Taking It Slow: Public Transport in South East Asia

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I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been with such diversity of public transport options as South East Asia. If it’s got wheels, you’ll probably find someone offering to give you a ride in it.

Even better, it’ll cost comparatively little, especially if you’ve been working on your bargaining skills. It won’t always be comfortable, it’ll frequently be slow, and it would often have been ordered off the road years ago in other parts of the world. What it will always be, though, is an experience.

Some of my most vivid memories of Asia relate to the mode of transport I was using at the time. Here’s my guide to some of the best — or at least the most interesting — public transport options I’ve enjoyed and endured in that part of the world.

Scooter – Vietnam

Vietnam scooters

Commonly referred to as ‘motos’ by their riders, you won’t go two minutes in any large town or city without having a guy on a 100cc Honda pulling up alongside offering you a lift to somewhere. It doesn’t matter that you’ve got the world’s largest suitcase with you — where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The drivers tend to know the local area pretty well, so if you’re looking for something, they can probably help you find it. There’s often a commission involved though, especially with accommodation, so do keep that in mind. You’ll probably be a bit nervous the first time you jump on one — I know I was — but after a few days you’ll be making like a local, holding on with one hand and chatting away to the driver as you buzz through streets avoiding dogs and pedestrians with barely a sideways glance.

If you’re wearing your oversized backpack or balancing some other unfeasibly large item across your knees, all the better. So much fun.

Best for:  travelling short distances, finding your lost passport (ooops)

Not great for: going anywhere in the rain, more than one person (although try telling that to the locals)

Cost:  depends on distance, but nowhere should be much more than a dollar or two away.


Shared Taxi – Cambodia

Cambodian share taxi

While buses of varying degrees of quality ply the main tourist routes around Cambodia, getting to anywhere off the beaten track by public transport is a challenge. Enter the shared taxi. These aren’t taxis in the traditional sense, but rather someone with a car that drives a semi-regular route from one town to another. Whenever there’s enough people to fill the vehicle, it’s time to go.

If there’s more people that want to go than seats in the car, well, that’s fine too. Five people in the back seat, three in the front?  No problem. If you want at least a modicum of personal space, I’d suggest paying to get the front seat to yourself if you can.

Try to make sure the car is at least vaguely roadworthy before you agree to go, although other options to the place you’re after can be pretty limited, and with virtually all the vehicles being Toyota Camry’s with about a million miles on the clock, there may not be a great deal of difference anyway.

There are usually common areas (often around bus stations or markets) where shared taxis depart from, or you might be able to enlist the services of your guesthouse owner to arrange a pickup from a driver they recommend.

Best for:  getting to anywhere buses don’t go, or getting there more quickly

Not great for:  comfort levels, or a high degree of driving or vehicle safety

Cost:  I paid $10 for a 120km trip with the front seat to myself, while a shared / back seat was half that.


Slow boat – Laos

Slow boat Laos

One of the more well-known transport experiences on the backpacker circuit in northern Laos is the two day slow boat trip from Luang Prabang to the Thai border, or vice versa. Sure there’s buses that will do the trip in a bit less time, and ear-shattering speedboats that only take a few hours, but if you’re not in a hurry (and in Laos, you really shouldn’t be), the slow boat is the way to go.

The rainy season is the best time to take this trip — water levels are higher, passenger numbers are lower, and it’s unlikely to rain for more than a few hours each day at the most. The trip from Laos to Thailand is the preferable option rather than the other way, due to fewer travellers heading in that direction. All boats stop at Pakbeng which despite it’s dubious reputation, seemed a perfectly fine place to spend a night — there’s plenty of reasonable accommodation options, and decent food.

You’ll probably be on a different boat each day, but there wasn’t much difference between the two — both of the ones I was on had comfortable seats, with plenty of legroom to stretch out and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. It’s best to take your own food and water, although some of the boats do have a basic kitchen on board, and they’ll all sell you beer, potato chips and soft drinks at somewhat inflated prices.

Best for:  Kicking back and enjoying the view, having a few Beer Lao’s and chatting to locals and other travellers alike

Not great for:  Anyone in a hurry — the trip takes a minimum of 8 hours each day, sometimes much longer in dry season.  Safety becomes a concern if you end up still on the river after dark.

Cost:  I paid around $30 in total for the entire two day trip. There’s no need to buy a ticket through the travel agents in Luang Prabang, just head down to the river and buy it directly from the office there.


Overnight Train – Thailand

Thailand train

After a couple of months of uncomfortable and ironically-named ‘sleeper’ bus trips, it would be fair to say I was excited at the prospect of catching overnight trains in Thailand instead. There are three types of sleeper ticket, ranging from private two-bed compartments in first class, to both air-con and non air-conditioned options in communal second class carriages with fold-out beds.

I took both of the second class options at different times, and would recommend the air-conditioned version during the hotter months if you want to get a decent night’s sleep. The beds are surprisingly comfortable, the food options are palatable enough, and there’s even the option of washing dinner down with a cold beer – luxury!

Although more expensive and a little slower, the chance to sleep well and in some degree of comfort makes the train a much more enjoyable option than buses for overnight travel.

Best for:  an enjoyable and comfortable long distance journey

Not great for:  the super budget conscious

Cost:  I paid a little over $25 for the trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, booking via my guesthouse the day before. You can save a little by buying your ticket directly at the train station.


