Transportation in Asia often seems a mysterious challenge that only the locals understand. Getting around in busy places can appear to be a foray into chaos, a dance with fate. But somehow it all works out in the end — everyone eventually gets where they are going. As with all things in Asia, the contrast of extremes is great from place to place. Bullet trains woosh along at impossible speeds, meanwhile, bone-rattling buses may offer a chiropractic adjustment at no extra cost.
In places with an excellent tourism infrastructure, you can simply rely on agents to book passage for you. At other times, you'll have to take charge and make your own way from point A to point B via car, bus, boat, train, and occasionally some rusting option that should have been taken off the road decades ago!
Use an Agent or Do It Yourself?
You really have two choices when booking transportation in Asia: Go through an agent (including your reception desk) or go to the station yourself to buy the ticket. Aside from flights, most transportation options will be booked in person and paid for in cash rather than online.
The obvious advantage of booking transportation through a travel office or in your hotel is that you won't have to make your own way to the station — which may be confusing to navigate. Also, it may be easier to communicate with people who are accustomed to working with tourists every day. Locals more often "know the deal" for how to get you to your destination. Agents will know about closures, delays, festivals, and other variables that could affect your trip. As would be expected, having someone else arrange transportation in Asia will mean paying a commission tacked onto the original cost of the ticket.
You can avoid paying commissions to a third party by going to the transportation station yourself to book passage somewhere. You'll have to use judgment: Sometimes the difference in price paid to an agent won't make up what you'll potentially spend in time and money trying to buy your own tickets at a station.
Sometimes there seem to be more taxi drivers in Asia than available passengers. You'll get plenty of offers for transportation as you walk around.
Taxi drivers in Asia have a nefarious reputation for overcharging, upselling, and generally trying every scam in the books, along with a few new ones that aren't. If your driver refuses to use the meter or claims it is broken, either find another taxi or negotiate your fare before getting inside. Don't ever accept a ride without knowing what you'll pay at the end. You may have to stop several taxis, but patience is often rewarded with an honest driver.
If a driver seems deceptive or you're arriving alone late at night, keep your bags with you on the back seat. Doing so eliminates the possibility that your luggage will be kept in the trunk until you pay more than was agreed.
Buses in Asia come in many varieties: from rattling public "chicken" buses that may actually have cages of live chickens, to luxurious double-deckers with Wi-Fi such as the buses from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
The rules for using buses in Asia differ from place to place. In some countries, you'll need to book a bus ticket in advance — particularly if traveling long distance. In other places, you can flag a passing bus and pay an attendant on board. Don't be surprised if your crowded bus stops, again and again, to squeeze in more customers and baggage while on the way.
Regardless, one rule applies to public buses in Asia: They are often freezing. Even in tropical countries, you'll spot the driver and assistant in sweatshirts and hoodies. Air conditioning is usually set to maximum. Keep warm clothing handy for long journeys.
For bus trips to places with bad roads, try to sit near the center of the bus; it's the most stable place. Sitting near either axle will give the bumpiest ride.
Note: Theft on overnight buses is a problem in Asia. The bus crew is often to blame. Don't put valuables in your luggage stored in the hold (it's raided along the way), and don't fall asleep with a smartphone or MP3 player in your lap.
Motorcycle taxis — called "motos" in some countries — are a fast-yet-risky way to bypass city traffic. The daring drivers will even find a way to carry you and your luggage. In places such as Bangkok, drivers are famous for careening through traffic, sometimes in the wrong direction, and using sidewalks to get you where you are going.
If you opt to use a motorcycle taxi, remember the following:
- Official drivers usually wear colored vests.
- As with other unmetered transportation, you'll have to negotiate.
- If there's only one helmet, the driver gets it.
- Travel insurance typically doesn't cover accidents that happen on a motorbike.
Famous Methods of Transportation
Every country in Asia has its own beloved mode of cheap public transportation. Some are charming, others are painful. Here are just a few that you will encounter:
- Tuk-tuks: Tuk-tuks are most famous in Thailand, however, the three-wheeled, auto rickshaws run the roads under different names in India, South America, Africa, and even Europe.
- Jeepneys: The rugged Jeepney is a cultural icon in the Philippines. Jeeps left over from the war were stretched and converted into big wagons. Rides are as cheap as 20 cents in these often-crammed, colorful vehicles. Uncomfortable, maybe, but they're certainly a cultural phenomenon.
- Songthaew: These covered pickup trucks with bench seating run the streets of Thailand and Laos. Public versions drive preset routes; fares are extremely cheap. Not all songthaews circulate — you can flag them the same as you would a taxi.
- Bemo: The bemo is Indonesia's answer to Jeepneys and songthaews. The tiny minivans and minibusses often blare deafening music while circulating public roads. Rides are chaotic but cheap.
- Trikes: Found all over the Philippines, trikes are little more than motorcycles with carriages attached to the sides. Loud and bumpy, trikes are often a cheap way to get around in the islands where taxi cars aren't available.
- Rickshaws: Rickshaw is a generic, widely used term for any simple vehicle, usually with three wheels. Some rickshaws are motorized, bicycle driven, or even human powered. You'll find rickshaws throughout China, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and other cities in Asia.
Renting a motorbike (most often a 125cc scooter) is an inexpensive and fun way to explore a new area. You'll find scooter rentals throughout Southeast Asia for as low as US $5 – 10 per day. Most rentals are fairly informal, although you'll be expected to leave your passport as collateral.
Travel insurance rarely covers accidents that happen on motorbikes. Unfortunately, many travelers do have their first wrecks in Asia. Road conditions can be challenging, and driving follows a different right-of-way hierarchy than what most people expect. There is a myriad of caveats and scams associated with renting scooters so always opt to rent from a reputable shop or through your accommodation desk.
Teaming up With Other Travelers
With fuel being the largest expense to drivers, you can often team up with other travelers to share the cost of a ride to waterfalls, attractions, and other points of interest. The same applies for getting to airports that are located outside of the city: Utilize shared transport! Doing so cuts down on traffic and pollution — two problems that plague many big cities in Asia.
Begin by speaking to others in your guesthouse or hotel; more than likely travelers were drawn by the same attractions and highlights as you. The reception desk will help pool people together into one vehicle.
Tip: If traveling alone, try approaching other travelers in the luggage claim at airports. You can often share the cost of a taxi to town.
Uber works well in Asia. Although fares are slightly higher than metered taxis in places such as Bangkok, you get to eliminate all the hassle, scams, and upselling that drivers so often pull. You'll know what the ride is going to cost beforehand.
Grab is a popular Malaysian rideshare service employed around Southeast Asia, but it differs from Uber in that taxi drivers can also respond to your ride requests. You can opt to pay the driver with cash.
Note: Although they are still commonly used, ridesharing services have been banned in some countries with strict taxi mafias. Indonesia and Thailand are two such countries. Taxi drivers have been known to throw bricks at Uber cars. If using a rideshare service, request a ride discretely, ideally from somewhere not near the regular taxi queue.
Although hitchhiking may sound a little too Jack Kerouac for some travelers, doing so is fairly common practice in many parts of Asia. Rides most often come from transportation vans and buses traveling in your direction. You may be expected to "tip" a little.
You won't use your thumb to hitchhike in Asia. You're more likely to receive a smile and a thumbs up in return as your potential ride blows past. Instead, point with your fingers together, patting with palm downward at the road in front of you. Buses and minivans will often stop for you and ask only a discounted fare.