Tuk Tuk in Asia

A Little Transportation… Figuring Out the Roads & Rules of Southeast Asia

There’s a sense of poetic chaos to the roads of Southeast Asia. At first glance, there seems to be no rhyme or reason. Cars whizz past, motorbikes weave and pedestrians walk with a nonchalant indifference. This frenetic pace to the traffic baffled me in my first days in Southeast Asia. The streets of Bangkok are chaotic compared to those of Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re a far cry from the order and neatness of Orlando, Florida.

In the weeks and months since I first left home, I didn’t anticipate that traffic patterns and transportation would be two of the things most impacting my daily life on the road. And yet, even the streets of Sydney, Australia posed a challenge. And that was before I made it to Asia! Now, my Western sensibilities are assaulted at every turn and I’ve had to embrace a new sense of what order and “rightness” means. Because although it seemed baffling at first glance, there’s a balance and harmony to the streets of Southeast Asia that I find quietly lovely.

transportation in bagan, myanmar
Locals in Myanmar head home at the end of the day in Bagan.

Here’s what I first found baffling:

  • Lines in the road are mere suggestions.
  • It’s acceptable to cross traffic and drive in the opposite direction, against the grain.
  • There are no crosswalks and traffic lights are negotiable
  • Tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and bicyclists all share the road.

And yet, there is a fluidity underneath the traffic patterns that I liken to the hive mentality of bees. The worst thing you can do here is make an unpredictable move. But on the other hand, if you signal your intent, then most anything is acceptable. In practice, that means you move your car over the line and into oncoming traffic if you’re looking to pass a slower moving vehicle — just let them know your intent. Then, as you move into oncoming traffic, everything just shifts to the left, then to the right. And if you need to make a turn but there’s no turn lane, cross sooner and then hug the curb as you drive against the grain. So long as you do it slowly and show your intent, traffic swims around you.

playing guitar in a tuk tuk in laos
Just a guy strumming his guitar in the back of a tuk tuk in Laos.

The same goes for pedestrians. Though it looks nearly impossible to cross the larger roads in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Hanoi, you just have to know the way the game is played. In my early days in Southeast Asia, I would often wait for a local to begin to cross and follow them. The only way this works, however, is to put your trust in the hive.

Take a first step from the curb and you have now signaled your intent to cross the road. Given the right circumstances and assuming you’re visible, traffic will now adjust and swarm around you, predicting your path and speed. It’s almost like the person or tuk tuk or motorbike travels in an invisible bubble. That other people on the road calculate the trajectory of that bubble and then adjust their traffic pattern to match.

It sounds crazy. It feels crazy. And that’s just the half of it. Because at some point you’re the one doing the swarming around the obstacle and it’s just a wild feeling of chaos. Will it work? Will the traffic smooth out? Usually, it does. That said, this region of the world has among the highest rates of death from traffic accidents, so it pays to be cautious.

Hoping for safety with a wish and a prayer in Cambodia.

Let’s Talk About Types of Transportation

I was tense and white-knuckling it through every drive on my first days in Laos. Now, when riding in a tuk tuk I just sit back marvel at the organized chaos that somehow, you know, it just seems to work.

The tuk-tuk is the quintessential form of transport in Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest way to travel most cities in the region, and each town’s tuk tuk’s tend to have their own flair. These are motorbikes with a bubble on the back, that fits two to three (or a lot more if you have little kids too). Then there are the larger tuk tuks that are small pickup trucks with the back converted into two rows of seats. The first kind is popular in Thailand, and the second in Laos. (Of note, Thailand calls the pickup trucks songthaews and they are usually fully covered on the sides with cushy seats—here’s a rundown of all the both normal and weird forms of transportation in Thailand).

back of a pickup truck in Thailand
Our transport up the side of the mountain in Northern Thailand en route to the Akha Ama Coffee Journey.

On my first packed ride in a Laos tuk tuk, we squished nine backpackers into the back, and then our driver jetted from the curb and proceeded to weave and dart through traffic. I won’t be overly dramatic and say that visions of my life flashed before my eyes, but it was a close call.

Tuk tuk on the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand
A tiny tuk tuk in Thailand!

