I haven’t been in SE Asia long, and I knew that transportation wouldn’t be on par with Western standards, so here are a few pointers that I can offer from my limited experience.
Step by step:

  • Step 1: Lower expectations.
  • Step 2: Lower expectations more.
  • Step 3: Be patient.
  • Step 4: Be flexible.
  • Step 5: Don’t book dinner in your arrival city.
  • Step 6: Find a camel. Use it. It will likely be faster, more comfortable, and more reliable.
  • Step 7: Try to do as the locals do, especially during domestic transport where English is uncommon.
  • Step 8: Find the silver lining (yes my flight was delayed thrice, but at least I’m delayed in the air-conditioned terminal and not on the tarmac).
  • Step 9: When in distress, find a “translator”. A tuk tuk driver with very broken English will be your best friend, for a mere US$25.
  • Step 10: Be thankful when you arrive. Do a jig if it’s the same day. Party like it’s 1999 if your luggage makes it too.

I jest, but when I heard transportation would be lacking, I thought this would pertain primarily to local or inter-city domestic transport. Apparently this applies generally and across the board. Some companies are more reliable and ethical than others, so try to do your homework. Lonely Planet seems to have a pretty good pulse on travel companies. Even then, they don’t cover everything.

For example, don’t fly VietJet. I came to learn that they are notoriously delayed, only after I personally experienced it. I also witnessed their 3 decade old mob process for checking in passengers and boarding planes. Also, if you aren’t on a strict shoestring budget, opt for the VIP mini-bus in Cambodia. I found out the morning of my second coach ride that the mini-bus shaved off 1/3 of the duration compared to coach, and the price was a mere 20,000 riel more, or US$5. Granted, you certainly won’t be stopping every 15 minutes to pick up locals along the way, and you probably won’t get C-pop karaoke the entire time, if that’s your bag…

It’s not all bad; I’ve had some good experiences, mostly in Malaysia. But in total I estimate that I’ve spent about 10% of my waking hours thus far on unexpected travel delays or sidetracking. I am fairly transient, staying in most places only 2-3 nights, but it would likely be a non-issue in other parts of the world. So do your best to plan for and be patient with the unexpected. Or simply stay in one place longer and move around less.