Overland travel is good for you

by Travel Paulie on June 15, 2010

Train Light Line

I’ve done a fair whack of overland travel since I arrived on the South East Asian mainland a few weeks ago.  Initially I thought I’d fly up from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to Udon Thani (north-central Thailand), taking advantage of the cheap airfares from Air Asia, but I had the idea to take the train or bus instead to save costs.

To get to Udon Thani overland from Kuala Lumpur took three overnight trains and buses but cost far less than the two flights it would have taken otherwise. I could have pick ‘n’ mixed it, and taken a flight to BKK and then take the bus up to Udon, but then where’s the fun in that?  If anything, that’s a royal pain in the proverbial.

And that’s the point of this article – to convey the feeling I have that if you’re travelling, try to take as few flights as possible and resort to buses and trains – they’re cheaper than airfares, comfortable, convenient. But best of all for me is, travel by bus and train forces you to think on your feet, and therein lies a golden nugget of travel.

Word count: ~1000.  Approx. reading time: 5~10 minutes.

Why do any of us travel in the first place?

Answering the ‘Why travel’ question is prudent before you quit your day job and pack your suitcase. One such reason is to escape the banality of our everyday lives – at least that is what we tell ourselves.

I’m constantly being presented with opportunities to engage local people as I travel – sometimes this exchange is with work colleagues, but more often I’m talking with simply local people in the community going about their everyday lives, as I go about mine.

It can be fun, stressful, irritating, educational, relaxing, loving, and whatever else, but it’s rarely ever bad.

So given that I want to meet the locals wherever I travel, how better to do it than from the comfort of a lovely reclining, air-con-frozen, cattle-class cabin seat on an aeroplane?


Sometimes you just need to fly because of your timetable and whatever other demands force your hand, but when your destination is on the same land mass and continent, the cheapest way to travel (in southeast Asia) is by bus and train.  This approach to travel forces you to go native – you have to go to the stations, read timetables, talk to people, ask questions, get lost and confused.

When you arrive at your destination you must orient yourself and then work towards where you actually want to go.  For me, this is the hardest part – arranging the travel is usually straight forward, but arriving is typically a challenge.

So what’s the advantage of travelling by bus, train and boat?

Meeting the locals is half the reason for me, but there are other benefits:

  • Cost.  Flying, even with so-called budget airlines is more expensive than train and bus.  I mentioned in this Koh Samui article that you can take a luxury overnight bus from Bangkok to the island of Koh Samui (Thailand) for no more than 1/5 of the cost of a Bangkok Airways flight.  I also took a train (2 trains) from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok for ~US$55, at the time of writing.  These were overnight journeys, so they saved me the cost of several nights accommodation costs and the 2nd-leg was a sleeper train and a nice one at that.  I also paid for the 1st class train for the first leg so you can pay even less (half) for the 2nd class – same, I believe, except the seat doesn’t recline.
  • Convenient, with no hidden fees.  There are no baggage limitations and surcharges on buses and trains, so you don’t typically get stung when you pack too many souvenirs.  Not only that, you don’t have to wait in line and go through the tedious security checks and restrictions that you have on air travel.  Also, and this is a cost (of time and money) that is overlooked by many people, you don’t have to pay to get to and from the airport.  Just try and name an international airport that is centrally located – e.g. in Tokyo, the major international airport is in another prefecture and costs US$30+ and over an hour to reach the city proper!
  • Cultural exposure.  By travelling overland you see more and engage more. You can gauge better how people think and act.  There is no cultural exposure substitute to being in the thick of it and having to navigate the world of public transport by yourself.  It’s bewildering but once you come out the other side, you can do it easy next time, and even easier again after that.  This experience provides comfort and affords you a true sense of confidence in the system, adding another notch to your belt and to your feeling of achievement.
  • The scenery.  When you travel by day, and depending on where you are at night, you usually have a great view of the country you’re passing through.  For example, today, I took a bus from Phitsanulok to Mae Sot (Thailand) and the mountain scenery was reminiscent of Bali and I loved it! It made the 4hr journey worth it by a long way.
  • Comfort zone gets a little bigger.  At the time of stressful travel (for whatever reason) it can be hard to see the benefits until dust settles – hindsight is 20-20 as they say. Forcing yourself into awkward and unknown situations is vital to building character and confidence in many areas of your life.

An simple story to highlight

A quick anecdotal example – today I had to find a way to the bus station from my hotel.  I walked in the baking heat for a short while to find a tuk-tuk that would take me there.  I approached one and he quoted me ฿60 (=US$1.80).  Not a chance, I thought!  I asked him would he take ฿40?  Nope.  ฿50? (I offered ฿50 just to test how stubborn he was because I knew he wouldn’t take anything less from such a handsome, walking ATM machine – i.e. me).

Nope, only ฿60 will do.  I thought about it and decided that I wanted an alternative to a rip-off tuk-tuk, so I thanked him and walked on hoping that some other way will present itself.

I had hardly walked 5m when a Thai guy sitting behind a table on the footpath said: “Bus station? Bus 1.  There.  Now!”  I looked up in the direction he pointed was an old gray raggedy-ass bus looking like it was about to take off any second.  I waddled up and got aboard.

A friendly woman with a big smile asked me where I was going, I told her, and she said “Gao baht.” (฿9) I didn’t hear her the first time and asked her to repeat.

As she did so, the monk beside me held up 9 fingers, I glanced, smiled and paid her.  ฿9 here, versus ฿60 from a greedy tuk-tuk driver?  No contest.  The next 20minutes was a free tour of the city through parts I hadn’t managed to see in the 20hrs since I’d arrived.  Bargain!

Tuk-tuk and taxis are now in the same class as air flights in my opinion.

The choice you make on mode of transport is yours alone to take, but I highly recommend opting for what you may currently perceive as the less comfortable/convenient path.

You might well discover something interesting about the place you’re visiting and come out the other side slightly chuffed with yourself and your new-found spirit of adventure.

What is your experience with public transport as your travel in foreign lands?  Do you have any good resource of information on this, or any stories you’d like to share?  Any information, feedback or suggestion, is very welcome – please feel free to contribute them below.  Of course, if you found this amusing, interesting, or informative, and you’d like to share it, please do so also using the “Share this Post” button – you can share on Facebook with a click.  Thank you for visiting!

Travel Resources

  • Seat 61: Perhaps the best site I’ve found for worldwide rail/bus travel information

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