The seasoned volunteer abroad understands that adventure isn’t always about the destination, but how you get there. Safe and reliable transport may not be available while volunteering in Southeast Asia (and beyond), but local transportation remains an indispensable component of traveling: the more you practice, the more it becomes second nature.
For those with less experience abroad, methods of getting around your new town or city can be both confusing and overwhelming, especially in developing countries or areas where little English is spoken. In an effort to minimize stress, here are the most important safety tips for volunteering in Southeast Asia, to help volunteers navigate the streets and sois of the region.
Several Asian countries are infamous for insane and unregulated traffic. In these crazy capitals and other metropolises, the fastest, cheapest, most reliable option is usually some kind of light rail or metro system. Depending on the duration of your volunteering in Southeast Asia, you might want to consider buying a (typically discounted) transport pass. Routes tend to be clearly marked and single ride tickets are easily obtained at public kiosks.
- To arrive on time while volunteering in Southeast Asia, avoid traveling during rush hour if possible, passenger cars can become super crowded.
- Be prepared for a lack of personal space – some travelers have issues with purse grabbing or minor sexual transgressions while riding public transport.
- When riding at night, study your surroundings and stay in well-lit areas, especially at exit stations. Have your ticket or pass ready so you can move through the station quickly and safely.
Bus & Train
City bus systems are a great form of cheap local transport, especially for volunteers planning on volunteering in Southeast Asia for more than a few months who have time to get to know the city and the route system. Volunteer work in Southeast Asia tends to be located in rural areas, and buses are the most common way of getting from Point A to Point B. Buses can generally take you to more rural and remote parts of the city for less money than a taxi. If going a long distance, commercial buses are cheaper than flying, and the higher quality vehicles may even have air-conditioning and a bathroom on top of the added safety benefits.
Quality of trains varies, but they are an inexpensive and perhaps more scenic alternative to the bus, unless you choose an overnight sleeper car. Look online for safety tips, or ask the locals if you don’t know where to go or when to get off. Having a phrasebook of the local language can really come in handy too.
- Use locks and keep track of your luggage at all times to keep your belongings safe, even if it’s in the compartment beneath the bus. Luggage scammers will sometimes go through your stuff or even sell your suitcase to the highest bidder. Bring valuables with you at rest stops instead of leaving them on the seat.
- Keep track of your tickets and receipts, you don’t want to get caught without one, and lost tickets are generally not compensated. Additionally, “VIP” upgrades are often a scam, as you get the same value you would get otherwise.
- Be prepared for unsanitary bathroom conditions and use hand sanitizer.
- Air conditioning is usually at the max, so bring a blanket and warm clothes, as blankets offered by bus companies could be unwashed from previous use.
Depending on the country, there will be several alternative forms of transportation available to get you from home to your volunteer work in Southeast Asia, whether at an orphanage, school, or community center. Motorbikes are one of the most popular options, being both affordable and an exciting way to explore the landscape, although be mindful of your safety on this option.
- WEAR A HELMET! Even in wide open places where you think it’s safe, do not dispense with this practice – it could save your life! Always wear a helmet, and make sure it fits first.
- Choose the right bike. Test drive a few, see if manual or automatic is more comfortable for you. If renting, take pictures beforehand so you are not charged for damage you didn’t do.
- Study the rules of the road and become familiar with road signs and safety tips. Many countries drive on the left side of the road, and this can take some getting used to. If unacquainted with this mode of transportation, practice on back roads and in smaller villages in good weather.
- Avoid high volume traffic city centers such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, and Jakarta, for example. Larger vehicles rule the road, motorbikes whiz by, and traffic laws are not strictly enforced making it less safe for motorbike operators. Even for seasoned motorbikers, these areas are rife with accidents that range from minor to fatal.
Other forms of transport include regular or local “taxis” such as tuk-tuks in Thailand and Cambodia, songthaews in Laos, jeepneys in the Philippines, and rickshaws in China and Japan. These methods are common but less reliable. These tend to have no seat belts or safety precautions, and the larger ones are often overcrowded.
- Barter for a fair price. Agree to a price before you get in, so they can’t upcharge you after. Look out for scammers offering incredible deals to tour the city – they will often take you to a number of gem dealers or silk suit shops because they receive incentives if you buy anything. Let them know your destination and make sure they go directly there.
- Hold on to your valuables in front of you so nobody can grab them away while you are in motion.
- If a vehicle looks unusually overcrowded, wait for the next one. Better safe than sorry!
- Not all drivers are created equal. Drivers who speak English or wait for fares outside hotels or train stations will often charge more than drivers who are on the move and speak little English. If you don’t feel safe when it comes to speed or turning, exit the vehicle and wait for another.
When you are volunteering in Southeast Asia, local transportation is an integral element of cultural immersion. There will inevitably be some hiccups here and there, but the more aware and familiar you are with how things work, the better you’ll be able to traverse the many options available and arrive safely at your destination. Some of the best cultural experts are transportation gurus that can give you insider tips to enhance your experience volunteering abroad, so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation!
Happy trails to you!