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Ask the Experts: What’s the best way to go overland through Southeast Asia?

Our Travel Experts are a helpful bunch. When they’re not helping our customers in store over the phone, or on web chat, they’re going out of their way to help you guys here on the STA Travel Blog, too!

They do it because they just love giving you advice about travel. Every week, they’ll answer one of your questions right here in Ask the Experts. It’s like Dear Deirdre, but without the dodgy photo story and less of the ‘my mum’s sleeping with my husband’s boyfriend’ type problems.

Want to be a part of it? Just email us with your travel questions and we’ll put throw them over to the Travel Experts to answer right here.

Let’s meet this week’s curious traveller. It’s only Brooke from London! Brooke, spill the beans:

My boyfriend and I are going to Asia in April time. We’re starting in Bangkok and then going north through Thailand. We then wanted to go overland into Laos and then on to Vietnam, but what’s the best way to do this? I have heard some coach journeys are very long and not the most pleasant experience, any tips? Brooke from Surrey

Nothing takes me back to Southeast Asia like remembering the 32-hour bus journey from hell that I took from Vietnam across into Laos! If only I’d had a Travel Expert there to guide the way. Luckily for Brooke, she’s got 3 of ‘em! Our Travel Experts Jess, Claire and Sarah are here to do just that! Read on, and find out how long journeys in Southeast Asia can be made tolerable – and even quite fun.


Jessica Ambrose from STA Travel Leeds Vicar Lane says

If you’re traveling round Southeast Asia on a budget, Brooke, the long bus journeys are mostly unavoidable. However, you can make them a bit more bearable! One of the best options is to take join a group trip with like-minded people who can make those bus journeys a lot more fun.

We have a 22-day trip called Roam Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, which starts in Ho Chi Minh City and finishes in Bangkok. The tour uses overnight air conditioned sleeper trains (definitely one of the better ways to travel!) and the shorter journeys are done on the local buses, so you still get the bus experience without all the hassle and lack of sleep. Even better, it’s 10% off that trip right now!

Experience Southeast Asia in all its colourful glory on an overland trip

The itinerary starts off taking in the amazing sights of the riverside community on the Mekong Delta, followed by a junk boat trip through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. After exploring Vietnam you then have a flight included from Hanoi across to Vientiane (beats a 32-hour bus journey! – Ed), so you can visit the sleepy riverside town of Luang Prabang and partake in a spot of tubing in Vang Vieng.

Northern Thailand is the next stop, where you can visit the Hill Tribe villages and take in some elephant trekking. An overnight train will then take you down to Bangkok, where you’ll say goodbye to your travelling buddies who you’ve shared many a game of cards with, and probably a bucket or two!

If you’re looking for a more flexible option, take a look at hop-on hop-off bus passes, with a selection of routes through Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Big Wat is the pass to go for if you’ve got a bit of time and are looking to explore as much as possible. It allows you to jump on and off the private buses in Laos and selected public transport in Cambodia and Thailand along the route, and it’s valid for 12 months so take as much time as you need!

A long bus trip is a great opportunity to watch the world go by

The bus passes include assistance with accommodation and day trips and, of course, like-minded travellers – what more could you need? The possibility to get off the beaten track, you say? Well, the bus passes can offer this too. Southern Laos is not on the average route for a lot of backpackers, so you can discover the riverside town of Don Det and the four thousand islands.

Whichever way you go about it, you probably will have to go on a long bus and train journey. Just make sure you get a seat as close to the window as possible so you can enjoy the amazing sites when you drive through the small villages and towns. Some of my favorite traveling memories include a 5-hour traffic jam in the middle of a tiny village in Laos enjoying a card game and some drinks with the locals! Make sure your iPod is always fully charged and you have plenty of snacks (I found oreos, Hello Panda biscuits and strawberry milk were always a good bet) and just enjoy the ride.

Claire Whittington at STA Travel Brighton says…

I’m with Jess, Brooke – make life easy for yourself and take one of our overland adventures! It’s mainly overland travel, but gives you flights for those long journeys you really wouldn’t want to do. Like Emma, I took bus from Vietnam into Laos which took over 24 hours and I was made to straddle a wooden PE bench which was put down the length of the bus aisle. Although funny for the first hour by the 20th hour I just kept thinking, “If I’d have flown I could be wandering around a market, checking out temples or tucking into some yummy Laotian food right now instead of still being on this sweaty, smelly bus!”

I’d recommend Indochina Encompassed which is 29 days, starts in Bangkok and takes in Laos, Vietnam and also Cambodia as an added bonus. The trip will ensure you tick all the “must-do” Asia boxes such as elephant trekking, visiting local Hill Tribes and chilling out on some world class beaches. Plus some more unique experiences such cyclo rides through ancient Vietnamese cities, and a boat cruise along the Mekong river.

The great thing about it is that you still get to experience loads of traditional Asian transport like boats, cyclos, elephant, and tuk tuks, but you just don’t have to be on them for hours on end! Plus using flights instead of taking day long bus or train journeys means you are maximising your time on the ground doing cool stuff like cookery courses, river tubing or generally just exploring!

Sarah Jones from STA Travel Covent Garden says…

Adventure tours are great, Brooke, but I’m going to suggest that you take a ride on the hop-on hop-off bus! As Jess mentioned, it’s is a fantastic option for travelling Thailand and Laos and is also a great alternative to the more structured option of a tour. Even better, we’ve got 10% off any pass right now!

The hop-on-hop-off system focuses on the more difficult to travel regions of northern Thailand and Laos, so it’s perfect for your trip! And it’s not just about buses, either – your pass covers you on a range of transport – bus, train, longboat and tuk tuk – enabling every inch of the countries to be travelled.

You’re not constricted to a usage time as the passes are valid for a whole 12 months, so if you can’t get enough tubing in Laos you can stay and do so to your heart’s content…or your liver’s content.

Another few plus points are that each journey has a western or local guide providing you with all the interesting local knowledge, history and wildlife facts you will need. Accommodation is not included on the passes, purely due to their flexible nature. However, accommodation is reserved in each destination – even in peak season – meaning you’re never left stranded.

There are a range of different passes to choose from but for your itinerary I think the best are the Full Moon Pass, which starts in Bangkok, travelling into Northern Thailand, over the border to Laos and right the way through the country and back to Bangkok, or the Big Wat Pass that Jess mentioned too.

Stray doesn’t yet cover Vietnam but instead of finishing your pass in Bangkok you could instead finish in Phnom Penh. From here you can take the short and popular bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam and commence your Vietnamese adventure north to Hanoi.

Sounds like that old saying is true – sometimes the journey is as important as the destination! Hope that’s given Brooke a few ideas on how to get around Southeast Asia stress-free. Share your own top tips for getting around Asia in the comments thread below. Remember to email us with your own questions for our Experts!
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