Southeast Asia is the kind of destination that turns tourists into long-term travelers. The proximity of the countries, ease of entry, and number of fellow backpackers make it hard for visitors in Thailand not to stop over in Cambodia for a bit, or to keep pressing on to Laos or Vietnam afterward. However, unlike the Eurail in Europe or campervans in Australia, there’s no single most popular method of transport. There are plenty of cheap ways to get where you need to go – here are the pros and cons of some of them.
Budget airlines such as AirAsia make plane travel affordable for nearly everyone – it’s possible to pay less than 20 dollars for a flight if you get the right deal. However, if you’re not going far, or if you have a lot of luggage with you, all this air travel can get cumbersome. In addition, you’ll often save big when you pay in advance, but sometimes travel plans change at the drop of a hat. Book your big flights, and travel overland the rest of the time.
Night trains are comfortable and reliable in several parts of Asia. Grabbing a 16-hour train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok or Bangkok down to Phuket can take care of accommodation for the night, and luggage amounts are virtually unlimited. In this case, springing just a few extra dollars to ensure a sleeper car with air conditioning is key. Tickets can be bought ahead of time, or just purchased day-of at the train station.
Smaller destinations usually can’t be reached on planes or trains. To get to harbor towns and little villages, you’re usually going to need to take the bus. Overnight buses can be a good option if you can sleep sitting up, but make sure you know how long the journey will last. A six-hour trip that leaves at 9 PM will leave you with a few hours to kill in a strange bus stop at 3 AM. Book online or over the phone if there’s a specific time slot you need, but otherwise, you can usually buy tickets right at the station. In fact, often prices are listed in dollars or Euros online, and end up being heavily inflated. You’ll get the best deal if you buy your ticket in person at the station.
If you’re island-hopping Thailand or Indonesia, you’ll be seeing a lot of this one. Ferries are unavoidable if you’ve got to travel through the sea, but they have become reliable and institutionalized over the past few decades. Penny-pinchers can often get a cheap ride by going down to a harbor and waiting until one of the small wooden Phinisis, but this is one occasion in which you’ll be rewarded by going with the crowd, and choosing whichever ferry seems biggest, fastest, and safest. Most booking offices are located right next to the pier, and are hard to miss. Make sure you plan ahead, though – ferry times change based on the tides, and many places only offer one or two services daily. If the only afternoon boat left at 1 PM, you may end up stuck another night.
Finally, if none of these methods gets you excited, try renting a motorbike. They’re cheap and ubiquitous across Vietnam and Thailand, and give you the freedom and the thrill of the open road while also moving you from A to Z. Be careful, though – just because you’re on an island and your bed is only 500 meters from the bar, you can still get in some serious trouble driving drunk. 20-something backpackers will often speak with apprehension about their Thai tattoos, the scars earned from skidding across pavement alongside a busted bike. Also, make sure you’ve got a copy of your passport with you – the rental company will usually ask to hold onto it as bond, so make sure you’re prepared in case disaster happens.