Using Public Transportation In Southeast Asia

When you travel in the US you may rent a car. Well in some places around the world that would probably not be a wise decision. It seems like the poorer the country is the more chaotic the traffic is, and you may end up using public transportation in Southeast Asia.

A big reason for that is that there aren’t as many police to keep people in check. When you drive around in the US there are cops all over the place and if you turn without signaling or go over the speed limit enjoy the expensive ticket.

There are also less stop signs and traffic lights in foreign countries, but even if there were more people wouldn’t pay that much attention to them anyways. So if you don’t have a car how do you get around?

Well you can either walk or use public transportation. Depending on what city you are in walking might be possible, in others it might not. And the different types of public transportation available will be very different from place to place.

For expats in Bangkok the best ways to get around would be the BTS which is a sky train or the Metro line which is an underground train. These make going anywhere in the city pretty cheap and easy.

But most foreign countries don’t have trains near as nice as BKK. In Manila you can find one but it isn’t as good as what you can find in BKK. Still it is better then nothing and can take you from one side of the city to the other if you need to go.

Motorbike Death Traps

While there are very cheap taxis in most third world countries in many of the bigger cities they aren’t practical. The traffic is so terrible that you will be sitting in bumper to bumper traffic and it can take you 2 hours to go 10 miles.

The only way to get around this is to take a ‘motorbike taxi’ instead. This will really speed up the process as they drive on the shoulder and in between cars any time you reach a stand still.

In Jakarta this is one of the main ways people get around. There will be bumper to bumper traffic in the right lanes, and the left shoulder and in between the cars there will constantly be motorbikes creeping forward.

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This is a fun balance of risking your life and limbs to try and save yourself some time. Are you really going to sit in a taxi for an hour or two? On the other hand how many motorbike rides can you survive?

The people here don’t exactly drive safe and the number 1 way most expats in SEA die is on them. Taking them a few times should be OK, but take them day after day and who knows.

Southeast Asian Taxi Scams

Taxi scams happen all over the world so it is no surprise that they happen in poor countries as well. There are certain ways to make yourself less of a target though.

First off, you need to be on guard at any of the main tourist spots. Drivers of taxis and all sorts of transportation at any tourist area have a higher chance of being sharks that are looking to rip you off.

Airports are probably the worst but bus stations and tourist traps can be just as bad. At airports there should be a designated ‘legit’ taxi line and ask any airport personnel where the taxi line is and they should point you in the right direction.

There will be lots of touts trying to get you to take inflated rides. Ignore them and go to the right line and you will save lots of money.

You need to always ask to use the meter when you first get in and that should show them that you at least somewhat know the deal.

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If the driver says no meter for any reason get out and find a new one. Most drivers will try and make some small talk with you (in hopes of getting a bigger tip) and when they do don’t say ‘It’s my first day in town and I am so confused!’

If you say something like that you are likely to get the ‘scenic route’ to your destination to run up the meter. Say that you live in town, used to live there, or are going back to the hotel you stayed at last time. Anything to make it look like you know the right route.

This way he won’t consider you easy prey and will wait to rip off the next guy. If you are at some other type of tourist trap you may want to walk a couple hundred meters away and get a taxi or other type of transportation that is passing by. The guys that sit waiting at the tourist traps are looking to overcharge gullible tourists.

Plan Your Day Wisely

If you think rush hour is bad in the western world you haven’t seen anything yet. If you are in any of the major cities then you probably won’t want to be traveling anywhere from 4pm til 8 or 9pm. That may sound like a major inconvenience, and it is, but it is necessary.

Because of the sky train in Bangkok it isn’t as bad there, but in Jakarta or Manila it can be pretty brutal. Even the train in Manila isn’t a good option during rush hour because the line to get on it will take forever.

Most expats in Southeast Asia do their best to plan their day around not being out during those times. If you are going to go anywhere cross your fingers on the death trap.

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Buses and Mass Transport

Even though the taxis and motorbikes are pretty cheap they still are to expensive for many of the locals. If you make a couple hundred dollars a day a $3 taxi takes a pretty big chunk out of your budget.

So there are some very cheap forms of public transportation and you can use them too. There are buses in all of the major cities but because of traffic sometimes they aren’t very practical.

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In the Philippines they have ‘jeepneys’ which are really old jeeps from the world wars that they have converted into people movers. In the back of the long jeep they have benches on each side and they pack 20ish people when 16 seems like it is to many.

They can get pretty hot and aren’t the most comfortable place in the world, but you can travel quite far across the city for 20 cents! They will go a bit slower then taxis, but if a taxi ride would take 15 minutes a jeepney should get there in 20.

Many expats in the Philippines use them often, and if you are traveling you can ask the staff at your hotel if there is a jeepney around that goes to whatever destination you want to go to and if there is they can tell you which to hop on.

It may seem confusing at first but it really isn’t. Manila would be pretty hard to navigate with them, but in any other city they are fine.

Thailand has something similar with the ‘baht bus’ or ‘song taew.’ The baht bus is great in Pattaya and works OK in Chiang Mai.

Don’t be afraid to try this very cheap option. If you are on a budget this is a great way to make your money last longer.

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How To Avoid Using Public Transportation in Southeast Asia

Whether you are going to get an apartment and be an expat in Southeast Asia or are just vacationing getting a room with a good location is very important. One of the nice things about the cost of living being so slow is that it isn’t that expensive to live in the prime real estate.

Most people could never afford to get an apartment in the nicest areas of New York City, but in Southeast Asia you can find places for reasonably cheap in any city. The most expensive ones are probably Manila and Jakarta but for $500-$600 you should be able to get a furnished place in either.

Just about anywhere else in SEA $300-$400 should do the trick. This will save you so much time in the awful traffic and also save you on transportation costs. Plus you don’t have to risk your life on the death traps near as much either.

Using public transportation in Southeast Asia isn’t bad, just choose wisely.

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