There are even more opportunities to push the boundaries of transportation. Motorcycle taxis run throughout most of the towns. So, if you are in a couple or with bags, you usually take a tuk tuk. But if you’re a brave (or incredibly foolish) soul, I’ve seen backpackers clinging to a motorbike with a 65 pound backpack dangling from their back as they wove through town. And helmets aren’t popular here unless you demand one. Places like Bali, Indonesia enforce the helmets laws (and in Vietnam, too), but most locals in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia seem to ride around the city with their helmet in the basket of their bike.

Motorbikes are the most affordable forms of transport, so it’s not uncommon to see almost anything being carted across town on one. It’s pretty standard to see entire families piled on the family motorbike, but also carts of chickens, massive pieces of furniture, pots of food, and anything else that a local might need to procure and move in their life.

It’s all been an education these past weeks. I head to India soon, and I hear tales of rickshaws and mules and human-powered transport. It should be a continuation of the adventures in transport!

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!

A Little Bus Ride… Laos Border Crossing in the Cold

With just a handful of hours left in Bangkok before our night bus to Laos, my friend Laura and I hopped a public bus to Thailand’s massive Chatuchak Weekend Market. This market is open on the weekends, and since we were in town on a weekend the market was a must see.  Allegedly, it’s massive that if you can imagine it, you can find it at Chatuchak — jewelry, clothes, wood crafts, pottery, knickknacks and doodads. You name it, they’ll have it.

It’s likely true. The market is labyrinthine and colossal. Laura and I spent three hours wandering around the twisted rows of stalls in search of a guitar. Laura is convinced she needs one. And though we had a map, and though we were told they existed at the market, we never ended up finding section eight, there’s where we’re told the guitars live. We found heaps of crafts. We passed dozens of push-carts wafting the mildly unappetizing scent of grilled meats of all varieties — the Thai are carnivores, let me assure you! But the guitars remained an enigma.

Laura and her guitar

The guesthouse agreed to hold our luggage until our evening bus so we did a fair bit of touristy wandering while we searched the city for a guitar. We looked through every nook and cranny of space in Thailand’s markets. No guitars were forthcoming. Although Laura can’t play yet, she wants to travel the world and learn the guitar from those she meets on the road.

Since that’s awfully hard to manage without a guitar, we spent the day on a guitar-seeking adventure. By evening, we were exasperated, tired, and guitarless. Then the craziest thing happened. We found a friendly Thai man selling one single guitar. There it was: a lovely jade green guitar for sale at a shop about 100 feet from our guesthouse. Laura bought the guitar through a hilarious encounter. She bargained the man down to the last of her Thai cash, then she threw in a plastic monkey mask and he agreed to the exchange!

bangkok monkey mask man
The cost of this guitar? Just some cash and a monkey mask, natch.

It was entirely ridiculous, but he laughed the whole time. He even put on the monkey mask! Riding on that high, we nabbed the guitar mere minutes before dashing to the corner to catch our overnighter into Laos — a 14 hour journey that had a couple of hiccups along the way.

The bus itself was a psychedelic vision in bright reds and pinks on the interior, pompom curtains, and a freezing cold air conditioning. Our bus was built for ferrying tourists on the long cross-country journey. It was a huge double-decker VIP bus that I hear is popular on the backpacking circuit. They are inexpensive and the Thais decorate them in in the craziest designs. The seats were a standard fair, cozy to the point of cramped — there was a whole lotta love between me and Laura in our row!.

The bus drove for hours into the night. We made a pitstop at a café in the middle of nowhere. It seems likely that the café was owned by the bus driver’s sister’s husband’s brother’s uncle’s mom, but it was well-stocked. We all piled out of the van and into the now freezing cold night. Everyone reboarded the bus with chips and snacks to pass the time.

As Laura and I boarded the bus, we noticed that the lower level of seats were mostly empty. We both entertained happy thoughts of stretching out on the seats and getting a good sleep. As we waited for the bus to restart the journey, we piled our stuff into the lower section. Turns out, the only other person sharing the lower section was extremely ill.

We were both alarmed at first when the girl told us that she was sick. Stateside friends email me with a flurry of cautions, so thoughts of Avian Flu, tuberculosis, and a range of other undesirable diseases flashed through my head.

