Hitchhiking Southeast Asia Tips
I bought my plane ticket to Malaysia and winged it from there. The best way to travel is with no plan. I spent most of the month of January holding a thumb out at gas stations, on-ramps or just tramping down the highway hitching rides from city to city. From that a story created itself and a new page turned with each day as I hitchhiked Malaysia.
Do I have stories? Yes, but I experienced far too much to write in a mere blog post. Instead I will save my journal entries for a book. However, I will give tips about hitchhiking Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
Why do I like to hitchhike? Well, you see the country for free and meet great people not to mention making lifelong friends and experiencing the culture and food.
Hitchhiking Southeast Asia: Malaysia
The best places to hitchhike in Malaysia are at busy gas stations on the highway. Just throw a thumb out by the exit on highway E2 and within a few minutes people will pick you up.
Buy a map of Malaysia at a local gas station so you know the names of cities and you’ll be able to get around pretty easily. Most people in Malaysia speak a little English and are very friendly so they’ll hook you up with a ride, maybe some food and on occasion a place to crash for the night.
If on back roads you can stop at local street vendors and hang out with the locals. Chat with them, smile and be personable and you might be able to hitch with locals heading to the next city or village. Back road tramping and hitchhiking I find to be the most fun for traveling through Malaysia and other foreign countries. The scenery is more beautiful. The cultural experience is more pronounced and the people are much more friendly in villages and small towns than in bigger cities.
Tramping down back roads can be tough. You might go a day or two without rides through certain areas close to tourist attractions.
For example, I walked about 30 km before getting picked up outside Muar because being so close to Melaka locals see many foreigners and don’t care to help you out. The views are great on principal road 1, but if you’re tramping and expecting to get picked up it will be hard due to a lack of pulloffs and small shoulders. Expect to walk a while near tourist areas and make sure you have at least two liters of water on you at all times.
Malaysia is probably the easiest hitchhiking I have ever done in my life and much easier than Thailand and Singapore. Since there are no laws against tramping down highways or principal highways I mainly just tramped down the road and eventually got picked up. I’ve never been here so everything my eyes see are a new experience. Tramping down highway E2 is far easier to get rides than 1 or other backroads due to more traffic and pull-offs.
If I needed to get somewhere quickly, since most of Malaysia either speaks some English or understands English it makes it much easier to get around than Thailand, I would have people drop me off at busy petrol stations on E2. E2 is a highway that goes through the whole country of Malaysia. I hitched most of it through the whole western side of Malaysia. Some days I hitched over 500 kilometers.
The best scenery though is on the back roads, where you can still hitch rides, but if you tramp it’s a little harder since there aren’t many pull-offs and shoulders are non-existent. I got many rides from stopping at local marts or restaurants talking with locals. Some of them understand hitchhiking, others don’t, but are still willing to help you out. Dump truck drivers, semi’s, etc. are great rides for long distance travel. Pretty much any vehicle on E2 is going long distance so if they aren’t and you need to get somewhere fast simply decline rides.
I never felt unsafe in Malaysia so I rarely turned down rides, but I did a few times depending on where they were going.
I did not fly any signs in Malaysia at all. Throwing a thumb is good enough to get rides. Loitering and hanging outside of petrol stations or pretty much any business is fine. If anything, workers come up to you, and try to help you out.
Hardest areas to hitch from for me were near the real touristy areas: I had a really hard time getting out of Melaka due to all the tourists so I ended up walking 30 kilometers towards Muar. I also had a hard time hitching in and around Ao Nang so I just ended up walking. It is possible in these areas, just harder. You might need a sign.
Hitchhiking Southeast Asia: Thailand
Thailand is very different from Malaysia. I don’t think most Thai understand what hitchhiking is so for the most part throwing a thumb won’t work. However, towards the cities near the border a thumb will do just fine. Hat Yai and cities south of it a thumb will work. Otherwise, you will need to use signs in Thai. You can either ask someone who speaks Thai/English to write one for you out on cardboard or buy a map from the local mall like Odean. They normally have sections in the grocery store where you can buy a map for like 100 baht and the cities are written in both Thai and English.
Note: Just because you have a sign with a city written on it does not mean people will know to drive you there. A lot of times I found that people will try to help me out no matter what the circumstance. Most of the time this meant giving me a ride, but even after using sign language and explaining “No Bus” they still would take me to the bus station, which is not what I wanted.
