Travel like a local

Transport Tips for getting around Southeast Asia

Flying / hand luggage

It's amazing how cheap it can be to fly around Asia, thanks to the budget airlines (most AirAsia). I've found that it's best to use the AirAsia website directly (to get the promo prices) and if you book in advanced with some flexibility on dates, you can get some incredible deals. I once flew (the admittedly-short distance) from Kuala Lumpur to Penang and back for £2 each way! They often have sales too, so keep an eye out for them.

If you're planning on fitting in a lot of Southeast Asia in the space of 1 or 2 months and want to book all flights in advanced, then it's worth looking in to the AirAsia Asean Pass which comes in 30 and 60 day versions. You pay a fixed price and you get a number of credits. Then you can book all the flights (at least 14 days in advance) and you only pay for the airport taxes. It's a bit complicated but it can save you a lot of money! The best thing about the system is that the number of credits seems to be fixed for each route regardless of how popular that particular flight is. So if you're booking everything really early and you're flexible with dates, then you'll probably be able to get the 'promo' price (directly on the AirAsia site) and the Asean Pass will be less beneficial. It's important to know (as it's not clear on the site) that when you add the first flight to the pass, that becomes the (unchangeable) starting date of your 30/60 days, so make sure you start with the right one! Another important tip is to buy the Asean Pass in MYR (Malaysian Ringgit) as it worked out to be significantly cheaper (around 30-40%, I think) than a lot of the other currencies options.

If you have no set plan, I find it's useful to use Skyscanner to search from your current location to "Everywhere" and set a whole month. You can find some very cheap deals and maybe you'll end up somewhere amazing that you'd never planned on going!

I've now flown on about 30 flights around Southeast Asia with only hand luggage despite my bags clearly being over the weight limit. Most airlines allow you two pieces: a bag within the size and weight limits and a handbag or laptop bag. I get away it by doing a few things:

  • If your airline offers online check-in and allows you to print your own boarding pass (such as AirAsia) then this is perfect as you don't have to go up to the desk so the first time you meet staff from the airline is when you're boarding and they're very unlikely to ask to weigh your bags.
  • When travelling with a friend, I get them to wait with my large bag with I go to the check-in desk. Easy!
  • If neither of the above methods are possible then I keep my large bag by my feet during check-in and hope they don't notice.
  • If all else fails I just ask very nicely. This usually works but once I had to beg.

It's a good idea to take an empty water bottle with you to top up from one of the drinking water fountains found in most airports, otherwise you'll be without or forced to pay the high prices. In most airports, the food options are terrible and hugely overpriced. Way worse than what you might be used to. You end up being forced to eat something barely edible and pay maybe five times the price for the privilege. So I highly recommend eating before you go to the airport or at least buying snacks to take with you.

I recommend having the following items close to hand on the flight (or in a separate bag with you at your seat):

  • Water bottle (see above).
  • Snacks. The budget airlines will overcharge you.
  • A pen (for filling in arrival card).
  • Your passport (unless you've memorised the details for the arrival card).
  • Headphones.
  • Your phone pre-loaded with music/films if your flight doesn't have a free entertainment system.
  • USB cable for charging your phone as many planes will have a charging port.
  • Eye mask, ear plugs & neck pillow (if you have them). Get some rest if you can, although the budget airlines are usually too uncomfortable for me to rest well.
  • Something warm. Although you might be hot and sweaty when you get on the flight, the A/C will soon kick in and you might get a little chilly in shorts and flip-flops!

withina_station Boarding crossings

Many backpackers opt to use long-distance buses to travel between countries, sometimes even when there are much better alternatives (many hostels make money from selling bus tickets so will not mention the other options). It's possible to have a comfortable bus and smooth boarding crossing but that is definitely rare. You will most likely experience delays at every leg of the journey (sometimes resulting in missing the next bus or an unexpected overnight stay at a boarder town) and officials at the boarder who will only let you through with a bribe. If it's a sleeper bus then you might be forced to share a small bed with a stranger. Not to mention the crazy driving and dangerous roads. My advice would be to avoid boarder crossings unless you enjoy the high risk of having a bad experience.

Scooters / Motorbikes

Riding scooters around Asia is one of my favourite things to do. It gives you freedom to explore at your own pace. If you're sensible and choose the right areas to ride, it's probably the single biggest thing that you can do to improve your time exploring.

