China and Southeast Asia offer overland travel options that be either great or maddening. Both seem to be improving by the minute as each region grows, but the variance in different parts can be interesting. Sometimes you may find yourself on an extremely comfortable, clean, and cozy bus or train, while the next one could be the journey from hell. You just never know.
Overland Travel In China
Traveling overland in the massive country of China is getting better and better with each passing day. Roads and infrastructure is constantly getting better, but because of the size, there are still plenty of underdeveloped areas with poor roads and transportation options.
Trains in China
Getting around China by train is a great option for seeing the beauty of the countryside. Options abound for train travel in the area, from hard seats to soft seats to hard and soft sleeper options. If you want to be with the locals, then choosing a hard seat is the way to go, as it’s the cheapest (and most crowded and uncomfortable) option. For longer journeys, you may want to pay a bit extra for the soft seat, and if you are going on one of those epic overnight adventures, then a soft sleeper will have you well rested by the time you arrive. Simply turning up at the train station to get your ticket can be done, but it’s a better option to book at least a day in advance, especially if you’re particular about seat options.
Buses in China
Buses are typically going to be a bit faster than trains, and the fact that it’s usually unnecessary to book in advance is a major positive for some people. The price is usually cheaper as well, and even you decide on the bus for an overnight journey, sleeper seats are available. Many of the buses today even have bathrooms, and some give out bottled water.
Overland Travel In Southeast Asia
Traveling overland in Southeast Asia is going to be cheap no matter the country. That is the one constant you can probably count on. After that, all bets are off. Set foot on an overnight Thai train and you’ll think you’ve gone to overland travel Heaven, but cross the border and board a bus in Laos, and you’ve clearly crossed the line into overland travel Hell.
Train Travel in Southeast Asia
Traveling by train varies quite a bit by country in this region of the world. Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore all have excellent rail networks with cheap prices, an extensive schedule, and super comfortable sleepers for longer, overnight expeditions. Vietnam has cheap and comfortable trains as well, but they simply don’t have the extensive network of the other three countries. Train travel is all but nonexistent in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Laos.
Bus Travel in Southeast Asia
Buses are a popular mode of transport in Southeast Asia, much like the rest of the world. Also much like the rest of the world, the variety of comforts you receive is great, even within each country. It’s not uncommon to take a half empty air conditioned bus with leather seats on one journey in Thailand, then turn around the next day and get stuck in a non-air conditioned, extremely crowded mini-bus with a suicidal driver. In Laos, despite its growth over the last 5-10 years as an up and coming destination, the transport options haven’t improved much. The roads, thankfully, have, but expect to be stuck in overcrowded minibuses most of the time. Malaysia and Singapore are much like Thailand, and if you have the extra money for a nice bus, it’s worth it. Cambodia and Indonesia are closer to Laos as far as comfort (or rather, discomfort) than the others, though both have options that are improving.
Water Travel in Southeast Asia
Traveling by boat used to be a very popular and smart way to get around. But with the vastly improving roads all around the region, water travel is slowly disappearing. You will of course have to utilize some boat travel to get around to the different islands of Indonesia, and there are still a few popular journeys in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But for the most part, traveling up the river by boat is becoming a lost mode of transportation.
Motorbike Travel in Southeast Asia
Let’s start with this PSA. If you have never ridden a motorbike before and are not very handy, then relying on a motorbike to get around probably isn’t the best idea. Does that mean you shouldn’t rent one at all during your time here? No. But don’t plan on traveling from city to city on a motorbike if you’re a a beginner.
Now that that’s out of the way, there are many travelers each year who decide to rent or buy a motorbike and drive it around SE Asia. Vietnam in particular is popular for this, as the slim, north to south nature of traveling the country makes sense for a motorbike. It’s true that the vast majority of SE Asians use a motorbike for transportation, but one day in either Bangkok or Hanoi or Phnom Penh will have you reassessing your motorbike options quickly. It can be really crowded and really crazy, and the laws most likely aren’t the same as your home country, so do your homework and think long and hard before deciding to traipse around Southeast Asia by motorbike.
Don’t forget to check out the FAQ’s on the same subject, which asks all the right questions and offers tons of great information for getting around the world on the ground (or in some cases, over water).
For specific information on overland travel in each region of the world, be sure to check out the following guides, with resources and sample pricing for various overland journeys:
Overland Travel In The Americas
Overland Travel In Africa And The Middle East
Overland Travel In Europe
Overland Travel In Russia And Central Asia
Overland Travel In India
Overland Travel In Australia And New Zealand