Ultimate Guide to Transportation in Southeast Asia

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Traveling is Southeast Asia is always an adventure. Learning to dance to the rhythm of the chaos is part of the allure. One of the pleasant surprises for travelers within this region is the ease of public transportation and the affordability of getting around.

The big cities are well connected with buses and trains; the ubiquitous tuk-tuks pick up the slack. Moving between countries is simple enough with a host of local airlines to choose from at prices that can hardly be believed.

The trick is not to pre-book everything. Resist the urge to organize every aspect of your on the ground journey before you leave home unless you are on the very tightest of schedules. Not only will your flexibility be increased, you’ll save money as well.

Table of Contents

Local & International Airlines

air asia
The Airlines in this region will quickly become your best friends. They’re easily the cheapest and most convenient way to get both to, and around, Southeast Asia, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. International carriers service multiple routes into the region, while domestic carriers will get you where you need to go within most Southeast Asian countries for under $70USD.

Keep in mind that flights are not restricted to capital cities, and may be cheaper if you’re willing to be flexible with your destination and dates of arrival/departure. For example, try checking flights to Thailand through Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or Phuket, instead of through Bangkok. In Cambodia, it’s possible to fly directly to Siem Reap, the gateway city to the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Sometimes it’s necessary to take roundabout routes to access certain destinations. Laos, for example, can’t be accessed, by air, from outside Asia. Most travellers choose to fly there from Bangkok, Thailand. It is possible to access Laos overland, but it’s not always a quick or comfortable trip.

Think 14+ hour bus rides without AC or proper ventilation, dirt roads which can turn to foot-deep mud, potholes the size of bathtubs, and few to no bathroom stops unless you count peeing in the ditch at the side of the road (look out for fire ants). Unless you’re ready for adventure or desperate to save every penny, I’d highly recommend flying to Laos instead. Of course some of the most spectacular parts of the country, including the 4000 islands in the south, are only accessible the hard way.

International Carriers Servicing Southeast Asia

Carriers Within Southeast Asia

Most of these carriers are international within Southeast Asia as well the most affordable domestic option within their respective countries. The difference between these and the airlines listed above is that, with a few exceptions, these airlines stay within the region of Southeast Asia.

Finally, here’s a comprehensive list of all Southeast Asian airlines.

Where to Fly In:

Thailand

With sixty two airports, it’s very easy to fly almost anywhere you want to go in Thailand. Among the most popular hop-in-hop out destinations for people arriving to Thailand from abroad are:

  • Chiang Mai
  • Chiang Rai
  • Phuket
  • Bangkok
  • U-Tapao

Laos

Currently there are no direct flights to Laos from outside of Asia. To get here, fly via any Thai airport, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hanoi, Vietnam, Siem Reap, Cambodia, or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Laos’ airports are located in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

Cambodia

Cambodia has only three airports supporting commercial flights. They are in the three places tourists are most likely to be interested in visiting: the capital, the ruins of Angkor Wat & the beach.

  • Phnom Penh
  • Siem Reap
  • Sihanoukville

Vietnam

On paper, Vietnam has 10 international airports. Only five of those, however, actually service international flights. Of those, the three most popular are:

  • Hanoi
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Da Nang

Singapore

Singapore is a country that is also a city. There is only one international airport.

  • Changi Airport

Malaysia

Malaysia has a total of 62 airports, 8 of which are international. Your best bet here is usually to fly into:

  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Kota Kinabalu
  • Kuching
  • Penang (George Town)

Indonesia

Indonesia is made up of 13,466 islands and has over 230 airports scattered across them. Flying is almost always the best way to get between the islands, where possible. The most popular ports of entry for island hoppers in Indonesia are:

  • Jakarta
  • Denpasar
  • Surabaya
  • Makassar
  • Yogyakarta

Brunei

Remember that Brunei shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia completely surrounds Brunei. It is also possible to fly into Miri, or Kota Kinabalu (both in Malaysia on opposite sides of Brunei) and take a bus into Brunei.

  • Brunei International Airport, Aduki Airfield

Burma

Four of the 25 airports in Burma are international:

  • Mandalay
  • Yangon
  • Naypyitaw
  • Bago

Trains

thai train
Train travel in Southeast Asia is very doable, but comfort and service vary greatly by country, and sometimes by region within a country. Train service tends to be limited and can be more expensive than travel by bus. While you will come across the occasional up to date train with AC and comfortable seating, you’re equally likely to find yourself in a derelict car with wooden seats and missing windows, especially on the less touristed routes.

There are many places that trains don’t service at all. Thailand has the best network and there are often direct routes between major cities. That said, if there happens to be a train route that fits into your schedule, go for it! You’ll see parts of a country by rail that you won’t see any other way.