The basics

Here are some tips to hopefully avoid falling off (which definitely can happen to beginners):

  • Test out the bike before you rent it. Check the brakes and check the acceleration (some of the hills are steep and you need some power to get up). Try to get some that looks new.
  • Get a good helmet. If possible, find one that covers your whole head like a real motorbike.
  • If you're used to bicycles, your natural instinct when braking is probably to grip both hands tightly over the brakes. The scooters use the right handle to accelerate, so gripping it with the brake will keep the bike moving. I've seen lots of people make this mistake and it can lead to minor crashes. Keep your left hand over the brake at all times and get used to releasing your right hand from the accelerator at the same time as braking with the left.
  • Go slowly around corners.
  • Watch out for holes in the road.
  • Don't be put off by vehicles beeping as they overtake you. You're not doing anything wrong, they're just letting you know they're there.
  • Always wear a helmet. It's the law and I'll think you're an idiot if you don't.
  • If you're scared of biking, just go slowly and then it's as safe as riding a bicycle.
  • When locking your bike, turn the handlebar to the left and turn the key all the way anti-clockwise to lock the steering.
  • Leaving your helmet is pretty safe but if you worry, just store it under the seat (if it doesn't fit, lift up the seat and trap the helmet strap underneath - there are usually hooks made precisely for that).
  • If you're riding at night, it can be really helpful to have some clear glasses to protect your eyes against bugs, dust and anything else.
  • If the rental company offers a really cheap insurance option to cover any damage to the bike, then consider doing it if you're still learning.

If the bike doesn't start:

  • Make sure the bike stand is up.
  • Hold the brake as you press the ignition.
  • If it seems like there's a battery issue and the ignition isn't working properly then you'll probably need to kick-start the bike:
    • Put the bike on the central stand. This takes a bit of effort by holding the handlebars, pushing the central stand down with your foot and pulling the bike up and back in one big movement.
    • Now hopefully you can push the kick-start lever with your foot and start the engine.

Other tips:

  • Usually you can lift the seat by turning the key to one position before the ignition and then press the seat button. Other scooters will have a place for the key at the back of the bike, just under the seat.
  • Most scooters have a way of putting a metal cover over the key hole. You can open or close the cover by using the plastic part of the key in the hexagonal lock. Because it's not unique, I don't see the point of this but it's worth knowing just in case the cover is loose and closes by itself.

The law

Each country has different rules and laws but in most places police won't stop you. In Vietnam you're much more likely to be stopped if you're a local. Most police I see either ignore me or just wave. However, it is possible that some police will be looking for some easy pocket money by stopping you for any number of reasons. I've only been stopped once and that was in Bali and they tried to fine me quite a lot - I ended up giving them a couple of dollars as all of my big notes were hidden. Remember that you can barter with the police as the fines go straight in their pockets so there's no paperwork. I have a UK driving license but not an international one, so don't worry about that. I've heard that if you tell the police that you're living in the area and teaching, they're more likely to let you go without a fine.

Road trips

One of my favourite things to do in Southeast Asia is to escape the tourist areas and go on a road trip to explore, either on a planned route or just to see where you end up, staying at guesthouses along the way. It's one of the most rewarding special ways to meet locals, experience the culture and see beautiful scenery. I often leave my main bag at a hotel and just take a small bag. It's amazing how easy it is to manage with very minimal belongings for a few days or even a couple of weeks on the road.

Other transport

  • Uber & Grab: I used Uber regularly in Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Bangkok, Penang and Bali. If you're in a city or popular place, I recommend checking if Uber or Grab are available - it's safer and you won't be ripped off. Even better if they have a motorbike version of their service - it can be so cheap! It's common for their to be promotions to make it even cheaper (or free!) so check online or ask a drive for the latest promo code. It will give you peace of mind - if your driver takes a long route (like normal taxis sometimes do to run the meter for longer) you can easily get the difference refunded through Uber and from what I can tell, Grab is a fixed price shown before you request the taxi anyway, so it's in the driver's interest to go the quickest route. Tip: Before you order an Uber/Grab, use Google Maps to check the route; it's often the case that walking a few minutes will cut the road distance significantly due to traffic and one-way systems.
  • Trains: Usually my preferred method of travelling long distances inside a country. I've regularly used night trains. It's usually relaxing, safe, full of nice locals and you can take in some of the scenery too. I especially like the trains in Thailand and Vietnam.
  • Buses: I've had lots of bad experiences with buses, especially overnight ones. Sometimes it's the only option but try to avoid it. The driving is usually erratic and it's uncomfortable. If it's your only reasonable option then research the bus companies first as some have really bad records.
  • Metro/Skytrain: A lot of cities including KL, Singapore and Bangkok have fantastic intercity trains that are faster than using the roads and extremely cheap. Make use of them!
  • Tuk tuks: Beware of these. They're now basically an expensive tourist attraction. Of course if it's your first time in Thailand, you'll want to give it a go, but be aware that you'll be overcharged and even taxis are cheaper. Outside of Thailand there are similar motorbike-powered vehicles which are used by locals, so those can be fine.
Last Updated: 24th July, 2017