Guide to public transportation across Southeast Asian cities

Ditching your Grab car for a metro ride can help you see the city in a different light. Here’s the lowdown on public transportation in 6 SEA cities.

Guide to public transportation across Southeast Asian cities

Ditching your Grab car for a metro ride can help you see the city in a different light. Here’s the lowdown on public transportation in 6 SEA cities.

There are few better ways to see a city up close and personal than with public transport. Even as tour groups are flocking to open-top coaches and business travellers are using ride-hailing apps, an authentic taste of the city resides in the buses and trains that locals ride.

Unlike the case in European cities and Japanese prefectures, where a rail network is almost omnipresent, public transportation isn’t so straightforward in Southeast Asia. It ranges from countries like Laos and Cambodia, which are still big on tuk-tuks and the like, to the straight-up metropolitan capital cities like Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, which have rail transit systems.

In this article, we cover the six Southeast Asian countries and cities you are most likely to visit for work, how their locals primarily get around, and insider tips the local ticket offices won’t tell you.

Malaysia 🇲🇾

🚌 Bus: The dominant bus network operator in the country, RapidKL, has over 170 routes. These include local and city shuttles, as well as express and trunk routes. Within KL itself, the five major bus hubs are KL Sentral, KLCC, Maluri, Titiwangsa and Pudu Sentral.

Here, travellers can take the Go KL City Bus, a free, air-conditioned service arriving at 15-minute intervals to ferry commuters to places of interest. If you’d like a less touristy option, the Rapid KL Bus offers just that at around RM3 per ride, but you’d have to get used to the erratic scheduling.

🚆 Train: Four main train networks run across Malaysia—KTBM (Peninsular Malaysia), SSR (Sabah), Rapid KL (Kuala Lumpur and its surrounds). Within KL, the MRT-SBK is the go-to line to explore tourist attractions like Central Market and Bukit Bintang, with train fares costing between RM1.10 and RM6.40.

💡 Tips: Be sure to get a Touch’n Go prepaid electronic card to pay for your buses and trains. In addition, you can make top-ups at convenience stores and pharmacies islandwide, and the balance can even be used for car parking and small purchases!

Thailand 🇹🇭

🚈 Train: Traffic in Bangkok is notorious for being congested and polluted, so it is no wonder that it is planning a train system that will become one of the most comprehensive in the world. Currently, two main rapid transit systems sprawl across the country to offer maximum convenience.

The Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) is an overground network comprising the Sukhumvit Line and Silom Line, which start operating at 6am every day. It’s less busy on weekends and provides accessibility to most tourist areas in Bangkok, it’s an ideal way to explore the city during your downtime.

Because the BTS does not cover all of Bangkok, that’s where the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) comes in. The subway/metro system has a blue line connecting Tao Poon, Hua Lamphong and Bangkok’s main train station, while the purple line services the Tao Poon to Khlong Bang Phai route in Nonthaburi. If you’re planning to hit up landmarks like Lumphini Park or Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, the blue line will come in handy.

💡 Tip: You can buy BTS tickets from the machines with coins or at the service desk with notes. Keep in mind that these tickets do not work for the MRT, and you’d need to buy either contactless tokens, a pass good for several days, or an MRT card, which has options for business travellers. We highly recommend the latter, so you don’t have to queue up for tickets every time you take the train. You’ll thank us during peak hours!

Indonesia 🇮🇩

🚌 Bus: Like Bangkok, Jakarta’s road traffic is quite the force to be reckoned with. In Indonesia, there are usually multiple operators running similar routes with different vehicles and rates, but Busway is an especially popular one because it has a designated path, which helps a great deal in traffic jams. Ticket booths can be found at the city’s central terminal, where most buses depart from.

🚆 Train: As PT. KAI runs all the train services here, they’re known to be fairly dependable and punctual, albeit being priced at a premium. Seats of different classes—executive, business and economy—are priced differently. Tickets can be purchased on the website, mobile app, or booking sites like Traveloka.

💡 Tip: Safety can be an issue in certain cities, because bus drivers are known for their reckless driving, and pickpockets are rife on public transport. If we were you, we’d strap in good and stay alert about your belongings.

Also, avoid travelling at the end of Ramadan, when there’s a ton of outgoing activity from the cities to the rural regions. If you absolutely have to, call dibs in advance to save yourself a seat!

Singapore 🇸🇬

🚆 Train: For a country so small that it takes less than an hour to get from one end to another, the overground and underground train network certainly isn’t slackening off. In Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is truly the only network you need. Stations are located near main attractions and commercial districts, and you can’t go wrong by following the idiot-proof signs.

The rail experience is known to be very systematic and inclusive here, with stations made friendly for wheelchairs, strollers and visually-impaired users, and trains that consistently run once every few minutes. Keep a lookout for the cutesy, iconic mascots on the station and train decals too!

💡 Tip: If you’re spending a few days here, getting a Singapore Tourist Pass or an EZ-Link card is going to be far more economical than single-trip tickets.

Philippines 🇵🇭

🚌 Buses: Three types of buses run in the Philippines’ National Capital Region—provincial, city services within Metro Manila, and P2P (point-to-point) ones in Manila itself. The city buses have several pick-ups and drop-off points in Manila, and you only pay your fares when the conductor comes around. On the other hand, the P2P buses have just one pick-up and drop-off point. Depending on the private operators, the bus lines and comfort levels may vary.

If you’re taking the city buses, have some loose change on you to pay the conductor with. If you’re taking the P2P system, don’t forget to purchase a reloadable beep card, which you can also use to pay for convenience store purchases.

🚆 Trains: Manila’s three main lines are the MRT (Metro Rail Transit) Line 3 and the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Lines 1 and 2. They connect at the Pasay Interchange, wherefrom you can travel onward on the MRT blue line to districts like Makati and Ortigas, or the LRT yellow line to Malate and Intramuros.

💡 Tip: Most people in Manila use trains to overcome road traffic, as a 30-minute rail journey could very well take up to hours by car. This, however, may not be the case during peak hours, so you’d want to plan ahead if there’s somewhere you need to be.

Also, few stations have functioning escalators and elevators or connect directly to malls. Consider cabbing it if you have baggage in tow.

Vietnam 🇻🇳

🚌 Bus: In possibly the two most modernised Vietnamese cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, you would find public buses charging between VND5,000-10,000 and VND3,000-10,000, respectively. They typically depart from the city’s main terminals before hitting the streets, and commuters can purchase tickets from the conductor.

A fair word of warning, though. The quality isn’t the best, and you have to be prepared to stand if the bus is too crowded!

🚆 Train: Even though there isn’t a solid rail network in Vietnam yet, the country is working towards opening Line 1 in Ho Chi Minh City by 2020, and a goal of six underground lines and three monorails in the long haul.

As the locals do

Be it joining the working class in their morning peak hour rush, or people-watching at midday as school children make their way home, these public transportation systems are attractions of their own.

If you have a tight schedule to keep, it will make more sense to make it to a destination in good time by taxi. But if you’ve got some downtime or a tight budget, fumbling your way through the city’s underbelly can make an eye-opening adventure and give you a sense of how the locals get about their everyday routines.