Pointing to them, then signaling driving and pointing to yourself and the sign worked for me a few times. However, sometimes even after doing this I would get taken to the bus station or the tourist police. It’s part of the experience, but sometimes it’s a pain in the ass if you just walked from that direction and have to retrace your steps.
More helpful information from StP user @Molotovmocktail pointed out a good method for hitching rides in Thailand.
“I just had my first Thai hitchhiking experience yesterday getting from Chiang Dao to Chiang Mai. It took me three rides to get there but it wasn’t too hard to get rides. I didn’t have a note but a British guy I met who had hitched Thailand before told me to try using the motion Thais use to hail taxis. It’s kind of hard to describe but you hold your hand flat with your palm facing the ground and sort of curl and uncurl your fingers downwards. I alternated between that, sticking out my thumb, and waving and got rides pretty quick. It probably helped that it was really hot out and I looked helpless and tired.”
Hitchhiking Southeast Asia: Singapore
The laws here are ridiculous. You can’t bring chewing gum into the country and you can’t cross the street without using the crosswalk. I did it a few times, but it’s really not worth it because I’ve heard the police will stop you and hassle you due to the signage on the roads showing not to do this. You also can’t walk on the highways so it makes hitchhiking impossible. I didn’t throw a thumb or fly a sign because I didn’t want to get hassled by police, however, walking near the border I did hitch a ride out of Singapore…so I guess hitching is possible if you get lucky. I wouldn’t really even recommend visiting this country, but that’s just my opinion. I was here for a few days, it’s expensive and too much like America. You can still find many places to sleep outside though.
Hitchhiking Southeast Asia: Philippines
So arriving into Manila at 2 AM from a delayed flight, I shortly realized I could not sleep in the airport terminal as security kicked me out on the street. Because of this I walked the streets of downtown Manila in the early morning and was followed by a man who pretended to be a tourist guide. Obviously, he was not a tourist guide. His necklace ID badge was fake and laminated from a cheap store, but nonetheless, I was corgial and polite, asked him to leave me alone, but he continued to follow me into the night/early morning. He would not stop following me, and because of this I feared for my well-being along with my stuff. In the end, he robbed me early morning of 500 pesos when I offered to pay for breakfast, and that was the last I saw of him until he bumped into me at the end of the month and tried to introduce himself as “my friend.” But, he saw the anger in my eyes and when I told him to “Fuck off” he knew all too well and left me alone.
Moral of the story, hitchhiking is possible in the Philippines, but Manila is not a joke. The poverty there is unlike any other place I have traveled thus far in my five years. People literally sleep on the sidewalks with only the clothes on their backs, not just single people, but families. Kids run around with soup cans asking and begging for spare change, covered in filth and grime and I saw people getting territorial around dumpsters and trash bins, raiding them of every scrap and paper bag. It saddened me. Because of the poverty and crime rate in Manila, it made it very hard for me to hitchhike. I spent two days at different on-ramps. I even tried walking down the highway, but an armed guard with an AK-47 stopped me and told me I needed to turn around.
Jeepney’s are really inexpensive in this area, but they normally only take you short distances. They look like pick-up trucks with enclosed beds where people sit on benches facing each other. They are normally like 10 or 20 pesos or more depending on how far you want to go. Wave them down and they will stop and just jump on the back…if no seats are available and you are brave you can stand on the back and hold on for dear life.
You can also spend money on a UV Express Van which trips are pretty cheap. The only downfall is you must wait until the whole van is full of passengers until it departs. The drivers drive crazy, passing cars on the double line, going around bends and curves at fast speeds, up mountain passes, etc…but this is how everyone drives in Asia, so get used to it, the thrill doesn’t fade.
As for buses you can take the big buses from city to city for fairly cheap, 400 pesos took me from Manila to Nueva Vizcaya Solano. Ask the Tuk-Tuk driver’s where the bus stations are located…sometimes you can stand off the side of the highway at the sidewalk and talk to locals on how to flag down a bus.
Hitchhiking elsewhere outside of Manila is not so bad. I met a family in Nueva Vizcaya Solano and stayed with them hitchhiking around the Philippines to Manila, Isabella and other parts of Luzon Province with ease. Normally you have to wave people down, the thumb and walking with a sign does not work here.
Check out the Philippine Information website for more information on public transportation in the Philippines.