Transport around Southeast Asia is frequent and inexpensive but not always fast. Private operators supplement government-run airlines, rail services and bus networks, often offering more comfort for a higher fare.
Air Budget airlines and national carriers offer flights all over the region, with competition keeping fares low.
Bus Buses go everywhere, at almost any time of day or night; fares depend on the level of comfort, but are rarely expensive.
Boat Ferries of all shapes and sizes connect islands and towns along the region's major rivers and seaboards.
Car & Motorcycle Useful for local exploring, but road conditions deter many from self-driving for longer trips.
Train Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia have small but functional rail networks.
Thanks to the proliferation of budget airlines, flights can be a bargain within the region, especially between major hubs such as Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Some budget carriers are better than others, so check reputations before committing, but almost all offer online booking, with cheaper fares the further in advance you book.
Some airports in Southeast Asia charge a departure tax, particularly small regional hubs, so make sure you have a bit of local currency left. The following are useful for local air travel in the region:
Air Asia (www.airasia.com) Leading regional budget airline with hubs in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
Attitude Travel (www.attitudetravel.com) A guide to low-cost carriers in Asia.
Cebu Pacific Air (www.cebupacificair.com) Popular Filipino budget carrier flying in/out of Manila.
Jetstar Asia (www.jetstar.com) Subsidiary of Australian-owned Jetstar, with its main hub in Singapore.
Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id) Indonesia's leading budget carrier.
Scoot (www.flyscoot.com) Low-cost carrier based out of Singapore.
Most of Southeast Asia's national flag carriers run promotional deals to and from specific Western cities or for regional travel, and you can also find passes that work across airlines in the same alliance. Search online for ‘air passes’ and your chosen destination to find the most up-to-date information, or contact airlines directly.
Southeast Asia loves the humble bicycle, so visiting cyclists will feel right at home. Many long-distance cyclists start in Thailand and head south through Malaysia to Singapore, but there are spectacular routes across the region, from Myanmar to Indonesia. Major roads are generally suitable for touring bikes (erratic drivers notwithstanding) but a hybrid or mountain bike is recommended if you want to get off the beaten track.
Vietnam is a great place to travel by bicycle – you can take bikes on buses, and the coastal route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is a worthy goal. For more challenging terrain, consider northern Thailand, or island-hopping routes through Indonesia (bikes can be transported easily on ferries). Roads are often in poor repair in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, but foreign cyclists will receive a warm welcome in rural areas.
Bicycle repair shops are found everywhere, but most are used to dealing with basic cycles made in China. Bicycles made in Europe, Australia and America (and their components) can be bought in major cities such as Bangkok, but rarely in the countryside. Bicycles can travel by air; check with airlines about charges and specifications.
A vast flotilla of pumpboats and car and passenger ferries connects the various islands of Southeast Asia, as well as linking ports on larger land masses and towns along major rivers. International boat travel is possible between Singapore and Indonesia, Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Malaysia. You also have the option of crossing the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos and from Cambodia to Vietnam. Guesthouses or travel agents sell tickets and provide travellers with updated departure times. Check visa regulations at port cities: some crossings will not issue visas on arrival.
Buses go everywhere at almost any hour of the day or night in Southeast Asia, and buses are almost always the most hassle-free way to cross land borders. In some cases, direct buses connect towns on either side of the border, with a well-organised stop for border formalities. If not, you'll have to take one bus to the border, go through departure and immigration formalities, and then board another bus on the other side.
Bus travellers will enjoy a higher standard of luxury in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, where roads are well paved and reliable schedules exist. Be aware that theft does occur on some long-distance buses – keep all valuables on your person, not in a stowed bag.
Car & Motorcycle
What is the sound of freedom in Southeast Asia? The ‘put-put’ noise of a motorcycle. People across Southeast Asia depend on motorcycles and scooters as inexpensive commuter vehicles, and it is not uncommon to see three or more generations of the same family squeezed onto one Honda Dream.
This also means that motorcycle and scooter rental is easy to find and inexpensive, particularly in tourist hubs. A motorcycle licence is not always asked for by rental companies, but is often a legal requirement for manually geared scooters and motorcycles. Renting without a valid licence can lead to serious difficulties in the event of an accident or traffic infraction.
