In Southeast Asia, booking buses, trains and ferries can be a tricky affair. It can be difficult to find the correct information online and you can be worried about putting your card details into dodgy sites. Often, you’ll have to make a trip to the actual bus or train station in order to purchase your ticket.
A few years ago, a group of traveller-turned-entrepreneur types saw this opportunity to make this a whole lot easier for backpackers – and 12Go was born. It’s a great little search widget where you can find times and prices for buses, trains, boats, ferries (and planes if you like) all over Southeast Asia. So, you no longer have to wait in that sticky queue at the train station wasting a day of your travels… you can search and book your bus/train/boat ticket here!
Types of Transport in Southeast Asia and what to expect…
Buses in Southeast Asia:
VIP Buses VS Local Buses: Buses in Southeast Asia come in all shapes and sizes, but there are often two distinctions. ‘VIP buses’ and ‘local buses.’ VIP buses are basically only for tourists and they run the most popular routes, for example, Bangkok to Surat Thani (to visit the Thai islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan). VIP buses are readily available in Thailand, but they can also be found in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and in other countries where there’s a high concentration of backpackers.
So what can you expect from a VIP Tourist bus? Well, it will be more expensive than travelling by local bus, but there are a few advantages… Firstly, the route is more direct and there are fewer stops than on local buses. Local buses can take forever, with people getting on and off at various points along the journey, and if it’s a night bus, you will keep being woken up throughout the night. Secondly, the VIP buses can be safer, as the drivers have to follow certain regulations that are more adhered to when tourists are involved… No company wants a scandal on their hands!
The VIP buses also have air-con (it can be set to a freezing temperature!) often but not always, a terrible movie showing (I watched the Karate Kid on a recent journey!) and sometimes you are given snacks included in the price. How will you be able to tell that a bus is VIP? Easy. If there are two prices for bus tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, one costs 100 Thai Baht and one is 800 Thai Baht, the VIP bus is the more expensive one.
Night buses: Many backpackers like to take the night buses in Southeast Asia. It means that you don’t lose a day of your travels and you don’t have to spend money for a nights’ accommodation. Depending on how easily you can fall asleep on public transport (I am always awake at 4 am while the rest of the bus is snoring!), night buses can be a good option and are generally very safe. Many of them (in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam) have reclined seats for more comfort. In Vietnam, the seats recline so that they become actual beds. This sounds comfortable, but there’s one problem – the beeping of the horn by the Vietnamese bus driver will no doubt keep you awake all night! Our advice – take ear plugs, or headphones and play relaxing sleep music.
Open bus tickets in Vietnam: A great way to travel the length of Vietnam! Many backpackers choose to purchase an open bus ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or vice versa. This open ticket allows you to use the same bus ticket, getting on and off the bus when you please, and staying as long as you like in each place. Read more about transportation in Vietnam.
Chicken buses in Indonesia: Indonesia is renowned for its unpredictable transport system. Taking a mini bus in Sumatra or Java will have you squashed up against a betel-nut chewing local with a child on your lap and a chicken on your head. What makes it better? Karaoke of course!
Crossing borders by bus or train in Southeast Asia: You’ll be needing our awesome visa guide!
Trains in Southeast Asia:
Trains in Thailand: Train is a fantastic way to travel in Southeast Asia and we would highly recommend it. As your train slowly creeps out of the city through the suburbs and out into the countryside, you will see parts of the country that you have never seen before – nooks and crannies that are more difficult to see with road travel. Thailand has an excellent rail system with daytime and overnight trains running popular routes: Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Bangkok to Nong Khai (to cross the Laos border to Vientiane) or Bangkok to Surat Thani. If you take a sleeper train (AC or fan), you will get your own private bed with a curtain and there’ll be an opportunity to buy meals, snacks and tea. The prices are good value.
Trains in Malaysia: Malaysia also has an excellent rail network, and you can travel the length of Peninsular Malaysia by train, or even travel all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok (26 hours).
There is no train system in Laos: Apart from the 3km that connects Nong Khai (Thai border) with Vientiane (the Laos capital).
There is a limited rail network in Cambodia: The only destinations that are currently served by rail are Phnom Penh, Takeo, Kampot and Sihanoukville. There are plans to extend this. (Not mentioning the famous bamboo train of Kampot!)
Trains in Vietnam: An excellent rail network exists in Vietnam which connects the northern capital city of Hanoi (as well as Sapa, Halong Bay and the Chinese borders) with Ho Chi Minh, the biggest city in the South. (The entire journey would take 34 hours with no stops, but we recommend you get off and explore in between!) The train is a fun and safe way to travel in Vietnam, cheap too. Sleeper trains can be much more comfortable and safer than night buses in areas where roads are windy.
Ferries in Southeast Asia:
Ferries in Thailand: If you plan on visiting the most popular Thai islands, then you’ll be travelling on one of the major Thai ferry services. If you’re travelling to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao on the east coast, Lomprayah is the company that rules the waves, followed by the slow but steady Raja Ferry. If you’re travelling to Phuket, Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta on the west coast, you’ll be boarding with Phuket Ferry Service. Ferries in Southern Thailand are very good and reliable.
Tip: Book tickets in advance if you want to make sure that you get a seat as it can get busy, especially in the high season.
Ferries in the Philippines: As a nation with 7,107 islands, sea transport in the Philippines had better be good! If you want an adventure, long boat journeys in the Philippines provide an authentic local travel experience like no other. Boats consist of bangkas (motorised local boats – for hopping around the smaller islands), passenger only ‘fastcraft’ ferries (for short routes) and ROROs (roll on roll off ferries for longer journeys). The company 2GO Travel is the biggest ferry company in the Philippines.
Always make sure you’re insured for travel in Southeast Asia.
Read our article: 10 tips for public transport in Southeast Asia.
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