Within seconds of the girl’s warning, she jolted me from my internal contemplation with a moment straight out of the Exorcist. For several minutes she heaved all over the bus. I won’t give the details, but Laura and I helped her as best we could. I ran back into the shop for a sporty beverage with electrolytes.

Liz, hailing from Seattle, was traveling alone and had a case of food poisoning. Laura and I didn’t have to speak out loud to both realize that it easily could be one of us at some point. We took Liz under our wing. Helping Liz gave us each some extra travel karma, and it helped Liz since she was weak and teary.

Confusion as We Crossed the Laos Border

Helping Liz passed a good part of the journey. By 6am, the driver ushered everyone off of the bus and into the cold. They once again had us at a tiny café (brother’s friend’s cousin’s sister’s grandpa’s niece this time perhaps?) to fill out the paperwork needed for our Laotian visas. Once everyone had the proper paperwork it was back onto the bus. Then off again. Then on again. Then we disembarked with our belongings and everyone walked across the border. Once we were on the other side of the boarder — I made it to Laos! — they loaded us into a different, significantly smaller bus.

crossing the border into Laos
Liz, Laura, and I are bundled against the cold as we cross the border from Thailand into Laos.

At that point, it was a short 30-minute ride to Laos’ capital city, Vientiane. Laura and I were officially dog-tired and Liz was still quite feeble. Together, all three of us headed to the closest hotel recommended in our Lonely Planet for a cozy and warm bed.

Other travelers, and even the Lonely Planet, warned that Laos’ capital city lacked charm. Laura and I fell in love though. It was charming. Now that I’ve left Vientiane, it occurs to me that it might not have been the city. Vientiane was my first look at the people of Laos. Confession: I have a crush on Loatians.

From the adorable waiter at the free WiFi internet café who humbly borrowed Laura’s guitar for an impromptu jam session to the genuinely welcoming Laotians at every breakfast nook, guesthouse, and bike rental shop — I am enthralled.

We didn’t stay in Vientiane for long — in fact we took a bus out the very next afternoon — but what we saw we thoroughly enjoyed. We rented bikes for half a day. Although we could have most definitely explored all of the main sights on foot, we both loved the feeling of flowing with the traffic and biking along the markets beside the locals.

After our lazy morning of bike riding exploring, we bused it to Vang Vieng. It was a four-hour ride along the most beautiful scenery I have encountered thus far on my RTW trip. It was all sweeping vistas and rolling hills. Banana trees and rice paddies warred with palm trees to sprinkle their charm on the landscape. The hours passed with nostalgic realization that I had brought to life the images moves like Good Morning Vietnam.

biking around Vientiane

rural Laos

Loas from my bus window

Laura and I arrived in Vang Vieng. I had an amazingly tasty red curry tofu for dinner. Now that we’re in Vang Vieng for a few nights, I plan to settle in and get good sleep tonight. We succumbed to the tourist trend and ate at one of the half-dozen Friends cafes plaguing the town. It feels kind of lame to have given in to the gimmick, but at the end of a long day, sometimes Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Rachel are a welcome accompaniment to dinner after two months on the road.

Tomorrow the adventures begin. Vang Vieng is popular on the backpacker circuit. It’s a backpacker rite of passage in Southeast Asia according to those we’ve passed moving in the opposite direction. We’ve heard there is good fun to had here. There are tales of adventures on the Nam Song River, rock climbing, and a delicious mulberry farm.

Quick Tips: Laos & Thailand

Where and how you cross into Laos depends on where you’re going, how long you have, and your level of adventure. The Friendship Bridge is on a well traveled route between Thailand and Laos, and it’s easy to land in Vientiane. From there, you can bus to Vang Vieng, and further bus onto Luang Prabang via an overnight sleeper or an all-day adventure. The Huay Xai crossing is in the mountainous north. Many backpackers head down the Mekong on a fast or slow boat after they cross into Laos here; it takes two days via slow boat if you go that route.

Border Crossing: If you’re navigating the Friendship Bridge crossing from Thailand into Laos, this TravelFish page is updated frequently and has the latest information.

Cross at Huay Xai: You can also cross into Laos much further north, at Huay Xai. I’ve done both, and they are both fairly simple. But the roads leading into Laos are better at the Friendship bridge.

