South east Asia is one of the most popular backpacker destinations in the world, but with so many travellers island hopping and crossing borders regularly the question of how to get around south east Asia whilst sticking to a budget always comes up. Flying? Over land? Over sea? The good news is getting around south east Asia on a budget is actually really easy and this expert guide will tell you how.
It is easy to forget that once you have been to south east Asia and gotten used to how easy it is to get around that this is one issue that many first time backpackers genuinely worry about.
How exactly do they get to that tropical island? Are there regular buses to and from a small town or will they be stranded? What’s the best way to get from A to B and back again?
Well don’t worry, really. It is so easy to get around the absolute majority of south east Asia, and with so many options for using public transport or getting a cheap budget internal flight or two, it can be really budget friendly too.
The biggest hurdle you will face when getting around south east Asia is your own self confidence in being able to figure out the timetables and jump on that bus or train, but remember that backpackers have been tramping a well worn trail through south east Asia for decades now, and there is an extensive infrastructure not just for locals, but for travellers too.
This guide is not a specific how to on how to get from A to B, you can easily find specific information for that, rather I wanted to ease your mind and give you a general idea of how you will be getting around large areas and across borders as you travel through the region, as well as give you an idea of the more local transport options.
So let’s look at the best options for getting around south east Asia on a budget.
Getting around south east Asia by flying.
As in most cases flying is always the quickest and easiest option and is definitely more convenient in many ways. The downside to this method is that you miss out on the adventure of overland travel and it is often the most expensive option too, but a lot of the time not by much.
Southeast Asia has a few solid budget airlines that have routes that cross over most of the region quite comprehensively. Air Asia and Scoot are two of the biggest but there are also Jetstar Asia and more regional airlines like Cebu Pacific, Lion Air, Nok Air and others, and then there are also the major regional airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways.
Basically you have a lot of choices to shop around with.
The budget airlines have really great sales all the time and you can get a good idea of all of the fares with aggregate sites such as Skyscanner, Kayak and Momondo, but it is a really good idea to also check out the airlines own websites too, they often have flash sales, especially Air Asia.
Generally the prices are pretty reasonable but you also occasionally get some amazing deals that bring the price down to the same as if not cheaper than overland travel, especially if you use the major hubs like Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
Flying isn’t the best option all of the time but if you shop around, adding a few flights to your itinerary won’t break the budget in south east Asia and is a great way to get around.
Getting around south east Asia by train.
If you are visiting the main travel hubs between Thailand and Singapore or vice versa, then the train is a fantastic option to travel across the border and stop off at certain destinations along the main line.
There are smaller lines throughout Thailand and the main coastal route in Vietnam, Java in Indonesia and around Manila in the Philippines, as well as a few more sporadic areas and they are great for those specific places, but with the exception of the main Thailand to Singapore route they are far from comprehensive. Where they exist however they are very easy and convenient.
The train from Singapore to Bangkok, taking in Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and Penang as well as south Thailand on the way is one of the classic train routes in the world and takes an epic 48 hours if you do it all in one go. That is over 1,230 miles for around £50 gbp! That is serious value. Obviously a sleeper cabin costs more than just the seat, but is well worth it.
There is also the famous Death Railway between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi, taking in the Bridge Over The River Kwai as well, and is an absolute classic journey.
Relaxing on the train going past palm plantations and colonial hill stations is an experience in and of itself, and you can hop on and off if you want to break up the journey, making it a great option for exploring Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore when you combine it with other transport options to travel further afield and explore places like Mallacca or some of the Thai Islands.
The train is perfect for getting between the main travel hubs of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, it is cheaper than flying but more expensive than the bus and you get a lot of space and comfort for the price, but with a few exceptions trains aren’t much use outside of those major hubs.
Getting around south east Asia by long distance tourist bus.
Tourist buses are perhaps the most popular way most backpackers get around most of southeast Asia most of the time. These buses are bigger and better than local buses, are for the most part mostly reserved for travellers and are the backbone of the well oiled backpacker infrastructure throughout south east Asia.
They are the cheapest option, only a little more expensive than the local public buses, are – for the most part at least – relatively comfortable for short to medium journeys and are extremely prolific.
The downside to tourist buses is that they are also one of the slowest options, which isn’t always a bad thing to be fair, and for those long overnight buses they aren’t always the most comfortable option either. Just imagine 12 plus hours cramped on a slowly meandering bus. Everyone always says they will have a good nights sleep, save money on accommodation and arrive in their new destination when they take an overnight bus but freezing air con, blaring music from the on board TV, random rest stops for the driver and all manner of people chatting away all night, that never happens!
