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The A to Z of 26 Affordable Ways to Travel Asia

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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 awake on another night bus… You know you have accepted the best ways to travel to Asia on the cheap!

Flying in SE Asia

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!

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, let’s say Ryanair. It’s cheap and cheerful, and as long as you watch out for the added fee, you’ll be just fine. You could even just head off with hand luggage (trust me, it’s 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.

B: Bemo

Bemo’s can be found all over Indonesia and similarly across Southeast Asia. If luxury is your thing, Bemo’s, therefore, are not! For under $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), and managed to make myself smaller than I knew possible to squeeze in. The chances of seeing another tourist are slim; the journey will be long and bumpy, but like I said, I’m all about those journeys!

C: Cycling

My favourite way to explore (bar by foot). I’ve picked up bikes for under $1 in some cities. From cycling to finding a silent beach in Gili T to enjoying a blissful morning of cycling away from everyone else in Inle Lake, get yourself two wheels and skip the hotel gym.

D: Diving

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 backpacker’s 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.

Ballon in Bagan

E: Elephant

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, just there for a selfie.

The sad fact is supply and demand means more of these beautiful creatures are being trapped in 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.

F: FireFly Air

FireFly Airlines is, apparently, ‘the world’s cheapest full-service airline’ (which I find pretty impressive; hence, they make the list). They are bright yellow and 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, it’s great!

H: Hot Air Balloon

As a man with an insane fear of heights, I took the challenge 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.

I: Insurance

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, 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.

Kayak Ha Long Bay

K: Kayak

Love! Nothing beats getting as close to the water as possible and exploring. The 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 Southeast Asia, so they are a must-do on your trip. If the tides are 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).

M: Moped

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 part of the world to learn to drive. I have 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 say 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).

Traffic in SE Asia

N: Night Train

I’ve completely skipped trains (mainly using buses) on my travels through Asia. 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 are 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 mopeds 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.

P: Pelini

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, is 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 it’s on my list. If you like picking up speed, it’s worthwhile to inquire beforehand, as some groups tend to go more at a ‘comfortable’ pace. Southern Thailand is another great spot for taking one for a spin.

R: Rickshaw

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 you 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!

Raja Ampat Diving

T: Tubing

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 it’s 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 come 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 conditioning. It might be more ‘VIP’ than the local bus, but seriously, don’t go getting your hopes up!

W: Waiting

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.

X: XeOm

As they are called in Vietnam, or just a cart bike will do. Get in 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!

Y: Yacht

If you have the cash, then get onboard a liveaboard yacht (I sure wish I did). The mother of boats is, 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.

Z: Zipline

Yeah, Z wasn’t an easy one. But this sure will do! If you want to get invoked, then the ‘longest zipline in Southeast Asia’ is in Pattaya, Thailand and looks pretty damn awesome.

Transport in SE Asia
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