Thailand Travel Guide: After living in Thailand for several years I compiled all my best tips and resources for what know before you go to Thailand, as well as responsible travel in Southeast Asia.

Where to Stay in Vientiane: The Beau Rivage Hotel is a good mid-range place with fant value to price ratio. I have stayed at Mixay Guesthouse before and it’s good but often booked up in advance. Niny Backpackers will do you if you’re looking for a good, affordable spot to land. I also use and love AirBnB, and they always have some properties open in Vientiane.

travel snafu

A Little Debacle… From Frustration to Friendship: It’s a Small World Afterall

backpacker selfie!
I dyed my hair black so that I fit in better. Plus, red is so last season! ;-)

I’ve made it to Southeast Asia, but it was definitely touch and go there for awhile. After a day of travel snafus and endless frustrations, I made it. Getting out of Australia was a hellish experience.  My own underpreparedness, and a lack of pre-trip research, are to blame for my stressful predicament. In fact, that lack of preparation nearly cost me my flight to Thailand.

Upon my happy and rosy-cheeked arrival at Sydney airport a unsympathetic and taciturn check-in attendant informed me that I could not board a flight into Thailand. I had booked the ticket a few weeks ago and it flew Sydney — Melbourne — Bangkok.

I sputtered out a confused “why?” My heart sank as she explained that I could not board the plane without an onward ticket from Thailand. I have to show proof of exit within the free 30-day Thai tourist visa. Sounds like a piece of cake to fix, I could just jump online, pop over to Orbitz, book a flight and then move on with the situation.

Oh, if only it had been that easy.

The internet in Australia has caused me a good deal of stress as I worked from the road, but never was I more frustrated than at the airport desperately trying to buy a last minute ticket on spotty, slow wifi. In the end, it took $20+ worth of internet credit and a good deal of computer finagling — my laptop’s “h” key chose that moment to break, and yes, my name has an “h” in it. With all of that, I had one very expensive, semi-refundable flight from Bangkok to Cambodia.

Throughout it all, I also shed a fair bit of tears. I aimed for pity when I finally presented my onward flight two minutes past the official check-in window. She called her manager and they overrode the system and let me make a mad dash for my flight. I think they just wanted to be rid of me and pass me off to immigration at Bangkok airport immigration.

Fourteen hours from the time the ordeal began, around 10pm, I arrived vin Bangkok’s backpacker’s district, Khao San Road. I was tired, emotionally drained, and home was sounding pretty good as I passed by one street vendor and push-cart after another. The wafting scent of fried meat permeated the area. At every turn of my head I spotted knick-knacks, clothes, and kitsch for sale.

Although I was starving, I hunted down an over-priced room with A/C and wifi. I had a bag of mixed nuts and granola bars in my bag, so I left behind the pulsing traffic of humans and hunkered down in my room for the night. Mixed into the chaotic jumble of sounds was honking, loud club music, and the sound of tuk tuk drivers entreating drunken tourists to take a ride back to their hotel.

After a decent night’s sleep, I tried to tackle Bangkok in high spirits. First up was the desperate need to fix my ailing laptop. While it seemed a straightforward task, it involved a fair amount of haggling with a tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Won. Eventually, we settled on 120 Baht, which was probably still way too much but I was willing to pay it since I need my computer to work. Once at the enormous Computer Center, I found a man who could perform an emergency surgery on the keyboard. I also shopped around and I bought myself a new travel camera — a lovely Canon point and shoot.

Vegetarian Street Vendor in Bangkok
A tasty vegetarian street vendor near Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand

Everything seemed to look up. After the hellacious day of flying, I felt like I was hitting my travel groove again. At least, I thought I was until I tried to buy vegetarian food. My exchanges with the food vendors brought back the tears that had been hovering on the edges since the day before. I had my Lonely Planet phrasebook, and I always bookmark and screenshot online information about traveling as a vegetarian, but today it just didn’t get me far. My conversations went something like this:

Sawadee-ka, mangswirat (Hi! I am vegetarian…)

Ahh, yes.  Chicken?

No, no chicken.  Dee-chan kin jay — mangswirat?

Ah. Yes, yes. Pork!