Train travel can be faster than taking the bus, and in some cases is even faster than flying. Check out these popular train routes before you go to see if incorporating train travel into your journey will work for you:

Bangkok to Chiang Mai: Thai trains are easy to use, clean, efficient, and cheap. Choose from overnight, or day, trains with a variety of pricing or class options.

Bangkok to Kanchanaburi: A great scenic route which highlights the Bridge over River Kwai and Hellfire Pass.

Thailand to Singapore: A multi-day train journey which stops at Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur along the way for under $100.

Hanoi to Beijing: Heading out of Southeast Asia, this route costs under $300 and takes multiple days.

Eastern & Oriental Express: Luxury trains traveling to most main cities and sights in Southeast Asia.

Trans-Siberian Railway: A famous route for overland adventurers, many travelers don’t realize that there is a southern option that passes through Southeast Asia and can be used to get from Singapore through Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Bangkok, Saigon, and Hanoi.

Seat61: Map of train routes in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.

State Railway of Thailand: Southeast Asia’s most extensive rail network.

Thailand Train Ticket: Will help you book Thai train tickets in advance.

Vietnam Stay: Book a rail ticket on the single rail line through Vietnam.

Malaysia Railways: The official website for Malaysian rail travel.

Royal Railways: Cambodia’s official railway website.

City Metro Trains

Metro Bangkok: Rail transit information for Bangkok, Thailand.

Metro Kuala Lumpur: Metro maps and information for Malaysia’s capital city.

Metro Singapore: Check ticket prices and find your way around the city.

Metro Jakarta: The capital city of Indonesia is currently undergoing construction of a metro system.

Buses

cambodia bus
Most backpackers and vacationers to Southeast Asia travel by bus, taking advantage of the low cost and ease of booking. With the bus, it’s possible to play your trip by ear instead of planning your flights weeks in advance. Bus tickets cost between $5-10 for a 5-6 hour journey, with overnight buses generally costing twice that, depending on the distance.

Booking can happen days in advance, the day before, or even the day of. As with all Southeast Asian transport, there’s no standard bus and it’s difficult to tell what you’ll end up traveling in. I’ve been on everything from the infamous karaoke buses, in which Thai music plays 24/7 and riders are encouraged to sing along (for 5+ hours) to buses with high-quality seats, charging ports, personal AC, and personal entertainment systems. In my experience, Thailand has the best buses, while in Cambodia and Laos it’s more of an adventure. Vietnam’s night buses are fantastic, with bunks inside instead of seats; sleep is almost possible.

Booking bus tickets is usually done on the ground at the bus station. It can be hectic, with multiple companies vying for your attention and dozens of sales representatives trying to sell you their ticket. When you can, it’s best to check prices online, or with other travelers, to avoid paying more than you should. Recently, a travel website called 12GO.Asia has made it much easier to book tickets online and avoid running into a scam at the station.

Before traveling internationally by bus, be sure to check visa requirements for each country you plan to cross into, as you may need to pre-arrange visas for land crossings.

Best tip for traveling by bus in Southeast Asia:
Keep your expectations realistic. Traveling by bus can be an adventure, and it’s important that you know how to be flexible with your plans. Buses can arrive late, or take longer on the road than you planned for. Breakdowns are quite common, and speed limits are suggestions. Drivers can be expected to blast loud music videos, or soap operas, through the bus at all hours. If you keep a sense of humour and go with the flow, the buses are an excellent way to get around, but you should expect it to be a culturally broadening experience.

STA Travel, Stray Asia: Bus Southeast Asia in a small guided group with other likeminded adventurers.

12GO.Asia: Our go-to website for booking passage via train, plane, or automobile in Southeast Asia.

EasyBook: Largest land sea travel and tours booking website in SE Asia.

Bamba Experience: Hop on hop off independent bus travel servicing most Southeast Asian countries.

Alternative Transport

cheow lan
Local transport in Southeast Asia varies widely from country to country, and offers the chance to hobnob with locals, check out scenery up close, and visit towns you wouldn’t normally have access to.

Boats

Almost every country in Southeast Asia has some form of water transport, from longtail boats in Thailand to the narrow speedboats that zip along the Mekong River through Laos & Cambodia. Ferries are a popular way to get from island to island within Indonesia, and you can easily charter a Thai fishing boat to take you out snorkeling on the nearest reef. For a truly local experience, skip the tourist cruises and find a local guide to take you boating for the day or motor you up the river to a hidden local treasure.

In Brunei, hire a local boat to take you on a tour of the biggest water village in the world. In Makassar, on Sulawesi (Indonesia) hire a local fellow to take you out to Samalona island where you can negotiate an overnight stay in a family home on an island small enough to walk all the way around in about ten minutes. On Cheow Laan Lake, in Thailand, take a boat deep into the jungle of towering karst formations and stay a night in a floating house where your fish dinner is caught off of the kitchen deck. Where there is water, boats are often the most interesting mode of transportation.

