10 Essential Tips For Public Transport in South East Asia!

Public transport in Southeast Asia

Chicken buses, tuk tuks, songthaews… (and if you’re lucky, Air Asia!)… Whether you’re on the so-called “VIP’ night bus in Thailand, the public jeepney in Manila, or just learning to handle a scooter, being in transit in South East Asia provides just as many stories as the destinations themselves. Will you break down? Will you ever get there? Will you (fingers crossed!) get a seat on the bus that’s jammed right close up to a good looking guy / girl? Here are some essential tips on how to cope with the weird and wonderful transport options of South East Asia…

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1. Hangovers and travelling on the roads in Asia don’t mix!

The stale re-circulated air combined with the bumpy windy roads will make you regret that last vodka and red bullbucket. Take a couple of bottles of water and a plastic bag for the meal you’ll see later. Travel with a ‘Changover’ at your own risk. Especially on buses and mini vans. I made the mistake of travelling in a mini van the next morning and I haven’t made it since.

Bus ride in South East Asia

Where is the sick bucket!?

2. Know your place

Whenever you book transport make sure you ask where you’re getting picked up from. Is it the hostel/guesthouse or from the booking office? Some cities have more than one bus and train station. There is nothing like being dropped off, having no idea where you are or worse not knowing where you are being picked up from and missing your transport.

SEA Transport

Get the best seat!

3. Sharing is caring

You’re likely to strike up a conversation with other backpackers on your journey. I’d ask them where they’re heading and if they want to split the cost of a taxi or tuk-tuk if you’re going in the same direction. This is a great way to save money and make new friends, especially if you are travelling on your own.

Sharing transport

It’s all about making the most of the space!

4. Always check flights

Low-cost airlines are giving bus and train fares a run for their money. If you travel with just carry-on luggage, even better. Nok Air and Air Asia both have cheap fares for domestic and international routes. Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok both have separate airports for domestic and international flights. Search cheap flights here.

Hair Asia

Air Asia – not to be confused with Hair Asia!

Compare the following:

  • 14-hour overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai @ 1000 Baht.
  • 1 hour 15 minute Air Asia flight for the same journey @ 1220 Baht (including 20 kg checked luggage). This is a promo offer, which they always have. Even if you include the 2 hours you have to wait from check-in to flying this saves an enormous amount of time. Now the advantages of taking the train are you don’t have to pay for a night’s accommodation and the train is much more fun the flying.

5. Travel like a local

I would always enquire about local transportation, even over long distances. Trains, local buses and metro systems provide a cheaper alternative to VIP buses, mini vans taxis and tuk-tuk. They also make you feel a lot more connected to the places to are travelling.

local transport monks

Travel the local way.

6. Dress warm

Most local buses don’t have air conditioning, which can be a problem in itself. But if you’re travelling in a tourist bus they can get extremely cold on VIP buses, especially at night time! I would suggest taking a pair of long trousers, a long sleeve top and some socks!


Stock up on woolly hats for the bus rides on Khao San Road!

7. Booking / fixed prices

Unless on the meter, prices for tuk-tuks and taxis can be bartered. For taxis – it’s always best to ask to travel on the meter, especially in cities like Bangkok – as this is the fair price that locals pay also. For tuk tuks and songthaews (the red vans with two benches either side), the price must be agreed in advance – you don’t want to arrive at your destination without having agreed on a price and then be told a huge fee!

If you’re travelling by bus or train the prices are generally fixed but it is still worth checking with different travel agents. A small booking fee will be included in the cost of the ticket. Sitting at the back of the bus was cool when you were a kid. But I wouldn’t advise this if you get a bus or mini-van in Asia. Your ass will spend more time in the air than on the seat. If you can, book as seat closer to the front for a more comfortable journey.

Taxi South East Asia

Always ask for taxis on a meter

8. Safety first

I travel with a large backpack and a small rucksack. All important documents and money are in the small bag that I keep close to me at all times. The larger bag goes in the hold underneath the bus. If you are travelling overnight especially by train ensure you keep a close eye on your valuables.

It also goes without saying that you should be properly insured for your travels in South East Asia – in the event of a loss, theft or accident.

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Hiring a scooter/motorbike is my favourite way to explore but experienced or not, you do ned to exercise caution.

  • Some places will ask for your passport as a security deposit.
  • Check front and back brakes.
  • Check front light, backlights and the indicators.
  • Check the horn.
  • Take pictures of the bike before hiring, especially if there are any scratches or dents.
  • Wear a helmet!
Renting a motorbike

Bikes can be fun but make sure you wear a helmet!

9. Keeping busy

There isn’t much to look at when you’re travelling overnight. So I would advise taking a book, loading your mobile device up with a few podcasts, taking a deck of cards or miniature board games to pass the time. Some buses will try to entertain you with loud garish films, music and even karaoke – ear plugs are a must also!

travel4more.org - Disco bus

Karaoke bus!

10. Be Patient

Remember TIA (This Is Asia!). Traffic, vehicles breaking down, this is the norm. So remember to take this into account when travelling through Southeast Asia.

What are your tips for transport in Southeast Asia?

SEA Transport bike

About the writer: This article was written by Nigel of Uneven Toast. You can follow Nigel’s travel tips on Twitter @UnevenToast, Facebook or Instagram: @uneventoast.

Photos: Photos in this article are taken from the book Carrying Cambodia: By Conor Wall & Hans Kemp.

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