Last Updated: 7/10/23 | July 10th, 2023
Southeast Asia may be a huge region — but it’s super easy to get around.
It’s well-traveled (backpackers have been following “the banana pancake trail” since the late ’60s), and there’s an extensive network designed to ensure that you can easily get from A to B.
But what’s the best way to get around Southeast Asia on a budget?
How can you go from point A to point B in the most efficient and easiest manner?
Here’s how you can travel around Southeast Asia on the cheap, with example prices and estimated travel times.
Table of Contents
1. Get Around Southeast Asia By Flying
This is the quickest but most expensive way to get around Southeast Asia. There are a lot of budget airlines (like Ryanair or EasyJet in Europe) in the region: Scoot (merged with Tigerair), Jetstar, and AirAsia are the biggest. Nok Air has a lot of flights within Thailand, and VietJet Air is popular in Vietnam. Lion Air serves Indonesia, but its safety record is really spotty and I would not fly them.
Here are some sample prices for some of the biggest routes (in USD):
- Bangkok to Singapore – $55 (one way), $125 (round-trip)
- Phuket City to Vientiane – $80 (one way), $180 (round-trip)
- Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok – $55 (one way), $140 (round-trip)
- Bali (Denpasar) to Kuala Lumpur – $75 (one way), $140 (round-trip)
- Siem Reap to Hanoi – $120 (one way), $240 (round-trip)
- Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur – $45 (one way), $85 (round-trip)
- Manila to Ho Chi Minh City – $55 (one way), $110 (round-trip)
- Yangon to Manila – $185 (one way), $360 (round-trip)
- Yangon to Bangkok – $55 (one way), $95 (round-trip)
Keep in mind two things, though:
- First, budget airlines all fly from smaller, more out-of-the-way airports, so be prepared to take buses or taxis there (and plan for traffic).
- Second, all these airlines make their money by charging fees for everything, so expect baggage fees, credit card “convenience” fees, check-in fees, fees on fees, etc., etc.! If the fees add up, it can often be cheaper to fly one of the larger carriers, especially when you consider that the main airport might be more centrally located.
If you book early, you can save on fares, as most of the airlines offer deeply discounted fare sales all the time, especially Air Asia. The best place to find cheap flights is Skyscanner.
2. Get Around Southeast Asia By Local or Tourist Bus
The easiest and cheapest way to travel around Southeast Asia is by bus. Buses will take you anywhere you want to go, no matter how far.
Buses are generally run by a plethora of small operators (there is no version of Greyhound here). You simply go with the operator that services the route you want to travel or with the company the tourist agency or guesthouse set you up with.
In Southeast Asia, you don’t have to plan ahead that much either. You simply show up at the bus station and buy your ticket! They use a first-come, first-serve basis but are rarely full. You don’t need to book them in advance or online — although, if I know where I’m going, I often book my bus the day before simply as a precaution. In all my years traveling this region, I’ve never shown up and been turned away.
12Go is the best platform for booking transportation in Asia.
Here are some sample fares and travel times for bus routes in Southeast Asia (in USD):
- Bangkok to Chiang Mai – $22 (10 hours)
- Bangkok to Pattaya – $4 (2.5 hours)
- Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai – $7 (3.5 hrs)
- Phnom Penh to Siem Reap – $17 (6 hrs)
- Kuala Lumpur to Singapore – $11 (4.5 hrs)
- Vientiane to Luang Prabang – $15 (6 hrs)
- Da Nang to Hanoi – $16 (17 hrs)
- Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh – $15 (3.5 hrs)
- Kuta Beach to Ubud – $6 (1.5 hr)
- Puerto Princesa to El Nido – $11 (5 hrs)
- Hanoi to Halong Bay – $12 (2.5 hrs)
Moreover, the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia is so well established that there is a very well-oiled “tourist bus” system here. (Usually, when you book buses from tourist agencies or guesthouses, they put you on these tourist buses.) These buses (often called “VIP” buses) will pick you up at your accommodation or have a set meetup point in the tourist area and take you directly to your next destination.
For example, if you need to go from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, you’d buy a ticket, meet the bus (probably on Khao San Road), and enjoy the night ride up to Chiang Mai with other travelers. No stops at other bus stations — just a straight shot to Chiang Mai.
Tourist/VIP buses are very convenient, though they are also usually quite a bit more expensive than the buses locals use. They generally cost $5-7 USD for a 2-3-hour journey, $10-15 USD for a 5-6-hour trip, and $20-35 USD or more for overnight buses depending on distance.