But saying that they will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go, and with the most expensive tickets running between £10 – £15 GBP from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and about £8 – £12 GBP for Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on average you really can’t go wrong.
The best part about them is they are so easy to use as well. You can usually – for a small commission of course – book tickets from any guesthouse, hostel or tour agency, and even combine them with other train or ferry tickets if you need them. This is really useful if you have a solid flashpacker budget and just want the ease of getting to say, one of the Thai islands from Bangkok, without getting each separate ticket as you need it.
Alternatively the easiest way to get tickets is to just turn up to any bus station and buy your ticket there and then on the day. You can absolutely book tickets a day or two in advance if you want the peace of mind but it really isn’t necessary to do so.
Long distance tourist buses are not always the most comfortable way to travel and you will definitely experience a snag or two, but it is a quintessential part of the backpacking adventure and is absolutely the most convenient way to get around. If you are travelling around south east Asia at all then you will be on one of these buses at some point.
Getting around south east Asia by boat and ferry.
This isn’t a transport option that you will be using all of the time but since most backpackers at some point will be island hopping around a tropical island or three, especially around south Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines, then they will obviously have to use boats and ferries at some point.
Ferries are basic and don’t really have any fancy luxuries, but what do you want for getting from the mainland to the islands? There are fast boat options for most islands but are generally quite expensive, the average price for the average ferry or slow boat is far more reasonable at £15 – £20 for the ferry from Bali to the Gili Islands and Koh Tao to Koh Samui is around £10 to £15.
It is really easy to get tickets, if you don’t book with an agency or your hostel or accommodation, who can get you the ferry tickets alongside your bus tickets, you can very easily walk up to the ticket office on the day and get tickets for the next ferry. The only exception is during peak seasons or festivals, or popular routes like getting to Kho Phangan for the full moon party, where it may be a good idea to book a day or two in advance just in case.
As well as ferry services between the islands there are also a very wide range of water transport options on the rivers too, from narowboats and longtail boats in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to local fishing boats and even small cruise ships. All can be hired as water taxis for very little or hired for short or few day snorkelling or diving trips, or can even take you onto a tour to places that can only be reached by boat. Given that south east Asia is essentially an archipelago it is hardly surprising that boats are one of the most popular transport options.
Boats and ferries are the only way to reach most of the islands around south east Asia and are an essential part of any backpackers island hopping adventure. They are not always the most reliable and the schedules can be weather dependent but you will be using them at some point.
Using local transport in south east Asia.
Getting around south east Asia is really easy when you are hopping across borders or moving from city to town, but the majority of the time you will also need to get around whatever city or town you are in as well. The good news is the majority of the time it is just as cheap and easy as the major transport options!
City Metro services.
If you are travelling in the major city hubs then you are in luck, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have amazing metro services that cover each city pretty extensively. If you are spending any amount of time in each city then they are quite simply the best, most convenient and cheapest ways to get around.
Bangkok has a great public transport combination of the BTS Skytrain and the interconnected MRT service, and between them cover the entire city and some outlying areas. The MRT trains are very regular, around 5 – 10 minutes per train with fares at a very reasonable 40 British pence for one station and then going up dependent on however many stations you use. The stations stretch from Hua Lamphong and Chinatown in the South and Bang Sue in the North. The MRT connects to the Skytrain at Sukhumvit and Silom, which is only slightly more expensive than the MRT, and then you can head north or south on the Silom line or west to east on the Sukhumvit line.
Kuala Lumpur has an extensive spiders web of Mass Rapid Transit lines running across the entire city and beyond, as far as the Batu Caves and Gombak in the north to Sri Petaling and beyond in the South, and then connects to further bus and train stations too. It is being extended and improved constantly and seems to grow every time I have visited. It is a little confusing as there are four operators running four seperate lines and in can be a bit of a spiders web trying to figure out which ones to switch at, but it is very useful with a bit of map work. Prices are extremely reasonable, and the pre paid Touch N Go card makes paying very convenient.
