Overland travel is one of the most exciting and adventurous ways to explore South East Asia. In fact, if you plan your flights, it's possible to get a lot more value from your ticket by factoring in 'surface sectors' (where you fly into one city and out of another). These 3 routes we've planned through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore are all easy to follow by public transport and give you time to explore the heart of this wildly beautiful region, see more of the countries you visit and meet more locals!
Fly into cosmopolitan Singapore and spend a few days exploring this dynamic and modern city. The glittering skyscrapers are just one side to Singapore, so make sure you don’t miss out on the more traditional parts of town, including the bustling night markets and Buddhist temples.
Next, hop on the night train and head north to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. The city centre is pretty compact so exploring the city on foot is easy and Chinatown is perfect place to start – this chaotic neighbourhood is full of sights and smells to keep you busy for a few hours! After a while the heat might take its toll and you’d be wise to retreat to the Lake Gardens, a quiet oasis in the city, with plenty of shade to relax in.
As soon as you tire of the city life, jump on a bus to Tanah Rata, in the Cameron Highlands. This beautiful (and often overlooked) area of central Malaysia is a real gem – rolling hills, vast tea plantations and misty treks await you in this green paradise. Hiking or cycling are both good ways to explore the area, although you can also join a tour to go and find the Rafflesia Flower in the Blue Valley– the largest flower on earth.
For some pre-WWII history, take the bus to Georgetown on the turtle shaped island of Penang and soak up the town’s old-world charm that led to it being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Penang is also a foodie’s paradise, with loads of fusion dishes that are unique to the island. The most famous is the Penang Char Kway Teow – a flat rice noodle dish with prawns, cockles, sausage and onions. Delicious!
Finally catch the boat across the water and finish your journey on the archipelago of Langkawi, where you can relax after your Malaysian adventure. The crystal clear water is the perfect way to cool down after a day sunbathing before enjoying dinner by the beach and watching the sunset.
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Hop on a flight to Bangkok and use your time there wisely! This city has so much to offer so don’t leave without experiencing the best of it – cocktails by the river, riding the skytrain high above the city and sampling the best of Thai street food.
Climb aboard the rattling train and journey north to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. Thailand is one of the few countries in South East Asia that was never colonised by Europeans so the ancient temple complexes of Ayutthaya are some of the most impressive in all of Thailand.
Settle down on the night train and begin your overnight journey to Chiang Mai, right up in the jungles of Northern Thailand. One of the highlights of the city has to be hiring a moped and heading up the winding roads to Doi Suthep, a mountain looming over the city with a 12th Century temple atop its lofty peaks. It’s just over 1500m high and the drive is an easy one – I had never ridden a moped before and still managed it! It’s also a great place to visit the elephants and spend a day learning to be a ‘mahout’ (elephant keeper).
To end your adventure you could either head to Pai, to enjoy some partying up in the far north hills of the country or venture even closer to the Burmese border to Chiang Rai. While the city itself has little to offer, the serene countryside and rural charm means there are plenty of small out-of-the-way hotels that mean you can relax in modest luxury and reflect on your exciting trip.
Bangkok is one of the main hubs of Asia and there is plenty to fill your time within the exciting capital city of Thailand. If you are there at the weekend, make sure you go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market – the largest in the world - a truly incredible experience.
Catch the early morning train to Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian Border. Many people choose to fly to Cambodia from Thailand but the overland journey is more adventurous and pleasantly easy. The third class-only train rattles along slowly as you sit with locals and let the breeze cool you down, enjoying the chatter of those around you. At the border you can jump in a tuk-tuk and walk into Cambodia and straight onto a bus to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat but the town has a certain charm of its own, including a wonderful night market with plenty of bars. Make sure you organise a tuk-tuk driver to collect you early and take you to Angkor for sunrise, it is worth the early morning start, believe me!
A bus ride later and you’ll have arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, which is unlikely to be like anywhere you have ever been before. The tragic history of Cambodia is still visible in the city and the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum are important places to visit, although you must wear long sleeves and trousers out of respect during your visit. Although it makes for a grim visit, it is a vital part of Cambodia’s history and paying your respects will be one of the most important parts of your trip.
By now you’re probably craving a beach, so head south to the town of Sihanoukville for some time to unwind. This up and coming town has stunning beaches, so get yourself over there now, before the rest of the world finds out about it!
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If you're planning a multi-stop trip and want to know how to factor in any of these overland routes, we can help you plan a flight itinerary that works. If you'd like to chat - give us a call on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to start planning!