Southeast Asia in detail

Flights & getting there

Step one is to get to Southeast Asia; flying is the easiest option. The only overland possibilities from outside the region are from China into Vietnam or Laos, or from Papua New Guinea into Indonesia. Travel agencies can sometimes arrange crossings from India into Myanmar, although this requires a special permit. Flights, cars and tours can be booked online at lonelyplanet.com/bookings.

Air

The major Asian gateways for cheap flights are Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Denpasar (Bali) and Manila, with regular connections to Europe and Australia. Thanks to the proliferation of budget carriers, it's easy to find cheap fares between these hubs and other Southeast Asian cities and resorts, and flights onwards to China.

When pricing flights, it's worth looking at the cost of flying first to China or Hong Kong, or to a neighbouring Southeast Asian hub, and then connecting to your destination on a budget carrier. Budget carriers may not show up on online booking sites, so you may need to book directly with the airlines.

It pays to be flexible with travel dates. Expect prices to soar and availability to plummet around religious festivals and during the peak holiday season, which usually coincides with the best (and driest) weather. If you don't mind putting up with the odd rain shower, you can save money by travelling out of season.

In Asia, trips longer than two weeks often incur higher fares. When researching airline fares, clear out your web browser’s cookies: these track your online activity and can sometimes result in a higher fare upon subsequent searches.

Airports & Airlines

All of the capital cities of Southeast Asia are important international air hubs, and most countries have additional international airports in major urban centres and close to big tourist sites and beach resorts. Domestic airports are found in every corner of Southeast Asia; you can get almost anywhere with a single change in the nearest capital city.

Each Southeast Asian nation has its own flag carrier, and these are usually the safest and most reliable airlines for inbound flights as they are bound by international agreements. However, local carriers are periodically blacklisted from flying to Europe and other destinations due to safety concerns. For this reason, some people prefer to fly to their destination with a trusted carrier from outside the region.

Budget and private airlines abound, but standards are variable, and many of these airlines have a poor safety record. More reliable budget airlines tend to be subsidiaries of the big flag carriers.

Tickets

If Southeast Asia is just one stop on a worldwide tour, consider a round-the-world (RTW) ticket, which allows a certain number of stops within a set time period (as long as you don’t backtrack). Circle Asia passes are offered by various airline alliances for a circular route that originates in the USA, Europe or Australia and travels to selected destinations in Asia.

Before committing, check if you can do the same trip for less using a long-haul airline to reach Asia then budget airlines to hop from point to point. Most independent and youth-oriented travel agencies can arrange RTW itineraries, with a mixture of point-to-point flights and overland stages.

Departure Tax

For major international hubs in the region, departure tax is usually included in the price of a ticket. At some smaller regional airports, you may have to pay the departure tax in cash when you leave. Check the local requirements before travelling to the airport, to avoid having to backtrack to get money to pay the departure tax.

Land

Southeast Asia shares land borders with China and India, as well as one land border with Papua New Guinea. Crossing from China into Laos and Vietnam or vice versa is easy; crossing from Myanmar to either China or India (or vice versa) is tricky. Travel agencies may be able to arrange a permit to cross the Mu-Se/Ruili border between Myanmar and China or the Moreh/Tamu border between Myanmar and India, but this depends on the political situation, and both crossings often close down at times of political instability.

The only other international land border crossing is between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, although this isn’t a very practical international gateway, with limited transport options with Port Moresby. Travellers with time and money might consider reaching Asia via the Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Mongolian express trains to China, travelling onwards into Laos or Vietnam by land.

Border Crossings

Part of the fun of Southeast Asia is being able to hop from one country to the next, clocking up plenty of new stamps in your passport. Some routes have become traveller superhighways, with well-organised transport links across borders and plenty of travellers to share the experience with. Other routes require more planning, and involve getting a visa in advance rather than on arrival at the border. However, it can sometimes be cheaper to find a budget flight between neighbouring countries, compared to the costs of crossing overland.

