely something we'd love to try if we ever went back; riding a scooter through the countryside is one of the most free, exciting and euphoric things you can do when you visit a new place. It's 100% the best way to see anywhere, so if you don't fancy trekking on a motorbike we recommend renting a scooter for a day or 20 and ride around until your soul is content!
One more thing we will say is that if you're goign from country to country you'll need visas for each place. So ALWAYS make sure you have your passport and spare passport photos to buy visas at borders. If you're getting buses, trains or riding a bike you'll always need a visa to past the border. Read our other post here to see about which visas you'll need, how much they cost and how to get them - How To Plan Your Ultimate Trip.
So that's it! Hopefully now you have all the tools and resources you need to plan a wicked little route in SEA. If something goes wrong then don't blame us - you're a responsible adult!
Always remember- keep Kinging-It!
Craig & Aimee x
Check out our trip to Vietnam below to see a tour of the buses and trains on our journey:
Video tips to help you plan rude trips: