Forget about airplanes! Flying is often more expensive, time consuming and essentially the dull alternative to getting around Southeast Asia. Stick to land transport – it’s a money and time saver, as well as an adventure at the very least!
Here are the Best Ways to get Around Southeast Asia without Flying:
I’m not referring to the massive vessels that are used for holiday cruises, but rather the
dinky little wooden boats with motors that work about 50% of the time. In Cambodia, I took a slow boat from Siem Reap to Battambang. It was a rickety old boat that required a push start into the river. For a large part of the ride, they had to kill the engine in order to manually steer (i.e. men grabbing the branches from the trees and pushing the boat in the opposite direction) to avoid floating into the dense vegetation of the river. Cruising, although more like floating, through the local villages and getting a close look at village life was a definite plus.
Boat rides are longer in duration, but they are certainly cheaper than flights, and provide a true dose of the local culture!
Buses are particularly popular, as they allow for flexible travel plans, cheap fares, and comfort. There are plenty of routes to travel by bus as an alternative to flying. I took a bit of an unusual route around Southeast Asia, and I still regret not taking a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. Instead, I flew to Thailand and did everything backwards, which not only ate up more money, but time as well. The fare from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was $13 for a 6.5 hour bus ride – such a great deal that I still can’t believe I passed on! This is just one example of the many efficient and inexpensive bus options throughout these countries.
When I think of Southeast Asia, I think of motorbikes and beeping horns – motorbikes stacked with passengers and random objects, while zipping around in every direction. Although it’s undoubtedly the slowest mode of transportation, the adventure factor quadruples when you take a motorbike. In central Vietnam, motorbikes can be rented for an 8-hour escorted ride (driven by a guide) from Hoi An to Nha Trang. Those who feel comfortable driving motorbikes would just rent their own and do the drive themselves, however I should mention that most of the people I met that drove their own motorbike inevitably got into an accident. Not to be discouraging, but the probability of foreigners (even those who drive motorbikes at home) getting into an accident is very high – most of the accidents are minor, but they are nevertheless accidents.
Train rides are another great alternative to flying, as they cover longer distances in a shorter amount of time than buses. The trains in Southeast Asia are of course not up to par with European bullet trains, but they are still very comfortable, cheap, and sure to leave you with a few tales to tell. I took a 12-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in a first class cabin equipped with a bed, fresh linens, and a sink, which I had all to myself, for $50.
My first choice for transport would be the buses, however I may be an unfair judge considering I was too paranoid to drive a motorbike…perhaps I need to go back and give it a try!