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Regional flights in Southeast Asia are affordable and convenient -- a great way to get around if your time is short. That said, half the fun of traveling is getting there -- many walk away from land travel in this part of the world saying, "I'll never do it again, but what a trip!" When the massive Soviet 4X4 nearly lays on its side in the deep ruts of a washed-out road in Laos, or that rattletrap motorbike you rented in hill-tribe country in the north of Vietnam catches a flat and leaves you stranded, you might curse yourself or the very road you're on, but you'll have lots of stories to tell when you get back.
Myriad routes into the region are served by international carriers, including Silk Air (the regional arm of Singapore Airlines), Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Vietnam Airlines, and Garuda Indonesia. Domestic carriers include Pelangi Air, AirAsia, and Berjaya Air in Malaysia; Lao Airlines in Laos; and Bangkok Airways and P.B. Air in Thailand and Cambodia.
Remember that international airports are not restricted to capital cities. In addition to Bangkok, Thailand has international access via Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (to China and Laos), U-Tapao and Phuket (to Cambodia), and Phuket and Ko Samui (to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur). You can fly into Malaysia at Penang, Langkawi, and Tioman Island, and to Borneo destinations direct from Singapore. Laos has international access at both Luang Prabang and Pakse, in addition to the capital, Vientiane. Vietnam has international flights to both Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. And in Cambodia, you can fly directly to Siem Reap, the access city to Angkor Wat, from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, U-Tapao (near Pattaya), Phuket, Vientiane, Vietnam, and Singapore.
Check out the UNESCO World Heritage routes, a new schedule of flights offered by Bangkok Airways. Originating in Bangkok, this tour connects Sukhothai (Thailand) with Luang Prabang (Laos), Hue (Vietnam), and Angkor Wat (Cambodia).
Ask any travel agent for information, and be sure to research all flight options for the most direct routes and best fares.
With a few exceptions, trains that operate throughout Southeast Asia are poorly maintained, overcrowded, and slow. While trains used to be a good option for long distances, the recent increase in budget airlines offering rock-bottom prices has made train travel a less appealing option. The most popular rail route -- and the only one with interconnecting service among countries in all of Southeast Asia -- runs from Singapore to Bangkok (and vice versa) through the heart of the Malaysian peninsula, with stops along the way at the cities of Johor Bahru, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Butterworth (for Penang). It takes 6 hours from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, and another 35 hours from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. You can board the train at the Singapore Railway Station in Tanjong Pagar, at the Kuala Lumpur Central Railway Station on Jalan Hishamuddin, and in Bangkok at the Hua Lamphong Railway Station on Rama IV Road.
Upscale travelers with unlimited budgets can book passage on one of the world's foremost luxury trains, the Eastern & Oriental Express, which covers the distance between Singapore and Bangkok in 42 hours.
Reliable rail service also runs north to south along coastal Vietnam, with interesting new luxury cars that connect Hanoi, the capital, with the northern hill country and make a further connection to the vast rail networks of China.
Buses are good on the budget and often the best way into the back of beyond. Bus trips in the region range from VIP tours with air-conditioning and video monitors to rattletrap, overcrowded, broken-down mobiles. Thai and Malay buses are quite reliable and a good option, connecting the far north of Thailand with the far southern tip of Malaysia and on to Singapore. In Laos and Cambodia, local buses, with the exception of a few interior routes, are rough. Also, check each country's individual visa requirements, as you often need to prearrange visas for land crossings.
There are lots of boat adventures in the region. More and more travelers are heading down the Mekong, starting from the town of Chiang Khong in northern Thailand and ending in Luang Prabang in Laos. Luxury riverboats run the same trip, as well as trips in the far south of Laos between Pakse and Si Phan Don (look for LuangSay Cruises under the relevant sections). Boat trips in Vietnam's Halong Bay, just east of Hanoi, are very popular; outfitters such as Handspan and Buffalo Tours run great excursions. Don't miss the new boat connections along the Mekong tributaries between Vietnam's Mekong Delta and Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Boats also connect Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, with Siem Reap, the town that supports Angkor Wat, along the Mekong as it flows through Tonle Sap Lake.
Car rental is affordable in Southeast Asia. In the developing countries -- Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia -- it is a good idea (and costs not much more) to hire a car with driver. Insurance is often unavailable. Road rules vary, and in some places seem nonexistent -- though there is always a method to the madness -- so it's not a bad idea to spring for a driver where affordable. Be sure to research details and invest in good maps before heading out.
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