transport in south east asia
Updated: Aug 18
No matter which route through South East Asia you take, you’re going to come across so many different forms of transportation to different areas. There are tuk tuks, minivans, public busses, sleeper busses, trains, sleeper trains etc.
I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at times from not thinking I know what to expect. One thing to keep in mind is that transport conditions will change from country to country - so keep your mind open!
A pretty standard mode of transport for getting around towns and cities and to and from hostels and bus stations. Very popular and available across all of SE Asia and will range from super clean and neat to cracked front windows and holes in the seats.
Always bargain with a tuk tuk driver! You’ll get the hang of knowing how much things should cost but I would always check on an app like Grab how much a fare is, and then negotiate around that.
For single journeys I would recommend getting a grab tuk tuk or whatever app is available as it’ll nearly always be a lot cheaper, but if you’re going out for the day/going to need a lift back from a remote temple I’d always bargain a price for the tuk tuk driver to take you and wait for you.
Always pay at the very end of the trip!! Tuktuks are probably my favourite mode of transport in SE Asia - it’s a very real and welcoming experience driving through a new city with the wind in your hair and the sounds and smells of the city around you.
Public busses are probably the category that vary the most. They can range from small, local busses with crappy fans and not enough seats, to large interstate busses with A/C. The best thing about them is they’re always the cheapest option!
If you’re booking a ticket at the bus station you’ll be able to see what kind of bus it is, but as a general rule I’ve found that if the journey is less than four hours it’ll likely be a local bus of varying condition- but I’ve always found these pretty cute to travel in! The seats are mostly comfy, the a/c isn’t great but the windows and doors are always propped open and it’s like a bus version of a tuk tuk.
For journeys longer than a few hours, such as going from Battambang to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, it’ll likely be an interstate kind of bus with adjustable A/C and potentially an on board toilet. I nearly always choose these busses purely and simply because they’re usually never full and so you can grab two seats to yourself which is perfect! Plus, did I mention it’s the cheapest form of travel? I’m talking £7 between cities!
Another thing to consider about taking these public busses is that it’s pretty rare for tourists to take them as most prefer a minivan, so often you’ll end up on a bus full of locals and curious children that find you fascinating!
Most travellers choose to take a minivan or minibus! They’re a bit pricer, but have guaranteed air conditioning and get you to your destination a few hours quicker than a public bus would. I took a few minivans in my latest trip to South East Asia, and they’re probably my least favourite way to travel.
Often times they’re packed to capacity, meaning you’re jammed in with people with very little room and I always seemed to get shoved to the very back with all the bags!
It’s up to you whether reliable A/C is worth being cramped, but I personally would advise against minivans.
Sleeper busses are usually available for journeys over around 10 hours. Depending on the country you’re in, a sleeper bus will either have modern, single beds with one person to each bed, or it’ll have slightly wider berths with two people to a bed.
SINGLE BERTH - these are the sleeper busses you WANT to get. They’re in rows of three usually, and each ‘bed’ is a seat that reclines most of the way back. They’re super comfortable in my opinion but not ideal for taller people.
I’d advise getting a bottom bunk if you can because the swing and sway of the roads is less on the bottom than it is on the top! You’ll be asked to take your shoes off when you get on the bus and given a bag to put them in. Usually there won’t be a toilet, but the bus will make regular stops through the trip.
DOUBLE BERTHS - These are the types I am not a huge fan of. The first time I took this kind of sleeper bus I thought ‘brilliant! So much room to spread out!’ but what no one told me is that each berth sleeps two, so if you’re travelling alone you’ll end up with a complete stranger.
I took two of these busses in my latest trip, the first was very small and cramped and made for a very awkward spooning session with a random German girl while we both tried not to touch each other too much, and the second was much more roomy with electrical sockets and head space to sit up.
As far as I can tell there’s no real way to see which you’ll get, it’s a game of chance! They’re pretty cheap and a convenient way to save a night’s accommodation. You can always buy two tickets if you want to make sure you won’t have to share!
I haven’t taken many trains in Asia other than in India, which has a very varied class system when it comes to trains - I’ve got an article upcoming about this soon.
They’re pretty available but from what I gather they’re also pretty expensive so not likely to be your first choice of transport.
You’ll likely only use boats and ferries when hopping between islands, but they’re often pretty comfortable! Most have a top deck where you can take in the views and work on your tan too.
You can book ferry tickets either at your hostel or literally on the pier. Just say where you’re going and they’ll give you the price. This is a situation where you don’t haggle! The price is the set price! You’ll pay anywhere from a few quid to twenty five quid for a ferry journey, depending on distance and country.
If you’re staying in hostels then pretty much every hostel has bus tickets available and I’d nearly always recommend going through your hostel. This way, you go from hostel to next destination and don’t have to faff around figuring out the right bus station and getting there.
Other times, like when I was in Chiang Rai, I went straight to the bus station and booked tickets there. There’ll be various counters so either look around or ask around until you’re pointed in the right direction.
You can also book tickets online through the likes of 12toasia but these nearly always tend to be a bit more expensive, and there’s no middle man if things go wrong like there is when booking through a hostel.
Price wise - you’ll pay anywhere from 20p-£30 for transport, but if you’re interested in seeing how much I paid and where it got me to, I’ve compiled a list of spends from my latest trip that’ll be up on my ‘TIPS’ section soon. I’ll try and remember to add the link here, but I’m forgetful as anything.
You’ll soon get to grips with Asian transport, but as a rule: tuk tuks for short journeys, and I recommend public busses/sleeper busses for longer ones. Hope this helps!