No. No pork. No chicken. No fish. No beef. Mangswirat?

A blank stare from the guy for several moments, and then:


At this point, I thanked the guy and walked away with tears. I was really hungry by this point, and my blood sugar was tanking. Tears pooled in my eyes and I started shoving more of my almonds into my face.

The entire situation left me feeling defeated, but with a new camera and newly fixed laptop, I headed to the Wild Orchid Villa. Big ups to my cousin for the recommendation, it’s a budget spot with solid wifi and a good location. I had planned to do a good pity-cry in my private room. But the travel gods had other plans for me.

I had just started ascending the five flights of narrow stairs to my tiny room, and I came face-to-face with an unexpected friendly face. Laura is a fellow UCF alumni, and she had also lived in LA for the past two years. She bounded down the steps at just that moment and we collided. Girly, high-pitched screeching ensued and we both babbled out our stories amid the hugs and laughter.

friend in bangkok
Found a friend from back home and we are read to explore Southeast Asia!

I had vaguely heard that Laura might be in Southeast Asia around the same time, but we hadn’t spoken in more than six months. She’d just come up from the Thai islands and had spent two days wandering aimlessly around Bangkok. We were both on an open-ended jaunt and thrilled at the chance to have company. Within 20 minutes of catching up, we both decided to leave Bangkok on an overnight bus into Laos. Before we left, however, Laura wanted to buy a guitar for her journey around Southeast Asia.

What an adventure this will be. While I have loved traveling solo in Australia these past two months, the prospect traveling solo in SEA was also daunting. Laura and I get along well and have been friends for years, so I am excited to explore the region with a friend from home.

Bangkok, Thailand

A Little Confession… Facing Fears of Traveling Solo in Southeast Asia

Bangkok Market

At the crack of dawn tomorrow I leave on a flight bound for Bangkok. After two months traveling Australia, I’m excited to take the next big step on this one year round the world trip. But, tingeing the excitement are licks of fear about what is coming.

Traveling solo in Southeast Asia is a different beast to tackle compared to solo travels in Australia. Travelers here in Oz rave about backpacking SEA. I’ve met many others on long-term trips, and as such most are heading in the opposite direction. Whereas I am heading West back toward home, many Europeans travel East. They visit Southeast Asia in route to their Aussie work visa situation. For two months, the majority of the stories are overwhelming positive. And then sometimes they aren’t. Like the backpacker with a huge skin graft healing on his leg—the snake in Thailand that bit him had a flesh-eating bacteria on it.

Even with the horror of the skin graft story, I can look at that as an isolated incident that is unlikely to befall me as well. The fears are more abstract. Australia was unknown for me, but it also had a built-in crutch. I speak English, and no matter what happened when I landed, I had the comfort of knowing that I could communicate.

Tomorrow, however, when my plane touches down at Suvarnabhumi Bangkok Airport in Thailand, it’s impossible to imagine what I will find. While no longer fear traveling as a solo female, I do have a range of other fears winging through my brain at warp speed.

The language is different. However, backpackers assure me I can still communicate easily.

The culture is foreign. However, I have done my homework and read a few books to acclimate to the Thai cultural norms.

The style of travel is unknown. I traveled through Europe in college, and I am just leaving months in Australia. I can’t help but wonder what it will be like to navigate in a culture and country so foreign to what I have yet done before. I know that I can figure out most anything that comes my way, but I also think that I am wise to have a healthy amount of caution about what comes next. That caution will keep me on my toes as I learn how to fit into Thai culture.

One upside is that I can finally replace my worn, nubby clothes once I arrive in Thailand. Australia has been such a drain on my budget that I used my tiny sewing kit to make my shirts and pants last throughout my trip. Backpacking has been harder on my clothes than I anticipated. With just a handful of things in my wardrobe, they didn’t hold up well to constant wear.

Lastly, I have some serious travel woe in the electronics department. My travel camera took a bath last week complements of a loosely screwed water bottle top in my purse. Once I land in Bangkok I will need to find a good camera shop and buy a new one! (Then I’ll post a photo of my freshly dyed black hair; I decided that I’d fit in better if I ditched my bright red locks).

Wish me luck, I have a few hours to get some sleep and then head to the airport!