This second of a four-part series on Asian transportation covers overland and ferry transport between countries and cities. Also check out “Getting around locally” for tips on maneuvering in town.
Privately-owned minivans or minibuses are common means of overland conveyance in Southeast Asia. They can often be booked through hostels or tourist centers. Generally, minivans are reasonably priced and much faster than lumbering coaches, but can be more dangerous.
If you’re considering a minivan, ask a few questions before booking a ticket. In many countries, four passengers per bench seat is common (a little uncomfortable if you’re “plus-sized”), but you may be able to select your seat in advance. You’ll also want to find out if the van is air conditioned, and whether smoking is permitted.
Keep safety in mind. Check whether the driver’s seat is located on the left or right side, as some countries have permitted the importation of vehicles with the driver’s seat on the incorrect side (the steering wheel should be on the left in countries where they drive on the right, and vice versa). This does affect the driver’s visibility and therefore safety. And as with everything, use common sense. Glance at the tires, make sure they have tread. Be wary if a minivan company claims a journey will take only four to five hours when everyone else says it will take seven or eight.
Also be aware of cultural differences about time when planning your trip. In Japan, 9:00 means 8:59:59 to 9:00:01. In Indonesia, it means 8:50 to 10:30 (although you shouldn’t count on the van leaving late). Additionally, if an operator isn’t able to fill the van, he/she may drive around town looking for fares before departing, delaying your departure and subsequent arrival time. You may not want to plan a flight out of a city the same day you’re arriving by bus or minivan.
Buses vary as much as minivans — from plush air-conditioned coaches with music videos shown during the journey, to 1970’s VW-style models with chain-smoking locals packed in, along with mail and anything else that needs to be delivered to the next town. Buses may not be the most comfortable way to travel, but they can get you to places that trains, boats, and planes won’t reach — from the rice terraces of Southern China to the volcanoes of Java.
They can also be very economical. Several Vietnamese bus companies offer open-tour tickets that allow passengers to disembark and re-board multiple times for a set fee. And in countries with strong currencies, the bus can be a budget traveler’s savior. A standard seat on a night bus from Tokyo to Osaka costs 5500 yen ($67), while the bullet train runs 14,000 yen ($170).
Night buses offer additional savings in that travelers do not need hotels for the nights they are traveling. Some night buses have proper reclining seats, and premium class may offer small privacy curtains to block out light. However, others offer no special provisions for sleeping — they’re simply regular buses that run at night. Night buses aren’t a solution for everyone — saving a few bucks on accommodations may not be worth it when your neck’s so wrenched you can’t enjoy the sights the next day — but they can help a backpacker stretch his/her dollar.
Trains are a great way to see the countryside and offer more dependability than other modes of overland transport. Laos and Cambodia still lack rail service, although that may change in the future if the Kunming-Singapore Railway project (linking China and the ASEAN nations) is completed.
Trains are the easiest way to get around in Japan. The high-speed bullet train (shinkansen, 新幹線) may be a little pricey for budget travelers, but 7 to 21 day rail passes can offer an economical option. Note that rail passes must be purchased before arriving in Japan, and are only available to those entering under “Temporary Visitor” status. See japanrailpass.net for more details, limitations, and a list of vendors.
Those ineligible for a Japan rail pass with more time than money on their hands may consider the seishun juhachi kippu (青春18きっぷ) — a ticket for unlimited travel on local trains for a specified number of days. This can be purchased at most JR train stations after arriving in Japan. Despite the name (roughly “adolescent eighteen-year-old’s ticket”), it can be used by anyone regardless of age. However, it is only available during school breaks (March to early April; late July to early September; mid December to early January), and most visitors find the monetary savings of the seishun juhachi kippu inadequate when compared to the additional hours they’ll have to spend on local trains.
Train lines abound in China, but the government website is in Chinese only and requires a China-based credit card. To book a ticket while in China, you can go to a train station, or for a small fee book through a travel agency. Tickets typically go on sale about a week prior to the departure date. Note that you need to present your passport to buy a ticket. Therefore you cannot use the self-serve vending machines available to Chinese citizens. As the lines at train station service counters can be quite long, it may be worth a few yuan to go through an agency.
Here are some useful websites for train journeys in Southeast Asia, Japan, and Taiwan.
- Indonesia —www.kereta-api.co.id (Indonesian only)
- Japan — www.jorudan.co.jp
- Malaysia — www.ktmb.com.my
- Singapore — www.smrt.com.sg
- Taiwan — twtraffic.tra.gov.tw
- Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) — www.thsrc.com.tw
- Taipei Metro — english.trtc.com.tw
- Thailand — www.railway.co.th
- Vietnam — There are several private, for-profit websites that sell tickets for Vietnam’s railways. Many hotels are able to book tickets, along with travel agencies.
Many resorts and snorkeling/scuba areas in Southeast Asia can only be reached by ferry. High-end resorts will often include transportation in their package fees, but even budget establishments will often offer assistance in getting to the island, especially when an understanding of the local language is needed.
As with the case of buses and privately-owned minivans, travelers need to take some responsibility for their own safety when deciding whether to board a ferry. A tourist boat sunk in the popular World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, Vietnam in 2011, leaving twelve dead, and numerous ferries have sunk off the coast of Thailand in recent years.
However, many safe, well-established ferry routes offer the opportunity to break up the tedium of buses and trains. The routes are too numerous to name, but a good map will show you the most commonly traveled.
Enjoy the Ride
As you make your way around, no matter what the mode of transportation, remember to enjoy the journey. A train in Japan will take you through the rice fields and perhaps give you a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Take a tuk-tuk at sunrise in Cambodia and you’ll see monks giving blessings to residents in exchange for alms. A xe om ride in Saigon will be as adventurous as any amusement park ride.
Rough, local transport is rarely comfortable, but it does give you something a cushy seat on a plane cannot: a chance to see the rambutans and smell the fish sauce. Of course, you will eventually need to board a plane. Stay tuned for the next part of this four-part series: Flying Asia.