With the inception of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), border relations between most countries have normalised, but there are still visa requirements, and transport scams to look out for. Be aware that some border crossings are located in areas of political instability, and crossings may shut down at short notice. Routes to be wary of include the west-coast route from southern Thailand to Malaysia (Sungai Kolok to Rantau Panjang), boat crossings from Malaysian Borneo to the southern Philippines, and overland crossings into Myanmar.

Ask around or check the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree (lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) for border-crossing reports with further information and transport recommendations. Here's a checklist of things to consider when travelling across borders:

  • Know which borders offer visas on arrival and which require prearranged visas.
  • For borders that do issue visas upon arrival, travel with two passport photos and enough cash in the required currency to pay the visa fee.
  • Plan your travel to arrive when the border post is open to avoid being stranded overnight at the border.
  • While moneychangers, both legal and illegal, operate at most border crossings, always carry some small-denomination US dollars as a backup.
  • Black-market moneychangers abound at border crossings, but many offer unfavourable exchange rates, and scams like short-changing customers or straightforward theft are not unheard of.
  • Be aware of border-crossing scams, like dodgy transport schemes that do not cover the entire journey, or deliver you to a commission-paying hotel miles from where you want to go.
  • At some border crossings staff may request or demand extra 'fees', in addition to the legitimate visa-issuing fees. Resisting might result in some savings but it will not make the crossing speedier or smoother. Whatever approach you take, remember to stay calm and don’t get angry.

Brunei Darussalam

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
MalaysiaKuala Belait (B)/Miri (M)Bandar Seri Begawan (B)/Miri (M)
MalaysiaMuara (B)/Bandar Labuan (M)Bandar Seri Begawan (B)/Kota Kinabalu (M)

Cambodia

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
LaosTrapeang Kriel (C)/Nong Nok Khiene (L)Stung Treng (C)/Don Det (L)
ThailandCham Yeam (C)/Hat Lek (T)Koh Kong (C)/Trat (T)
ThailandChoam (C)/Chong Sa-Ngam (T)Anlong Veng (C)/Phusing (T)
ThailandO Smach (C)/Chong Chom (T)Samraong (C)/Surin (T)
ThailandPoipet (C)/Aranya Prathet (T)Siem Reap (C)/Bangkok (T)
ThailandPsar Pruhm (C)/Pong Nam Ron (T)Pailin (C)/Chanthaburi (T)
VietnamBavet (C)/Moc Bai (V)Phnom Penh (C)/Ho Chi Minh City (V)
VietnamKaam Samnor (C)/Vinh Xuong (V)Phnom Penh (C)/Chau Doc (V)
VietnamO Yadaw (C)/Le Thanh (V)Ban Lung (C)/Pleiku (V)
VietnamPhnom Den (C)/Tinh Bien (V)Takeo (C)/Chau Doc (V)
VietnamPrek Chak (C)/Xa Xia (V)Kep (C)/Ha Tien (V)
VietnamTrapeang Plong (C)/Xa Mat (V)Kompong Cham (C)/Tay Ninh (V)
VietnamTrapeang Sre (C)/Loc Ninh (V)Kratie (C)/Binh Long (V)

Indonesia

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
MalaysiaBintan & Batam (Riau Islands) (I)/Johor Bahru (M)Riau Islands (I)/Johor Bahru (M)
MalaysiaDumai (I)/Melaka (M)Pekanbaru (I)/Melaka (M)
MalaysiaEntikong (I)/Tebedu (M)Pontianak (I)/Kuching (M)
MalaysiaTarakan & Nunukan (I)/Tawau (M)Tarakan & Nunukan (I)/Tawau (M)
Papua New GuineaPasar Skouw (I)/Wutung (P)Jayapura (I)/Vanimo (P)
SingaporeBintan & Batam (Riau Islands) (I)/SingaporeRiau Islands (I)/Singapore
Timor-LesteMota'ain (I)/Batugade (T)Kupang (I)/Dili (T)