Of course there are cruises available too and for those who want to travel the water in style, they’re a great option.

Guide to Southeast Asia by Boat: Frommer’s ultimate guide to Southeast Asian travel by boat.

Southeast Asia Tours: Top tours in Southeast Asian countries, multiple by boat.

Asian River Cruises: Sail up the Mekong river, explore caves, climb ruins.

Pandaw Cruises: Considered some of the best Southeast Asian cruises out there, to a number of destinations.
bike rental

Rent Your Own Wheels

In most countries it’s possible to hire a motorbike, car, or bicycle. Most locals rely on mopeds or motorbikes to get around, so renting one is easy to do. When living on Phuket for a few months, having a small moped on hand to zip around town in came in very handy.

If you go this route, be sure you read up on the local rules of the road, and don’t assume they’re always followed by locals. Licensing is often not required so safety is a concern. Wear a helmet, and don’t overestimate your motorbiking abilities.

Whether you’re renting a car or a bike, be sure you understand the liability situation in the country you are in, and that you have the experience necessary to cope with the many differences. Especially if you’re in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from what you’re accustomed. Thailand is left hand drive, Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos are right hand. This gets exciting at the border crossing when one is expected to switch!

You can expect animals (everything from dogs, to water buffalo, to elephants) in the roadways in addition to highly unpredictable human traffic. Unless you are a very alert and adaptable driver, you may want to hire a driver along with your vehicle. This is very commonly done, especially in Indonesia. It is important to note that you will not be able to rent a car without a driver in Vietnam.

Renting a car is easily done. You can reserve ahead of time through the airport you fly into. Or, you can rent from one of the numerous mom and pop style car hire places that dot the tourist districts of most towns. If you are in a place long enough, it’s also often a possibility to secure a private rental agreement through a local person or a tour company.

Use good judgement and understand that these places are “buyer beware.” They may, or may not, be properly insured, the car maintenance is not guaranteed, and it’s entirely possible that there is no back up for you if something goes wrong. They are, however, by far the most affordable option.

Renting motorbikes is almost dangerously easy. As a result, there are a lot of accidents. Keep that in mind and check several places before renting. Look not only at price, but also vehicle maintenance, terms of agreement, and the quality of the safety equipment that is provided with the bike. (Is there a helmet? No, not that one, a REAL one!)

Places Car Hire: Car rental company found in most central Southeast Asian cities.

What to know before driving Southeast Asia: A useful guide to rules of the road and choosing a vehicle.

Sixt: A top vehicle rental company.

DriveAway: Drive from one location, drop off the vehicle in another.

Scooter/Motorbike Rental: Go for two wheels instead of four.

City Travel & Haggling

City transportation in this part of the world is extremely diverse. Mopeds speed around en masse, and it’s possible to hop on the back of a local guide’s moped for a tour of the city. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous – tiny three-wheeled, open-air vehicles that act as cheap taxis and can miraculously always hold “just one more” person. Pickup trucks with seats built into the backs act as local buses in many areas. Pedicabs, also known as cyclos, are bicycle propelled carriages that crowd the streets of Hanoi and smaller Indonesian cities.

The cost of local transport generally depends on the haggling abilities of the traveler. In most cases, you will be asked for fully twice what is fair. Offer a little less than your final price, and work your way up from there. Never immediately offer the price you actually intend to pay.

Understand that there is almost always tiered pricing and you’re very unlikely to pay what locals do. Consider this your luxury tax for being there and remember that paying a buck for what locals are paying .75 for is okay, because the same ride in NYC would cost you twenty five dollars, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as good.

The trick to successful city transport without getting taken for more rides than you’re hoping for, is in upfront negotiation of price and a cheerful attitude. Never get into a cab or tuk tuk without knowing that the driver understands where you and having agreed upon the price. Always have correct change to pay with (because if you don’t… they won’t either!) Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away. If you have a bad feeling about a particular driver, thank him with a smile and keep looking, there will be dozens of other drivers vying for your business.

TL;DR

Travel in Southeast Asia can be demanding, but it’s also rewarding. While there are plenty of “tourist” options for travel, there is also reliable local transportation that will allow you to experience travel like a native and get to know each country and culture on a new level.

Southeast Asian transportation is cheap, often unusual, and easy to arrange, but may not always go to plan. It’s difficult to avoid being swept up in unexpected adventure here, whether you’re traveling by bus or by tuk-tuk. When traveling in Southeast Asia:

  • Make use of local discount airlines
  • Buses are cheap and go almost everywhere you want to be
  • Go out of your way to take the boats
  • Research visas and routes ahead of time
  • Hone your haggling skills
  • Maintain flexibility and a sense of humor
  • Book most transport on the ground, not in advance

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