How do I get there from here? Tools for planning your route

My journey through South East Asia was in relatively familiar territory, as I and many many millions of others have been here before, and the pathways are well-trodden, with plenty of safe and affordable transport options.

Singapore and Malaysia are year-round destinations, with relatively little change due to seasonality. Thailand, on the other hand and despite being a year-round tropical destination, does observe seasons and I was travelling during the low season. In fact I have only ever been to Thailand during the low season, and it remains my preference.

Its seasons are dictated by the monsoon, which is often understood as meaning the rainy season. In fact, the monsoon refers to the direction of the wind at different times of the year and while the wind in certain directions over the ocean can bring heavy rain, the rain is generally confined to a couple of hours during the afternoon, and the impact varies enormously across the region. The sea breezes have the added benefit of being cooling.

It seems that the mere threat of some wet weather keeps the crowds away (although in my experience the places I’ve visited during the monsoon have always seemed busy), with the result that accommodation prices drop and scheduled transport services may not operate as regularly as in the high season, and some routes cease altogether.

Having made my way to George Town on Penang of the north east coast of Malaysia on lengthy bus journeys (comfortable but hardly exciting), I wasn’t looking forward to more long days cramped up in minivans making my way north from the Malaysian border. I’d done this before, and it was something of a trial for my 190cm frame.

I looked at my map and at the chain of islands stretching up to my next intended destination, Krabi, in Thailand’s relaxed, beachy south. I knew that Langkawi, the Malaysian resort island to the north of Penang, was readily accessible by boat and wondered if it were possible to go further into Thailand (with its associated border crossing) by boat? The local travel agents in George Town were less than helpful, expressing doubts about the possibility of even getting to Krabi by bus during the low season, although I think this was just a function of the service not operating to set schedules, but instead to departing when a bus is full.

Enter Rome2Rio, a website and app that searches a constantly-expanding repository of global train, bus, plane, taxi, ferry, walking and driving routes to suggest options from getting from one place to another. A search from Penang to Ao Nang (my destination in Krabi) brought up options for flying, ferry and driving. (No bus service shows up for the same reason as above, and the nearest train line goes to Trang via Hat Yai, which still requires a lengthy bus trip to get to Krabi.)

Two flight options were suggested, from Penang’s international airport; one direct to Krabi International Airport (2 hours and 2 minutes including airport transfers) and another to Phuket International (3 hours 55 minutes) which requires a lengthy bus trip to Krabi.

It suggested that driving the 522km would take a touch over 7 hours. The option I was looking for – ferry – would take 12 hours and 14 minutes, but the journey offered the tantalising options of stopovers  on palm fringed islands along the way – Langkawi, Koh Lipe and Koh Lanta en route to Ao Nang Beach, so would in fact take several days (the app and website also offer accommodation suggestions).

However, further digging around in the links provided to the various ferry operator schedules revealed that the Thai ferry connections operate only from October to May, and I was travelling in June, so unfortunately my Joseph Conrad maritime fantasies would have to wait for full expression.

In the end I used Skyscanner (Kayak is another good option) to book the cheapest available tickets for a flight from Penang to Krabi. While Rome2Rio offers flight suggestions, these other apps search a wider range of options to find the cheapest possible airfare and widest range of options, as well as offering hotels and car hire. However, care needs to be taken when selecting flights as on this particular route, both apps offered multi-sector flights via Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore as well as the one direct flight on the route, offered by Malaysian operator Firefly. It turned out that this took just on an hour and cost not much more than what I was being quoted by the local travel agents for up to 12 hours that insufferable minivan.

Skyscanner and Kayak are not booking apps in their own right – they direct the buyer to the website of the selected agent. I booked this flight via an Australia-based online travel agency (OTA); it’s also worth checking if the airline’s own website matches the fare. In the case of another flight I booked on Air Asia, having found the flight via Skyscanner and an international OTA, I then booked it at the same price via Air Asia’s website which offered the option of paying in Australian dollars and other currencies.

The flight to Krabi required an early start, but by lunchtime I was enjoying som tam (papaya salad) and a lime juice on the beach at Ao Nang, rather than a bladder-busting ordeal in a mini-van, for much the same price. A good outcome, in my humble opinion.

In my next post I’ll discuss photo storage and backup on the road.

What apps, resources or tools do you use to plan your route? Leave a comment because I’d love to know.

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