Are you planning a trip to South-East Asia? Should you book transport in advance or just rock up and hope for the best? I’m sure you’ve heard by now that it is definitely cheaper (and more flexible) to buy transport when you arrive. The only thing you need to book in advance will be your flight. Other than the aeroplane, you are likely to find yourself travelling on all sorts of interesting contraptions! Here are a few things to expect:
Whether you travel alone, jump on the back of someone else’s bike or travel as part of a group, motorbiking around South-East Asia has to be one of the most fun ways to travel, with the wind through your hair and the world at your fingertips. A lot of people travel by bike, locals and tourists alike. I loved hopping on an Easy Rider tour in Vietnam, as well as sharing a bike with Syd around Laos. Just be careful: stick to the rules, don’t be afraid to use your horn. Of course, it can be highly dangerous so only drive if you’re an experienced rider. One day, I met an 18 year old English man who ran into a cow in the highlands and had to wait two hours for help. He arrived in my hostel dorm room covered in blood and grazes, needing to be patched up!
By far the easiest way to travel, especially in the cities. You don’t even need to hail down one of these three wheeled contraptions. Drivers will hassle you from the moment you walk out of your accommodation! Be sure to barter a fair price and feel free to walk away with a firm ‘No thanks,’ (preferably in the local language) if you actually don’t need a ride. However, when you do negotiate a good fair, enjoy sitting back in style, while your personal driver takes you where you need to go. With the wind flying through your hair, you can be free to observe all that the country has to offer! Just be careful to keep your handbag out of sight in busy cities, as bag-snatching is common.
On some of the islands in Thailand, these quad bikes are the norm for getting from one place to the other. Some of the terrain can be very steep and rocky, so these vehicles are perfect! I wasn’t brave enough to ride one myself, but I jumped on the back of one to explore the island.
If you’re backpacking around South East Asia, you are bound to end up on a local bus at some stage. Whilst extremely cheap, you can find yourself spending hours on these journeys, even if you are only meant to be going a few towns away. And why? Well, the cabbages need to be unloaded at 2 am, vendors need to hop on and off to sell the tourists’ snacks and the bus will usually be going at turtle pace. And just as well too, as your knees will quite possibly be up around your head, your feet will be squashed in amongst roof tiles that are getting transported to one of the towns, and you may not even be lucky enough to get a seat. It was common to stand or sit in the aisles on local buses, especially in Laos. Another warning – time your toilet breaks well! Sometimes, you will be on the bus for more than four or five hours without a break.
This will certainly save you dollars for the night, but you can’t be guaranteed comfort! You jump on board, only to find that the last spare bed is next to a hairy man who is plucking his armpits (Syd’s experience, not mine!) or your bed is just far too short for your legs, so you find yourself cramped up in a tiny space for 14 hours! Still, the first sleeper bus I went on in Vietnam was very cosy. It had just started to rain, I had some choc-chip biscuits, a bottle of water and a good book to read. I enjoyed a more adventurous sleeper bus in Laos with Syd, during which loud local music blasted from the back speakers into our ears at around 11pm, just because the driver fancied a few tunes! I asked him to turn it down, though I only think the music got louder!
I hardly ever found myself in a car. However, in Bangkok, the taxis were great if you needed to get across town and were sick of the crowds. Make sure you insist on a metred taxi, rather than negotiating a fair. The metres are fair and usually cost half the price. If the driver says their metre is broken, don’t believe him. It’s usually a scam to try and get you to pay double the price.
The MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) in Bangkok was brilliant and cheap. I only discovered this train at the end of my trip, when I took it to the air port. It cost next to nothing compared to a taxi and it was fun being in amongst all the commuters and observing the business side of Bangkok. The train system is efficient, fast and on time. Aside from this, there are several rural trains and night trains that offer reasonable fairs to get across the country. Usually, however, the buses offer a cheaper fare.
This was a brilliant way to explore the countryside in smaller towns. I really enjoyed cycling around Hoi An in Vietnam. It was scary at first, as the traffic was on the other side of the road and there were a lot of people to look out for (as I was there over the Tet New Year) but, once you get out of the crowds, you can enjoy the rice paddies and all the little side streets you would not otherwise have explored. Plus, hiring a bicycle for a day cost around 50 cents – cheap as chips! Just be sure to check the brakes work before heading off.
Horse and Cart
This seems rather old-fashioned and I felt sorry for the poor horses dragging tourists around, but it is a novelty riding around in a buggy. Still, I do feel that this means of transport should be left in the past.
