Backpacking around a continent is a lot of leg work, and sometimes it’s difficult to know what the best balance between comfort and cost is. Asia has come leaps and bounds in terms of public and private transport these last few years, and its only going to get better with thousands of miles of new roads and train tracks being built. Here’s a guide to what we found to be the best ways of getting around!
Backpackers love to exchange travel horror stories with each other over a pint at the hostel. ‘My bag was stolen’, ‘the bus tipped over’, ‘I was left at the border’, and ‘a passenger snored louder than an Elephant on Valium’ are just a few of things I’ve heard. Personally, out experience with private bus companies has been pretty good.
In Vietnam you can buy an open bus ticket from $45pp, which will get you from Hanoi all the way down to Saigon, stopping off at all the main places. We went with Queens Travel, which was appalling customer service but dirt cheap. One time we waited 2 hours in the rain at 4am for our coach and when they arrived the driver didn’t even apologise. You have to remember, you get what you pay for. Do some research online first and read up on reviews. We didn’t with Queens and learnt the hard way.
Night Bus, Vietnam
The good thing with the open bus ticket is that you don’t have to decide when you want to leave a place until the day before. Simply call the bus station or get your hostel/hotel to ring up to check if there’s a space (there normally is). We changed to Mekong Express to get across the border to Cambodia, as we’d read good things online and they didn’t disappoint.
In Cambodia, a great company called Giant Ibis provides first class service for long journeys across the country, as well as into Thailand. You get breakfast and lunch if it’s a full day journey, and they help with Visas when you board. The only bad journey on a bus was from Kampot to Sihanoukville as we were herded into a 14 seater bus that was designed for 8. Again, we didn’t research the company beforehand and just let the hostel book. You can do most if not all of the booking yourself online now, as a lot of bus services accept e-tickets.
Before I arrived in Cambodia I was told not to take a sleeper bus because the roads are dangerous in the dark. However, from speaking with fellow travellers we realised that isn’t the case anymore. The roads are improving and buses are newer and safer. The overnight bus we took with Giant Ibis from Sihnoukville to Siem Reap was clean, relatively comfy, and had a toilet.
Public transport is one of the cheapest and environmentally friendly options to get about. Most Asian countries have regular routes all over cities and towns and a quick Google Maps search should tell you which service to take. However, you have to add a lot more time per trip than you would with a taxi or hired moped.
Public bus Bangkok, 15 baht for one hour ride
We also had a scary incident in Bangkok, Thailand, on our way to the main station when a car drove into the side of the bus. Luckily Joe only suffered a scratch but we were told to get off and finish our journey by foot.
I can’t stress enough how amazing Grab and Uber are in some parts of Asia. The apps are easy to install and provide a safe and very affordable means of travel in the cities. They usually have similar prices, but it doesn’t hurt to compare the two before booking. The main difference is Uber you pay online, and Grab is in person. One 40 minute trip in Vietnam cost us $7! You’ll get your driver’s name and registration, and you don’t have to worry about being ripped off so a big win.
These services don’t operate everywhere though, so google it before arriving at your next destination. You also need WiFi so consider getting a cheap sim card if you think you’ll use them a lot. We just tapped into a cafe or hotel’s WiFi on arrival and had a coffee.
Another good way of avoiding dodgy taxis is by making sure you flag down one with a valid registration in the front. In Vietnam, the green taxis are usually all very safe, just make sure you agree on a price before getting in.
I was extremely apprehensive about Tuk Tuks before arriving in Asia, mainly because of some of the stories I’d read online about people being ripped off and taken to locations they hadn’t asked for. However, we’ve not had any difficulties so far. As long as you set a fair price before getting in and shake on it, they are usually okay. In Cambodia especially, motorbike Tuk Tuks or car Tuk Tuks are in abundance and are regularly used by tourists and locals to get about.
If you’re unsure about how much they should be charging, speak to your hostel/hotel, or do some research online. Funnily enough, Tuk Tuks became one of my favourite ways to get around as they’re fun! Just make sure you keep your bags and luggage tight by your side to avoid them being grabbed by opportunistic thieves.
I’ve only used the overnight train in Asia once, and that was in Thailand from Bangkok to Krabi. It was a terrible experience to say the least. There were bugs all over the bed, the windows were wide open as there was no air con, and the stench of sewage from the tracks kept me wide awake. Despite this, I wouldn’t be against trying it elsewhere. In Vietnam, the service is FAR nicer, with a four-berth cabin, sanitary conditions, and a complimentary biscuit and tea/coffee. It’s a more expensive means of travel, with a single journey setting you back $40 or so, but cheaper than flying most of the time. Thailand’s trains may be better now too as that was in 2015, so once again have a look online to see what people are saying.
Flying is the quickest way of getting around, with plenty of internal flights across Asia. The prices are reasonable, but still a lot more expensive than buses and trains usually. In terms of how much time you save to, once you get to the airport, check in, fly and check out, it may not be worth the extra $50pp.
In Thailand we’re flying from Bangkok to Krabi this time, and it only set up back $35 each for a 1 hour journey. It’s entirely dependant on your financial situation and also itinerary, as you might not have the luxury of time. Air Asia is a big company on the continent, as its cheap and has many destinations under its wing. However, don’t expect first class service as once again you get what you pay for!
This is probably my favourite way of getting around, but maybe not the safest. You can hire an automatic moped pretty much anywhere on the continent, and for a very good price. Most fit two people on, so to save cash we have been renting one for on average between $4-$6 a day (24 hours normally but check). Safety regulations in Asia are A LOT more relaxed than in the UK and most places don’t require you to have a bike licence. Companies will ask you to hand over a passport though as insurance in case you crash or do a runner.
It is your responsibility to carry out the proper checks before getting behind the wheel, because not all places will be providing an up to scratch vehicle. One hostel in Nha Trang, Vietnam, tried flogging off one without a mirror and working fuel gauge!
Always wear a helmet, even if it has a Playboy logo on (I had one in Cambodia), and always stick to the speed limit, as policemen will be more than happy to pull you over and fine you. Sometimes they will just because you’re tourist so carry a dummy wallet with a few dollars in case. Never argue with them, it’s not worth it.
Cat Ba Island, Vietnam ($5 for day hire)
In the quieter areas of Asia, cycling is a great way to explore! You can hire bikes from shops for very cheap, or some hostels and homestays will have them at your disposal for free. Cars and mopeds are usually good at slowing down or going around you, as a lot of the locals use this mode of transport to get about. Once again make sure you wear a helmet, and remember which side of the road you’re supposed to be on. Signal motorists when you’re planning to turn well in advance too just to avoid any collisions. There are plenty of cycling tours too, if you fancy getting fit and meeting new friends.
Hoi An, Vietnam
We’ve done a lot of walking on our journey, and despite being on our feet for hours it is still a very pleasant way to see the sights. Your accommodation should provide you with maps of the area to help navigate, but I would recommend downloads Maps Me on your phone in case you don’t have signal.
Hiking tours are also really fun, giving you the opportunity to venture into jungles and villages with ease. We did the Sapa trek, and despite the cloudy weather ruining the panoramic views of the fields, it was really fun seeing the countryside and seeing how the locals live.
Sapa Trek, Vietnam