Car hire is also available in most countries, but given local driving conditions this is less popular with travellers. Many people prefer public transport for long-distance travel and to then hire a vehicle for local sightseeing, rather than competing with trucks and speeding buses on national highways.
You can hit Thailand and Malaysia by car or motorcycle pretty easily, enjoying well-signposted, well-paved roads. Road conditions in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar vary, although sealed roads are becoming the norm. Indonesia and the Philippines have roads that vary between islands, but most are in need of repair. Vietnam’s major highways are in relatively good health.
If you plan to do any driving, it pays to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your local automobile association before you leave your home country; IDPs are inexpensive and valid for one year. While you may be able to rent a car with your home licence, it is easier to do so with an IDP.
Motorcycle and scooter rental firms in Southeast Asia have a reputation for renting out vehicles without asking to see paperwork, but the law generally requires you have an appropriate driving licence.
Some car-driving licences allow the holder to ride scooters and motorcycles up to a certain engine size, but you are opening yourself up to the risk of fines or worse if your licence doesn't specifically cover the class of vehicle you are driving.
Western car-rental chains are found at Southeast Asian airports, capitals and major tourist destinations. Local shops also rent motorcycles and cars, but vehicles are sometimes poorly maintained, so check any vehicle thoroughly before renting.
Take a walk around the vehicle with the proprietor, noting any existing damage so you won't be charged for old knocks. Taking pictures of the vehicle before driving it off the premises is another safeguard. Check the tyre treads, brakes and lights to make sure that the vehicle is in good working order.
Most rental places ask customers to either leave their passport as a security deposit, or to pay a hefty cash or credit-card deposit. Passports are usually kept safe, but you may prefer to pay a monetary deposit instead so you have your passport safely with you in the event of trouble.
When renting a car, motorcycle or scooter, always make sure you have at least the legally required minimum insurance cover in that country, and be aware of the excess you may be liable to pay in the event of damage to the rental vehicle or another vehicle. If more comprehensive insurance is available, it is often worthwhile paying the higher cost for peace of mind.
Always ask for insurance when you rent a motorcycle. Cheaper places may be willing to rent a bike with no cover and no questions asked, but you will be fully liable for the cost of the vehicle, and the cost of damage to other vehicles and medical treatment for people injured in the event of an accident. More reputable motorcycle-rental places insure all their motorcycles; some will do it for an extra charge.
Drive carefully and defensively. Remember that smaller vehicles yield to bigger vehicles regardless of the circumstances; always yield to trucks and buses. The middle of the road is used as a passing lane, even in oncoming traffic. Use your horn to notify other vehicles that you intend to pass.
One reassuring thing about driving in Southeast Asia is that traffic moves fairly slowly. If you learn to match your speed to that of the vehicles around you, merging into and out of jams becomes much easier. Pay attention to street signs, even if locals ignore them – infractions such as speeding or driving the wrong way down one-way streets are often used by traffic officials to solicit bribes.
Most Southeast Asians are so adept at riding motorcycles that they can balance the whole family on the front bumper or even take a quick nap as a passenger. Foreigners unaccustomed to motorcycles are rarely as skillful.
If you’re riding on the back of a motorcycle, remember to relax so that the driver can balance your body. Tall people should keep long legs tucked in as most drivers are used to shorter passengers. Women wearing skirts should collect loose material so it doesn’t catch in the wheel or chain. It should go without saying, but never, ever, drink and ride.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Many people do it without incident, however. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Most towns have local buses and larger cities also have mass transit networks, using underground trains, overland trains, overhead trains, or sometimes all three. Taxis buzz around in incredible numbers, often joined by autorickshaws (túk-túk) and cycle-rickshaws, which come in a remarkable variety of configurations under a remarkable variety of names.
Trains and buses – including the jeepneys that serve as buses in the Philippines – have fixed fares, and taxis in larger cities are metered (though getting drivers to use their meters can be a challenge). For any form of transport without fixed fares, agree on the fare before the start of the journey, usually with some haggling to reach a fair price.
Thailand and Malaysia have the most extensive rail systems, although trains rarely run on time and extended journey times are commonplace. Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia have more limited train networks that still provide a fascinating vantage point from which to view the countryside. The only international train service of note is the International Express, which runs from Bangkok through the Malay peninsula to Singapore.