This website uses affiliate links which may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Updated: 29th September 2015
When you find yourself squished into a single 5ft by 3ft bed, with a complete stranger, for the second time in a week, wide damn awake on another night bus… You know you have found the way to travel Asia on the cheap!
If you are like me and the journey is as important as the destination then some of these will/have formed an integral part of your trip through this amazing continent. If you are more about the destination than the journey, you might want the heads up on what to avoid at all costs! (But, where’s the fun in that, even when there’s a chicken sat on your lap and everyone’s taking your photo, travels still fun right?)
A: Air Asia
Love it or hate it you will probably find yourself on one of their flights at some point. The biggest budget airline in the continent. If you are in the USA imagine Spirit, or Europe lets say Ryanair. Its cheap and cheerful and as long as you watch out for the added fee’s you’ll be just fine. You could even just head off with hand luggage (trust me, its possible – I’ve been rotating four outfits for my whole trip). Rumour has it they are just about to start an all in number of flights option for travelling the continent, keep your eyes out for it.
Bemo’s can be found all over Indonesia and similar across SEAsia. If luxury is your thing, Bemo’s therefore are not! For under a $1 I have got well and truly off the beaten track in Java on these babies. I’ve taught school kids English, shared fruit with old ladies, hung out with chickens (dead and alive) as well as managing to make myself smaller than I knew possible to squeeze in. The chances of seeing another touristy are slim, the journey will be long and bumpy, but like I said, I’m all about those Journey’s!
My favourite way to explore (bar by foot). I’ve picked up bikes for under a $1 in some cities. From cycling to find a silent beach in Gili T to enjoying a blissful morning of cycling away from everyone else in Inle Lake, get your self two wheels and skip the hotel gym.
So, I guess the point here is you actually end up back at A again (we hope). I’ve added Scuba Diving in as taking a PADI course is becoming one of the ‘must do’ things on a backpackers list. Be safe, I have seen first hand too many dodgy shops, bad equipment and poor instructors. Some of the currents around Asia are crazy (Komodo in Indonesia for example). Good dive schools won’t let you go there until you are safe but a little research can go a long. Remember, if an instructor won’t sign you off at the end of your course, it’s probably because they are a good instructor and you just aren’t ready to be a ‘qualified diver’ yet.
At the risk of sounding judgemental, don’t. On my first Asia trip years ago I did this in Thailand, but within seconds of getting on that poor animal, I knew something wasn’t right. Visit sanctuaries, wash them, feed them and love them from afar in the wild. They are not, I repeat not just there for a selfie.
The sad fact is supply and demand means more of these beautiful creatures are being trapped into animal tourism. I get it’s a two-sided argument and can detract from certain tribes income, but perhaps if we pay to visit and admire rather than ride then eventually the methods of how they are kept/trained will change. Make your own call, but a heartbreaking photo story here will give you more details.
F: FireFly Air
FireFly airlines are, apparently, ‘the worlds cheapest full-service airline’ (which I find pretty impressive, hence they make the list). They are bright yellow, cheesy and fly turbo-props but if you are island hopping around Malaysia and Thailand this is a good place to hunt some bargain flights.
G: Grabbing On
In any shape, form or way. Get used to this. There’s no space left in that converted vehicle? Not a problem, you are going on the roof or at best clinging on to the side for dear life. Just think of it as a movie scene, the free wind in your air, the dust in your lungs. You get the picture, its great!
H: Hot Air Balloon
As a man with an insane fear of heights, I took the challenge on in Bagan, Myanmar to tick off a bucket list. It’s a splurge and many pot noodles counteracted the cost but it was an epic splurge I will never forget! Chiang Mai is another popular version or head to the Philippines in February for their International Hot Air Balloon Festival.
At the risk of sounding like your folks. Get it. Which of course, most people have done. But then check it!
Does it cover you for diving (a visit to a decompression chamber, potentially in another country is not cheap). How about driving abroad (In some countries, without an international license you’re not getting a dime from them). I have a friend, who after dropping 5k on a hospital bill because they got pulled off their bike ended up flying home broke and putting an end to their trip. Spend a few minutes reading and a few more bucks and you can be safe in the knowledge your parents will stop nagging!
J: Junk boat
If you are heading to Halong Bay (Vietnam) you are going to come face to face with these bad boys. I wasn’t really sure why they were called ‘Junk’ because to me, they looked pretty awesome. It basically comes from an Old Chinese name for them, but hey. They do the job.
Love! Nothing beats getting as close to the water as possible and exploring. Top places are, above, Halong Bay, Around Koh Phi Phi (Thailand) and in Borneo. But if you are like me, you will happily jump on one wherever it may be.
L: Longtail Boat
These awesome boats, which are, long(!) are native to South East Asia so a must do on your trip. If the tides low, it may be a no go but getting one of these along the Mekong is a relaxing and beautiful way to spend a day (spoiler alert, you’re not getting anywhere in a hurry).
