Southeast Asia is light years ahead of where it was just ten years ago. Today, travelers have many options to get around once they’ve landed: bicycles, e-bikes, trains, buses, electric scooters… you name it; chances are, you’ll find it. This abundance of choice couldn’t come at a better time: travelers are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint, and avoiding domestic flights is critical to traveling sustainably.
Here is a look at travelers’ different options when visiting Southeast Asia.
Traveling by Night
Whether on a train or a bus, traveling by night offers several advantages
📆 Save time – by traveling at night, travelers can optimize their time abroad
💵 Save money – tickets are cheaper than private transport and save the cost of a night in a hotel
😴 Save energy & rest – Daytime transfers are just as long but don’t offer the same level of comfort
🌿 Save the planet – Trains and buses produce lower carbon emissions than flights or private transportation.
How it can help your itinerary
Taking the Train
Trains are an excellent means of transportation, and Southeast Asia is home to some incredible tracks. As well as being convenient, they are a great alternative to domestic flights and their dreaded carbon footprint.
Trains are a great way to immerse in local culture, connect and interact, and watch the world go by out of the window. Compared to a flight, which would undoubtedly be faster, trains allow travelers to slow things down and take the time to get a feel for the country, its people, and their day-to-day.
Scrap all those flights and take a sleeper train in Thailand or Vietnam.
Thailand and Vietnam have well-developed rail networks with sleeper cars available for overnight trips.
Thailand has recently announced the launch of new sleeper carriages as well as four routes:
- Special Express No.9/10 to Bangkok to Chiang Mai
- Special Express No.23/24 to Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani
- Special Express No.25/26 to Bangkok to Nong Khai
- Special Express No.31/32 to Bangkok to Hat Yai
Each train is made up of thirteen carriages:
- Nine air-conditioned 2nd Class sleeper coaches
- One air-conditioned 2nd Class sleeper coach with handicapped facilities
- One air-conditioned restaurant car
- One air-conditioned 1st Class sleeper coach
2nd class coaches are made up of 4 beds, while 1st class coaches only have 2. Also worthy of note, each train includes a designated carriage for women and young children to make them feel safer.
Itinerary idea: Thailand and Laos by train
After exploring the South of Thailand and the capital, take a train in Bangkok and work through Chiang Mai and onto Nong Khai, where you can cross the border to Laos. From there, discover Vientiane and hop on the high-speed rail to continue.
Vietnam’s rail network covers a lot of ground and can take travelers around the north, down the coast, and onto Ho Chi Minh. In the north, the Hanoi to Lao Cai / Sapa is a convenient line we integrate into several of our itineraries, making it a great way to discover the region.
The central region is easily accessible from either the north or the south. The SE1/SE3 trains are an excellent option for those traveling from the north. If your travelers are visiting the country south to north, then we usually recommend the SE2/SE4 train.
Traveling the length of Vietnam is easy thanks to the Reunification Railway. The Hanoi-Saigon train service has steadily improved over the year with more trains and more modern and comfortable carriages. Travelers can choose from a wide range of options for overnight trains or even a luxury experience: the Vietage luxury carriages.
Picking the right ticket
Trains in Vietnam are not up to Western standards in terms of comfort, but the experience and immersion make up the difference. Travelers have several options when booking a ticket. There are no first-class or second-class Vietnamese trains. Instead, the options a referred to as challenging classes or soft classes. Hard Sleepers sleepsix6 people and offer less privacy than Soft Sleepers, sleep onlyfour4 and have a lockable door.
Carriages on both Hard or Soft Sleepers have air-conditioning. Each carriage hastwo2 toilets: one western and one squatter. Other amenities include (not so reliable) WiFi and hot water available to cook instant noodles for sale on the food cart.
For daytime trips, we recommend Soft Seats, and for overnight trips, Soft Sleepers. This will ensure the maximum amount of comfort.
Laos roads are notoriously lousy, making transfers by bus or private car long and uncomfortable. However, the country’s new high-speed railway is a game-changer. Gone are the days of multi-day transfers on poor-quality roads to get from one city to another.
The high-speed railway line runs from Vientiane in the South to Boten in the North on the border with China. Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane are the big stops on the line. Still, the new line opens up the possibility of developing exciting new destinations in more remote areas.
The train in Laos offers several advantages. First, it’s cheaper than either transferring by road or plane. Second, transfers are significantly shorter and much more comfortable, with all the mod cons you’d expect from a modern train. And last but not least, it is the most sustainable option, allowing travelers to lower their carbon footprint.
Are you interested to learn more about the Laos Highspeed train? Check out our blog article about the new railway in Laos and how it changes how to plan an itinerary in Laos.
Southeast Asia has a substantial network of bus routes that can take travelers to every corner of Southeast Asia. That being said, we only recommend a select few depending on the destination your traveler will be visiting.
Many options are available across the region, from local buses packed to the brim with people to air-conditioned VIP vans with air conditioning and WiFi. Sleeper buses are another exciting option. Available throughout the region, we recommend these in Cambodia, where the train network is neither as developed nor practical as in neighboring countries.
Giant Ibis and Mbus aretwo2 reliable companies with clean and comfortable sleeper buses. WiFi, sleeping beds, electric outlets, toilets… these buses offer a range of services that make them stand out compared to the bus experiences travelers may be acquainted with back home.
- Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville
- Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
- Phnom Penh to Kampot
- Siem Reap to Kampot
Bus routes connecting Cambodia with Thailand or Vietnam are available. However, we only recommend these if a tour leader accompanies your travelers. The reason is simple: border crossings in Southeast Asia are notorious for their scams.
Train or the bus? How to integrate public transportation into your next itinerary.
Generally speaking, buses will be the cheapest option and, in the case of Cambodia, the most convenient and reliable. In Laos, for example, it is quite the opposite. The poor quality of the roads means that taking the bus might be cheap, but it will be a long and painful journey, likely to spoil anyone’s holiday.