Getting around SE Asia is easier than ever, thanks to the firmly embedded footprints of gap year students, world travelers and everyone in between making the most of the region’s cheap cost of living and fantastic everything. AirAsia’s main hubs in KL and Bangkok make flying easy and cheap; buses are plentiful if a bit of a gamble on leg space; and trains are pretty slow but a wonderful way to see the region up close.
AirAsia is the way to go for a cheap flight. Leaving from BKK or KL will get you wherever you want to go. AirAsia also has great deals often; I’d recommend becoming a member if you’re coming to the region. Since it’s so cheap, these flights can sell out quickly, so you have to be on top of your game. Luckily, SE Asia is nowhere near as bad as China in terms of flight delays. AirAsia is also branching out on long-haul flights, but I recently got a flight to Sydney on Qantas for cheaper than AirAsia, and no amount of Valium could convince me onboard a 10-hour AirAsia flight. Bottom line: Check AirAsia before any other airline, become a member, and only use it for regional flights.
I love trains! Some border crossings may take more time by land than air, so be prepared for extra time, more touts and the possibility of bribery if you go by train or bus. That said, trains are great for every budget – you can splash out for a first-class sleeper or bump along in a third-class wooden seat. For short journeys in Thailand, like Bangkok to Ayutthaya, I just bought the ticket the day of, and when going from BKK to the Laos border, I bought tickets a couple days in advance, so you don’t need a lot of forward thinking. I’d recommend the BKK-KL-Singapore train and any Vietnam train trip to everyone. Sometimes the trains just aren’t running (reason: “Thailand!”), but just grab a cab or tuktuk to the nearest bus station and you’re good to go. I’ve never had a problem with train safety in Asia, but I always keep my passport, cash and other important items on me.
Much like trains, I’ve never had a problem with safety (looking at you, Chile) and it’s easy to get a ticket the day of departure. Comfort is another thing – it’ll be packed, uncomfortable and probably hot. You can pay for a first-class bus, but these don’t operate everywhere, so drop that illusion if you’re out in the sticks. My recommendation would be to take a sleeping pill or at the very least, an engrossing book. If you’ve traveled to South America, you already know what to expect: hairpin turns taken too fast, blaring music and unavoidable and inexplicable delays. Thais take their seat assignments very seriously and I once spent a good twenty minutes playing musical chairs so that the monk who got on could keep his seat assignment without having to sit next to a woman. One good thing about buses is that you can usually flag one down wherever if you’re really lost.
I’ve never rented a car in SE Asia, but I have hitchhiked a few times on the back of motorbikes. This was usually a consequence of getting lost and needing a ride back to town. My experiences were safe and pretty unremarkable except for how nice the drivers were. Of course, I wouldn’t readily recommend it – listen to your gut if it’s looking like your only recourse.
How do you like to get around SE Asia?