Whether you drive, don’t drive, have a license or don’t you may well find yourself hiring a Moped at some point. I’m NOT going to say this is the part of the world to learn to drive one having seen a lot of accidents and sadly one death on my trip. See: Insurance above, check out the laws for where you are driving and make sure you know what you are doing. Some places say you don’t need a license, others you will get off with a ‘fine’ for not having the right one. Whatever you decide to do, be safe and use your brain! (Get an international license before you come and in some countries, you can even retest for one when you get there if you plan on sticking around for a while).
Warning: Too many of my friends have had their bag pulled off them whilst driving. The result? They go down with the bike. Be safe, keep it in the seat or don’t wear it over the shoulder. It’s becoming a big problem.
N: Night Train
I’ve completely skipped trains on my travels through SEAsia. Thailand’s are pretty good, but the general issue is many are slower and more expensive than busses. The Jungle railway through Malaysia is something I wish I had done as was the circular railway around Yangon. Night trains however sure beat ‘sleeper’ buses for comfort as far as I am guessing. There’s usually lots of different classes and the choice of beds, hard seats, soft seats and private cabins. Seat61 is a great resource to research your train travels.
O: On foot
Walking, trekking, climbing. Get out there on foot and explore. With Moped’s being the go to transport across this continent so much gets missed when you are not doing it on your own. It’s better for the environment, easier to take pictures and a lot easier to get lost. My favourite walks are usually those involving a mountain or volcano for sunrise, which luckily, you are going to be spoilt for choice with here.
Pelini is an Indonesian shipping company where you can find dirt cheap trips to remote parts of the country that I have generally heard great things about. The fact some routes are once a month put a bit of a stick in my plans to use them, though.
I’m going to go a bit broader here and talk about Boats in general. I love you SEAsia, but your boats have a pretty shitty safety record. Fast boats especially have taken more than a couple of lives in the past few years and life jackets etc are sometimes lacking. Ask lots of questions, check their track record and be sure they are safe. Only a few weeks ago I saw one catch fire doing the popular Bali – Lombok route. I love being on the water, but sometimes not in it. Homework kids, its essential!
Q: Quad Bike
These four-wheel beasts are where it’s at. Especially in Cambodia. I’ve got to admit, thanks to falling in love with Laos this trip has been pushed back to 2015 BUT its on my list. If you like picking up speed its worthwhile enquiring before, as some groups tend to go more at a ‘comfortable’ pace. Southern Thailand is another great spot for taking one for a spin.
The famous Tuk Tuk. From a one man show peddling you along casually seeing the sights to a motorised version that can squeeze a few more in you can’t escape these. From Khaosan Road to the famous colourful, music and glitzy ones of Malacca in Malaysia (pictured) at some point, you will find your bum bouncing around on one of these.
S: Sleeper Bus
Like the VIP busses, Sleeper may be an over exaggeration. Sometimes, they are the same thing (see below). Other times you get a nice bed. In Laos, I had to share a bed with a complete stranger. Which doesn’t sound that bad unless you are 6 feet tall, don’t actually fit and the air con unit drips water on your like Chinese torture all night. But, they get you from A to B and all the air con in the world usually, comes with it!
Ah, Laos. I’m sat here drinking a beer right now not feeling too bad I skipped this ‘OMG its amazing’ moment in Vang Vieng to soak up the South. Now its such a feature on the ‘Banana pancake trail’ though I couldn’t miss it out. You basically sit in a tyre like an object (yeah, think water park slides) and bob down a river, maybe with currents, maybe with beer, maybe stopping at a bar. I feel a bit sad I skipped it typing that.
U: Ultralight Aircraft
If you are obsessed with aerial photography (yeah, that’s me) then this is an expensive must do. I’m holding out till I hit up the Philippines but not only can you passenger in these two-seat planes you can also learn to fly them. Sometimes there is one seat and they came in different shapes and sizes (the price, not so much) but if you are intrigued check out some models on Wiki.
V: VIP Bus
V.I.P. – I think it has a different meaning. From luxury reclining individual seats with snacks and attendants to rattling windows and freezing air con. It might be more ‘VIP’ than the local bus but seriously, don’t go getting your hopes up!
So, it’s not really a transport option. But it is usually the only option involved with getting transport. From boats to planes a good book becomes your best friend. Over schedule for a journey and if you make it on time it’s a pleasant surprise. If you are expecting ‘updates’ on the situation, don’t, you will just end up getting more annoyed.
As they are called in Vietnam, or just a cart bike will do. Get on the back with the driver, usually cheaper and faster than a taxi. It’s the thing to do in these parts don’t you know. Just don’t get ripped off!
If you got the cash, then get onboard a live aboard (I sure wish I did). The mother of boats are without a doubt somewhere on my ‘when I get rich’ to do list. My best recommendation of where to take one would be Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Yeah, Z wasn’t an easy one. But, this sure will do! If you want to get invoked then the ‘longest zipline in South east Asia‘ is in Pattaya, Thailand and looks pretty damn awesome.
Got an interesting ‘journey’ story, a warning or any completely wacky transport missed here, whack it in the comments below?