Laos

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
CambodiaNong Nok Khiene (L)/Trapeang Kriel (C)Si Phan Don (L)/Stung Treng (C)
ChinaBoten (L)/Mohan (Ch)Luang Namtha (L)/Mengla (Ch)
ThailandHuay Xai (L)/Chiang Khong (T)Huay Xai (L)/Chiang Rai (T)
ThailandKaen Thao (L)/Tha Li (T)Pak Lai (L)/Loei (T)
ThailandMuang Ngeun (L)/Ban Huay Kon (T)Hongsa (L)/Phrae (T)
ThailandPaksan (L)/Bueng Kan (T)Paksan (L)/Bueng Kan (T)
ThailandSavannakhet (L)/Mukdahan (T)Savannakhet (L)/Mukdahan (T)
ThailandTha Khaek (L)/Nakhon Phanom (T)Tha Khaek (L)/Nakhon Phanom (T)
ThailandTha Na Long (L)/Nong Khai (T)Vientiane (L)/Nong Khai (T)
ThailandVang Tao (L)/Chong Mek (T)Pakse (L)/Ubon Ratchathani (T)
VietnamDansavanh (L)/Lao Bao (V)Savannakhet (L)/Dong Ha (V)
VietnamNa Phao (L)/Cha Lo (V)Tha Khaek (L)/Dong Hoi (V)
VietnamNam Phao (L)/Cau Treo (V)Lak Sao (L)/Vinh (V)
VietnamNam Soi (L)/Na Meo (V)Sam Neua (L)/Thanh Hoa (V)
VietnamNong Haet (L)/Nam Can (V)Phonsavan (L)/Vinh (V)
VietnamPang Hok (L)/Tay Trang (V)Muang Khua (L)/Dien Bien Phu (V)
VietnamPhou Keua (L)/Bo Y (V)Attapeu (L)/Kon Tum (V)

Malaysia

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
Brunei DarussalamBandar Labuan (M)/Muara (B)Pulau Labuan (M)/Bandar Seri Begawan (B)
Brunei DarussalamMiri (M)/Kuala Berait (B)Miri (M)/Bandar Seri Begawan (B)
IndonesiaJohor Bahru (M)/Riau Islands (I)Johor Bahru (M)/Riau Islands (I)
IndonesiaMelaka (M)/Dumai (I)Melaka (M)/Bukittinggi (I)
IndonesiaTawau (M)/Tarakan & Nunukan (I)Tawau (M)/Tarakan & Nunukan (I)
IndonesiaTebedu (M)/Entikong (I)Kuching (M)/Pontianak (I)
PhilippinesSandakan (M)/Zamboanga (P)Sandakan (M)/Zamboanga (P)
SingaporeJohor Bahru (M)/SingaporeJohor Bahru (M)/Singapore
ThailandBukit Kayu Hitam (M)/Sadao (T)Alor Setar (M)/Hat Yai (T)
ThailandPadang Besar (M)/Hat Yai (T)Kangar (M)/Hat Yai (T)
ThailandPulau Langkawi (M)/Ko Lipe & Satun (T)Pulau Langkawi (M)/Ko Lipe & Satun (T)
ThailandRantau Panjang (M)/Sungai Kolok (T)Kota Bharu (M)/Bangkok (T)

Myanmar

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
ChinaMu-Se (My)/Ruili (Ch)Mu-Se (My)/Ruili (Ch)
IndiaTamu (My)/Moreh (India)Mawlaik (My)/Imphal (India)
ThailandHteke (My)/Phu Nam Ron (T)Dawei (My)/Kanchanaburi (T)
ThailandKawthoung (My)/Saphan Pla Pier (T)Kawthoung (My)/Ranong (T)
ThailandMyawaddy (My)/Mae Sot (T)Hpa-an (My)/Mae Sot (T)
ThailandTachileik (My)/Mae Sai (T)Kyaingtong (My)/Mae Sai (T)