Singapore has one of the best, if not the best Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) systems in the world! It covers the absolute majority of the country already and is adding new stations all the time. There is literally nowhere you can’t get to in Singapore from the constantly expanding MRT and it is cheap and convenient. The trains arrive literally to the second of their very frequent schedule (I have never had to wait more than 5 minutes for one at absolute most) and the trains themselves, as you would expect in Singapore, are fast, clean and comfortable. All you need to do is simply find a convenient MRT station, tap your prepaid EZ link card or app and take whichever train line is going to your destination.
Jakarta in Indonesia has a new MRT system that is still relatively rudimentary but does cover some central locations, with further lines planned in phases over the next decade.
Manila in the Philippines has 13 MRT and LRT stations that connect to the train station and is relatively useful for travellers as long as it is combined with other public transport.
Hanoi in Vietnam also has a very new and recently opened MRT system with limited lines and plans to expand. It isn’t of much use at the moment but will become more so as it grows
Getting around with local buses.
Local buses are cheaper than tourist buses, have just as extensive a network and can easily get you anywhere you need to go and are great for sticking to a budget as they are generally so cheap (fares are in general less than £1 gbp), it just takes a little more work with the timetables and language barriers if you go and get them yourself. This isn’t too hard with a bit of practice though and are a great option for getting around short distances locally if you are travelling slowly and staying in one place for a while.
Getting around with taxis.
Taxi’s are one of the more expensive options and are not a great idea for budget travellers to use all of the time. They are also the source of one of the biggest problems backpackers face in south east Asia with taxi scams, not using the meter and overcharging being extremely common in most places, Singapore being the exception to the rule. They can be useful in limited circumstances though, such as getting to your accommodation on your first night or getting home if it is late, just make sure to use official cars, taxi stands, especially pre paid ones where they are available, and make sure they use the meter.
Getting around with Grab.
Grab is south east Asia’s version of Uber, and it is pretty extensive, available in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It can be as expensive as a taxi sometimes but in general it is a little cheaper, especially when you don’t have to contend with overcharging, and it is a better alternative to the taxi’s. Frankly if Grab put the taxi drivers out of business they would have only brought it on themselves.
Getting around with tuk tuks and autorickshaw.
Every part of south east Asia has a version of an autorickshaw or tuk tuk, and they are a quintessential part of getting around in the region. There are a dozen different variations on these small local vehicles dependent on where you are, and there are also pick up trucks with seats in the back that are used as buses, small cyclos and pedicabs and a ton of other types. Basically if it has wheels and moves, someone will charge someone else for a ride on it.
They are really convenient for hopping around short distances and if you are heading to the region for the first time then taking one is something you should do at least once just for the experience.
In some places however, especially in Thailand, they have become really expensive and nothing more than a tourist trap as the drivers target fresh off the boat tourists and charge well over the odds. In many cases it is just as cheap and more comfortable to get a taxi, or even better to get a Grab vehicle. If your haggling skills are really good you may just be able to get a reasonably priced ride from time to time.
Getting around with mopeds and motorbikes.
It is a backpacker tradition almost to rent a scooter or motorbike when travelling around south east Asia, especially in the south Thai islands or places like Bali. It is ridiculously easy to rent one and it does make getting around very handy, especially in more rural areas.
It should go without saying that if you do this then make sure you are fully aware of the laws and rules of the road in the specific place you are in, because they do change from place to place, make sure that you are fully insured, wear the right safety equipment and finally check the place you are renting from has full liability and provides the right safety equipment.
- A mixture of the occasional cheap budget airline and train or long distance buses for those major journeys, and local buses, MRTs and the occassional taxi or ferry should get you wherever you need to go and not break the bank.
- There is no need to book in advance.
- It is very easy to cross borders overland, just make sure you do your research first and make sure you have your visa needs sorted.
- Were prices aren’t fixed, you will need to haggle. Hard.
Remember it is the simplest thing in the world to book and arrange transport through south east Asia as you need it and there is very rarely a need to book anything in advance. You really can just turn up and find some way to get to where you are going. There are a range of touristy options but also reliable and cheap local transport too.
Getting around south east Asia using local transport isn’t always easy, it is sometimes challenging and quite often confusing, but it is also an adventure in and of itself! Getting a tuk tuk for the first time or taking an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai are backpacker rites of passage and using local transport will give you a taste of local culture like nothing else.
Put very simply, getting around south east Asia on a budget is really easy. Budget airlines make it simple and convenient to hop between countries, long distance buses and trains give a great overland alternative, and local buses and tuk tuks pick up the slack to make sure you can get everywhere else.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.