3. Get Around Southeast Asia By Train
Train service in Southeast Asia is basically nonexistent other than in Thailand, the only country that has an extensive train system around the country (and onward to Singapore), and Vietnam, which has a train along the coast, though it is slow and expensive compared to the bus ($45 USD for a 13.5-hour train ride from Hanoi to Hue instead of $14 USD and 11 hours on the bus).
Train prices are determined by distance and class, so the farther you go, the more you pay. Night trains with sleeper cars are more expensive than day trains: the night train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok takes 12 hours and costs $29 USD for a sleeper seat, but that same train during the day is $7 USD.
You can travel by train between Singapore, Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Bangkok as well, though it’s a long journey that will take you at least 2 days to get there. If you’re a train enthusiast, it’s one of the most classic rides out there, although there is no direct train, so you will have to book all your tickets separately unless you travel on the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express (which starts at $3,100 USD per person). If you have the time, I highly recommend the experience.
In Indonesia, the main cities of Java (Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Probolinggo (for Mount Bromo), and Ketapang (Bali’s ferry terminal) are well linked by train. Sample fares include:
- Jakarta to Surabaya – 12 hours/$7 USD (economy) or $35 USD (executive class)
- Surabaya to Probolinggo (for Mount Bromo) – 2 hours/$2 USD (economy) or $8 USD (executive class)
- Surabaya to Ketapang (for Bali) – 6 hours/$4 USD (economy) or $20 USD (executive class)
You can book tickets at the Indonesian website en.tiket.com/kereta-api.
Myanmar has train service but it’s very limited. There is no website for Myanmar Railways, and the direct train line between Yangon and Mandalay has been suspended due to ongoing renovations.
4. Get Around Southeast Asia By Car/Motorbike
I don’t recommend renting a car. Rental cars are expensive and the roads here are nuts. I would never drive around the region.
However, a lot of people motorbike around the area. I don’t know much about this, but Travelfish does. He’s the guru on this. Check out his guide here.
If you do decide you want a car, for best car rental prices, use Discover Cars.
5. Get Around Southeast Asia By Boat/Ferry
While this won’t be your main way of getting around, it will definitely come into play in certain countries. If you’re exploring the islands of Thailand, for example, you’ll need to rely on boats and ferries. And if you’re backpacking around Indonesia or the Philippines, ferries will be the cheapest way to island-hop (but definitely not the fastest!).
It’s worth noting that ferries in Southeast Asia don’t often adhere to Western safety standards and lack of life jackets is an issue. Some people recommend staying on the top deck so it’s easier to quickly leave the boat if necessary.
While it’s not necessary to book in advance, it’s a good idea during peak season or on more popular routes to book your tickets the day before you plan to travel to make sure you have a spot. You can buy tickets on the ferry company’s website or via a ticket agent like 12go.asia. However, every agent or hostel or hotel can get you a ferry ticket too. It’s really simple!
Here are a few sample routes and prices to help you plan (USD):
- Bali (Padang Bai) to Lombok – $15 (1.5 hours)
- Bali to the Gili Islands – $15 (1.5 hours)
- Koh Tao to Koh Samui – $20 (2 hours)
- Sihanoukville to Koh Rong – $15 (45 minutes)
You might also consider doing a multi-day cruise on popular waterways like the Mekong River or Halong Bay. On the Mekong River in Laos, slow boats from Huay-Xai will drop you off in Luang Prabang. Slow boats take 2-3 days, stopping at guesthouses for nightly accommodation. Prices vary depending on the quality of the company, but you can expect to pay around $50-80 USD for the entire journey.
Halong Bay tours from Hanoi start around $140 USD for two-day, one night trips and increase exponentially from there.
6. How Long Does it Take to Get Around Southeast Asia?
Here is a distance and travel-time table of how long it takes to get around Southeast Asia.
Ho Chi Minh City
(service currently suspended)
In short, Southeast Asia is pretty easy to get around: take the train as often as you can in Thailand, take the train in Vietnam if you have the time, and take buses everywhere else. If you’re pressed for time, take the night trains or fly. And if you find a good flight deal, definitely fly!
Simple and easy.
As long as you do that you’ll be able to get around Southeast Asia on a budget and make the most efficient use of your time and money!
Book Your Trip to Southeast Asia: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Southeast Asia?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide to Southeast Asia for even more planning tips!