These larger vessels are ideal for shipping the huge volumes of backpackers that want to go and party on the islands. Although you feel a bit like a sheep, you’ll probably end up being shepherded onto one of these at some stage, particularly if you’re visiting Thailand. Someone will give you a coloured sticker with the name of the island you wish to visit. Then, a lot of yelling and confusion later, you will end up on the boat and hope that you are on the right one. It will be at least two hours late, if not more, but nobody will care, because that’s just the way it’s done here!
If you want to get around Bangkok, a water taxi is a great way to see life on the water, as well as get from A to B. I really enjoyed cruising through the floating markets on the Mekong River, watching the locals selling watermelons, bananas and sweet Vietnamese coffee. Everything happens around this river, particularly early in the morning, when the day is still cool. You can see people sweeping their houses, washing their clothes and hanging them out to dry, feeding the chickens and other interesting glimpses into their lives.
Sometimes, a local will haggle with you to take you for a ride in their canoe. I took a marvellous ride down the Mekong (I keep repeating this river but that’s because it is such a long one and appears in so many countries!) through the palms and to my next destination.
Of course, it is fun to hire your own canoe or kayak and go paddling over lakes or down rivers. On one trip, the rapids got so fast that our canoe capsized! Luckily, we had everything in dry-bags, so apart from getting soaked from head to foot, there was no damage done! This means of transport is also a great way to spot some of the local wildlife, like the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Four Thousand Islands. It was a long day but well worth it!
If you are anywhere near Halong Bay, you will no doubt hop on a sailing boat to take you out into the water, usually for an overnight stay. It is a beautiful way to see the area and there is often a top deck on which you can relax and watch the world go by. It’s good fun basing yourself on the water before doing some paddle-boarding, kayaking or swimming.
We travelled on a slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, Laos, stopping via Pak Beng overnight. It took two long days to get up the river and, whilst it may have been slightly shorter travelling by bus, going up the river meant you could avoid the winding roads, plus there was a toilet on board! Make sure you bring plenty to entertain yourself – cards, board games, ukulele, ipod, camera, notebook, pencils, lots of snacks! Anything to stop you going crazy! Let’s just say, one trip on the slow boat was enough!
Occasionally, a speed boat might take you down the river. We took one from the mainland to Don Det, in Southern Laos, amongst others. Just be careful to do your research. The speedboat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (an alternative to the slow boat) is notoriously dangerous. It has been said that many people have died taking this journey, and it was no surprise, as we saw it flying at high speeds past our slower means of transport.
You could definitely end up travelling on one of these beautiful Thai long-tailed boats. They are everywhere in Thailand, particularly around the islands.
Swan Pedal Boat
Alright, so I didn’t actually go on these, but they were so pretty I had to take a picture. Plus, I have tried them before in other countries. If you’re going to try a pedal boat though, Dalat is a picturesque place to do it. Situated on a lake in the middle of the mountains, you almost feel as though you are in Switzerland!
Another wonderful way to get around, especially with a beer or cocktail in hand! The best spot to do this is in Vang Vieng, Laos, where you can bar hop down the river and get picked up at the other end in a tuk tuk to take you home. We also enjoyed tubing through caves, as well as floating down the Mekong river from Don Det (in the Four Thousand Islands).
Well, alright, this was a brief occurrence whilst canyoning in Dalat, but I must say it was an experience! The idea of lying backwards and sliding down a gushing waterfall is terrifying, because it sounds dangerous…no, actually, it is dangerous! But, as it was part of the tour, I threw caution to the wind and gave it a go. Minus a slightly sore ankle from where it hit the rocks on the way down, it was highly exhilarating!
Abseiling is a must, whether it is part of the canyoning experience in Dalat, Vietnam or elsewhere. I hear there are some fantastic rock-climbing opportunities in the South of Thailand, though I was not able to fit that into my trip. Add a waterfall into the mix and you get a new and unique way of seeing the countryside. Not for the faint-hearted!
There is so much hiking to be done in South-East Asia and some places can only be reached by foot. This shot was taken when we were on a zip lining trip in Northern Laos. I also enjoyed some wonderful trekking through the mountains in Sapa, with the hill-tribe ladies, staying overnight with the locals. A lot of the walks require a high level of fitness, or at least prepare to be exhausted by the end. But there are some spectacular views to be seen. Don’t miss them!
The final and perhaps the most fun way to travel! When I was young, I thought it would be the most magical thing in the world to take a flying fox from my house in the country, all the way into town. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would get to ride on such a long zip line, but last year, it happened. The Gibbon Experience took us into the heart of the Bokeo Reserve. We trekked for hours and then, into our harnesses, we zip lined through the jungle at high speeds, over the treetops and into our treehouse for the night. It was like a dream come true! If ever you get the chance, it is something not to be missed.
As you can see, travelling around South-East Asia is a real adventure. Can you think of any I missed? Feel free to add in the comments below. Happy travelling!