Thailand

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
CambodiaAranya Prathet (T)/Poipet (C)Bangkok (T)/Siem Reap (C)
CambodiaBan Pakard (T)/Psar Pruhm (C)Chanthaburi (T)/Pailin (C)
CambodiaChong Chom (T)/O Smach (C)Surin (T)/Samraong (C)
CambodiaChong Sa-Ngam (T)/Choam (C)Chong Sa-Ngam (T)/Anlong Veng (C)
CambodiaHat Lek (T)/Cham Yeam (C)Trat (T)/Koh Kong (C)
LaosBan Huay Kon (T)/Muang Ngeun (L)Nan (T)/Hongsa (L)
LaosBueng Kan (T)/Paksan (L)Bueng Kan (T)/Paksan (L)
LaosChiang Khong (T)/Huay Xai (L)Chiang Rai (T)/Huay Xai (L)
LaosChong Mek (T)/Vang Tao (L)Ubon Ratchathani (T)/Pakse (L)
LaosMukdahan (T)/Savannakhet (L)Mukdahan (T)/Savannakhet (L)
LaosNakhon Phanom (T)/Tha Khaek (L)Nakhon Phanom (T)/Tha Khaek (L)
LaosNong Khai (T)/Tha Na Long (L)Nong Khai (T)/Vientiane (L)
LaosTha Li (T)/Kaen Thao (L)Loei (T)/Pak Lai (L)
MalaysiaHat Yai (T)/Padang Besar (M)Hat Yai (T)/Kangar (M)
MalaysiaKo Lipe & Satun (T)/Pulau Langkawi (M)Ko Lipe & Satun (T)/Pulau Langkawi (M)
MalaysiaSadao (T)/Bukit Kayu Hitam (M)Hat Yai (T)/Alor Setar (M)
MalaysiaSungai Kolok (T)/Rantau Panjang (M)Sungai Kolok (T)/Kota Bharu (M)
MyanmarMae Sai (T)/Tachileik (My)Mae Sai (T)/Kyaingtong (My)
MyanmarMae Sot (T)/Myawaddy (My)Mae Sot (T)/Hpa-an (My)
MyanmarPhu Nam Rom (T)/Hteke (My)Kanchanaburi (T)/Dawei (My)
MyanmarSaphan Pla Pier (T)/Kawthoung (My)Ranong (T)/Kawthoung (My)

Vietnam

ToBorder CrossingConnecting Towns
CambodiaLe Thanh (V)/O Yadaw (C)Pleiku (V)/Ban Lung (C)
CambodiaLoc Ninh (V)/Trapeang Sre (C)Binh Long (V)/Snuol (C)
CambodiaMoc Bai (V)/Bavet (C)Ho Chi Minh City (V)/Phnom Penh (C)
CambodiaTinh Bien (V)/Phnom Den (C)Chau Doc (V)/Takeo (C)
CambodiaVinh Xuong (V)/Kaam Samnor (C)Chau Doc (V)/Phnom Penh (C)
CambodiaXa Mat (V)/Trapeang Plong (C)Tay Ninh (V)/Kompong Cham (C)
CambodiaXa Xia (V)/Prek Chak (C)Ha Tien (V)/Kep (C)
ChinaHuu Nghi Quan (V)/Youyi Guan (Ch)Dong Dang (V)/Pingxiang (Ch)
ChinaLao Cai (V)/Hekou (Ch)Hanoi (V)/Kunming (Ch)
ChinaMong Cai (V)/Dongxing (Ch)Mong Cai (V)/Dongxing (Ch)
LaosBo Y (V)/Phou Keua (L)Kon Tum (V)/Attapeu (L)
LaosCau Treo (V)/Nam Phao (L)Vinh (V)/Lak Sao (L)
LaosCha Lo (V)/Na Phao (L)Dong Hoi (V)/Tha Khaek (L)
LaosLao Bao (V)/Dansavanh (L)Dong Ha (V)/Savannakhet (L)
LaosNam Can (V)/Nong Haet (L)Vinh (V)/Phonsavan (L)
LaosNam Soi (V)/Na Meo (L)Thanh Hoa (V)/Sam Neua (L)
LaosTay Trang (V)/Sop Hun (L)Dien Bien Phu (V)/Muang Khua (L)

Sea

There are no regular scheduled ferry routes to Southeast Asia from India or China. One adventurous option is to book passage on one of the cargo ships plying routes around the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Some freighters have space for a few noncrew members, who have their own rooms but eat meals with the crew. Prices vary depending on your departure point, but costs start at around US$150 a day plus additional fees.