I find that with travelling, the most useful but hardest to come across information is about transport – whether it is how much you should pay for a short distance tuk tuk ride (as initial price is always 2 or 3 times higher than it should be) or how to get between towns. There are also no online timetables, making it hard to plan journeys in advance. However we found that most routes have at least one morning time and one afternoon time (if not multiple) and main routes often have an overnight option. You can also buy tickets a day in advance, or on the day if it is low season.
However some words of caution. Just like planes, trains and buses in western cities can be delayed, so can they in Asia. Never expect public transport to take off on time, because then you can be happy an surprised when it does. Also do not expect it to make sense. Often you are picked up in a tuk tuk and taken to the bus, to a field to wait for the bus, or to the bus station. Sometimes you are dropped “in town” by the driver’s friend’s guesthouse or 3 km out of town in the middle of no where. It is all an experience, but if you do your research and book the right things, it isn’t too bad!! I booked all my transport through the guesthouse we were at or a travel agency. You pay slightly more (maybe 1 USD more) and get picked up at your guesthouse or hotel, and know for sure what you are getting. If you are really on a budget though, you can buy tickets from the bus or train stations directly.
Below are my tips for public transport for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. For my actual experiences, see my page here. My recommendations for each differ. All I can say is realize that each country operates on their own time – 2 minutes our time is more like 10 minutes Cambodia time. Soak in the atmosphere, read a book, and remember it provides another story to tell of your trip once back home.
- Do not use a minibus in Cambodia. Take the bus. In Cambodia the minibus seats 11 to 13 people, and even at 5″8 my knees were pressed hard against the back of the seats in front. The minibus also is very very bumpy and all over the place, not a pleasant ride. Take a bus. We slept on our $4 normal bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It was impossible to sleep on the $12 VIP bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. We didn’t do a VIP bus, just local. It is slightly longer than the minibus because you pick up and drop off local people in villages along the way, but it only adds 30 or so minutes. You have heaps of leg room, AC and storage above the seats for your backpack/purse/camera bag.
- In Cambodia your seat is numbered, and your ticket has that number on it, so if you care where you sit (aisle/window, front/back), you have to organize it when you buy your ticket. It isn’t a ‘choose your own seat when you board’ method.
- The AC on the bus gets very cold, so despite it being 35 degrees outside, bring a scarf or cardigan or jacket to put on about 2 hours into your journey. On the plus side, the AC works!
- If you have a rain proof cover for your pack or suitcase, put it on. It rained during one bus trip and somehow it got all the luggage soaked. So I put my pack cover on every time after just in case.
- The trains have lots of different classes and different trains – some trains are more modern and cleaner than others. Think about comfort – if you have 13 hours on a train, might be nicer to lie down and sleep than sit up straight.
- Trains and buses allow children under 12 to share a seat with an adult for nothing extra. This may mean 3 to a seat or bed. Just be warned.
- When buying train tickets, nothing on your ticket indicates the class unless you know the train and it’s carriages. Your ticket says the carriage number as away/bed number. A common scam is paying for a soft seat bed but ending up with an upright seat, which is half the price. Buy tickets yourself, through your trustworthy guesthouse or a good travel agent recommended by lonely planet or online. I used Tonkin Travel which was fabulous.
- If you need to get between Danang and Hoi An, you can get a taxi, a local bus or a more tourist bus. There is also a fourth option – the supermarket bus. Hoi An has no supermarket so a bus takes people to and fro. If you buy something (such as water, gum or a candy bar), show your receipt, you can ride the quite nice orange (or red) bus to Hoi An. Going back to Danang, you have to buy something upon arrival. (I haven’t done this, but a Vietnamese American on our Siem Reap-Phnom Penh minivan whose family is in Danang told us. Apparently the local buses smell and are very hot, and taxi is at least 10 USD)
- Forget about what I said about buses verses minivans above for Cambodia. It is opposite in Laos. The minivans are comfortable and spacious. And sometimes not full! They also have windows you can open to take photos out of.
- If you travel between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, you should know that when you hit the hill (1 hour out of Vang Vieng, or basically right away out of Luang Prabang) the driver turns off the AC (though the fan keeps going) and puts down the windows, in order to save fuel on the mountains. You therefore want to make sure you are in a spot accessible to a window so you will get air, or can control the window as lots of people will refuse to open it, or after they open it close it after a while because they are too cold, even if the rest of the bus is sweltering hot. So AC doesn’t matter – the wind is your AC for this 6 hour ride.
- If you opt for a bus, the non VIP buses are very old, worn down, with no AC (they claim to have AC but it doesn’t work) and windows that don’t open. Very little leg room and seats that recline a lot, so if you have an inconsiderate person in front of you, your leg room goes from very little to none at all.
- Buy from your guesthouse. The one time we bought from a travel agent, our minibus pick up was 45 minutes late, our guesthouse owner called the 3 travel agent numbers and all were disconnected, leaving us thinking that we had been conned. She finally got through, and our minibus soon arrived. However he picked up random people off the side of the road, fitting two people into one seat, and didn’t care about stopping for toilets or driving carefully.