Tricycle – Philippines

Philippines tricycle

Ahh, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. Known by many different names throughout SE Asia, I could have chosen nearly any country in the region to highlight variations on a scooter-towing-something-with-seats, but the experience in the Philippines was one that I particularly enjoyed.

Called ‘tricycles’ locally, the design varies somewhat there from the versions found elsewhere, with a canopied side-car attached to a (usually underpowered) scooter. The strain put on the 50cc motor by the sidecar, driver, multiple passengers and their luggage is all too evident as the poor little motorbikes groan past at only slightly above walking pace.

Still, the slow pace gives a great opportunity to chat to the driver and other passengers, who often as not will be locals who happen to be going in the same direction. The canopy gives decent protection from both beating sun and torrential rain, and only the most churlish of backpackers would ever complain about the price,  usually the same for foreigner and Filipino alike.

Best for:  meeting the locals and covering shorter distances, especially in the rain

Not great for:  anybody in a hurry

Cost:  Price varies by distance, ranging from under a dollar for a short cross town trip to a couple of bucks for longer journeys.


Have you taken an interesting form of public transport somewhere in Asia?  Leave your story in the comments!

Images courtesy of jonwick04 (Vietnamese scooters), zhaffsky (Cambodian taxi), Thomas Bishop (Lao slow boat), elisfanclub (Thai train), Roberto Verzo (Philippines tricycle)

14 Responses to “Taking It Slow: Public Transport in South East Asia

  • All of these brought so many memories back. I made a mistake and thought a 25 hour train from Nha Trang to Hanoi was 12 hours so when they didn’t have a sleeper my boyfriend and I just bought seats. It wasn’t until the attendants came by and questioned why were in seats that I realized my mistake.

    That boyfriend is now an ex.

    • Wow … ouch! 25 hours on a seat is gonna test even the strongest of relationships I suspect… 😉

  • I must go to the Philippines to try a tricycle. Looks awesome.

    As for the xe-om or motomoto in Vietnam, you can amend by saying “every 20 seconds if you don’t want one, or every 10 minutes if you’re desperate to find one”

    On a side note after a couple of insane moto rides in Hanoi, I got comfortable enough to break out my camera, hoping to shoot the wild journey. The drivers always ended up driving lame as soon as I brought the camera out, and instead of weaving in and out of traffic, instead we would be getting passed instead. I ended up stopping the drivers several times in each instance, and through hand signals, tried to convey the sense of speed and recklessness that I was hoping to achieve and film. I failed.

    • Hahaha aint that the truth. Walking down the street to the beach – 100 motos will stop beside you in the space of one block. Stumbling home drunk in the rain at 3am, there won’t be one for miles!

      That’s a funny story about the sudden change of driving technique when the camera comes out. There’s a tip for us all – if your driver is scaring the pants off you in Vietnam, pull out your camera! 😉

  • Ah, yes, public transport in SE Asia. Never a dull moment!

  • Haha the Thai overnight train is expensive if you take 2nd class or better! I took a 3rd class seat from Ubon Rachatani to Bangkok…that was uncomfortable night! But it was onlt 205 Baht!

    There are all great memories, but the ubiquitous Songthaew found throughout Southeast Asia is sadly missing. I have fond memories of those, having spent many an hour in them!

    • Yeah – like I say, if you’re super budget conscious, take the bus or travel third class. Just don’t expect any sleep 😉

      The Songthaews are great – especially once you learn to never ask how much it’s going to cost. Just jump in and pay 20 or 30 baht at the end…

  • I have a question about the slow boat. I will be traveling from Chiang Mai to Laos. We planned to stay in laos for 5 days split up like this: 2 days traveling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, One day in Luang Prabang, and then 2 days in Vang Vieng.

    Is it worth taking the slow boat if we have this limited time? It sounds like an interesting experience and flights are a little expensive.

    • The slow boat is fantastic, but I think with those time limits you’re going to struggle to get everything done. To get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via the slow boat takes 3 days (1 day CM to Huay Xai on the Laos side of the border, one day Huay Xai to Pak Beng, one day Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.) The two days on the river are full days – you arrive at each destination in the evening. It’s also a half day minivan ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.

      Long story short – if you only have five days from starting in CM to finishing in Vang Vieng, you’ll spend almost all of it in transit if you take the slow boat. 🙁

      I’d suggest either (ideally) increasing the amount of time you have by several days, or cutting out either Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang. If you choose not to go to Luang Prabang, you have the option of a quite horrible overnight minivan ride from CM to Vientiane and then a few hours to Vang Vieng. Come to think of it you can actually buy a ticket that will take you all the way there from CM via Vientiane – I remember seeing them in the tourism agencies – but be prepared for the least enjoyable ~20 hours of your life in the process. 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  • Trains in Thailand. “an enjoyable and comfortable long distance journey”

    You obviously weren’t on the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok that I took back in February.

    Oh, wait…

  • Hey Dave!
    Great article, I’m going to south east Asia next year with a mate of mine, I was thinking of getting a package deal with a hop on hop off bus thing, but it costs a bomb (£1500) for 4-5 months of travel, should I buy it or just get local buses when I’m there? Cheers

    • That’s a huge amount of money to spend on ground transport in SEA for 4-5 months. I’d absolutely recommend just buying what you need as you go. Buses are cheap! 🙂

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