As they say, it is about the journey as much as the destination. We enjoyed traveling throughout Southeast Asia, and we used just about all means of transport – from planes to trains to bikes and tuk tuks. We found Thailand and Vietnam to have great public transport. Bangkok’s metro is of international class. They are still building out infrastructure in Cambodia even major highways are limited in Cambodia, but we spent most of the time on bikes or on boats (which were an excellent way to travel).
We took buses mostly throughout Thailand. Generally, we experienced two classes. The top of the line, VIP buses like the Green Bus, are extremely comfortable – big seats, air con, snacks, stewardess. It is a great way to get around northern Thailand. Bus stations are pretty good, usually have food nearby and often free Wi-Fi, but there is also the other end of the bus market with local buses that are not so comfortable – usually without air con and limited space for luggage.
We spent a fair amount of time in minivans as well – of all shapes and conditions. These are central to transportation in the region. They typically hold 11-12 passengers and are able to access a lot of spots where large buses cannot go.
We only took trains in Vietnam. We opted for 1st class tickets on our three extended trips including an overnight voyage. The train was comfortable and mostly clean. Our overnight cabin had 4 bunks that we shared with a rotating set of locals. We found everyone extremely polite and accommodating to each other. The drunk Chinese group in the cabin next store with their karaoke machine (“Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the favorite that night) was a little annoying but did not go on too long. We suspect the train staff put an end to the karaoke. Our cabin’s attendant was very attentive and detail-oriented. At one point, we had a women and child with many large boxes come into our cabin. It looked like they were planning to stay for a few hours to the next stop or possibly until the morning when we arrived in Hanoi. Their boxes filled all of the floor space. However, our attendant promptly asked to see their ticket, and thankfully, they were in the wrong cabin.
Wow, we took a lot of different boats from ferries to fishing skiffs to sailing yachts. The rivers and lakes are a major commuting and distribution channels. While they were all interesting, the most interesting was the boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap. I am not sure either one of us will every forget the ride in the wooden boat. We were still only a couple days into our travels in Cambodia and recall talking the night before about whether we could have air con the lengthy journey. There were not even cushions on the seats for 8+ hours, never mind air con.
Biking, we find, is the best way to see and experience a country. While we really enjoyed the biking thru Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, there are some challenges that one encounters that we have not experienced elsewhere. Dust was an issue some days. There was one day that the dust was so heavy that our guides purchased face masks for us. These were good for keeping out the dust but they got soggy quick from all the extra sweating.
For the most part, we were able to avoid urban areas and heavily trafficked roads – not always, but for the most part. Our route from Bangkok to Hoh Chi Minh city was not too hilly. (Northern Thailand has some very hilly routes that perhaps we will try in the future.) We did our trip with guides which helped us navigate, move luggage without panniers, and find great local spots to eat. However, it is hot over there and some days we were doing 4 water bottles an hour. In addition to water, we usually carried a lot of extras – bug spray (dengue and malaria are still real issues here), suntan lotion (it is hot), lip balm, Pepto and Imodium, Advil, toilet paper, and a energy bar just in case the lunch spot was too dodgy.
And all the rest.