If you’re spending any length of time in Southeast Asia, chances are you’ll be spending some time on ferries, and if there's one form of transport with an insanely wide range of standards, it's the ferries.
As with the buses, ferries come in all manner of shapes and sizes, from compact speedboats racing out to Thai islands in the blink of an eye through to large Indonesian workhorses you can literally find yourself on for days. Here are some pointers when it comes to using boats to get around in Southeast Asia.
Only on popular trunk routes (and even then, not always) should you expect there to be life jackets. While there may be life jackets, there may not be enough, they may be stowed in a difficult to reach location, in very poor condition—or all of the above.
Once you are on board, you’re largely left to look after yourself, so, especially on the larger multi-deck ferries, keep an eye on any younger kids and stay in control.
Our personal preference is always to stay on an upper deck, either in the open air or at a minimum in a position where we can get out of the ferry as fast as possible. Do pack a hat and sunscreen if you choose to follow the same approach.
Express speedboats are, in our opinion, best avoided unless there is no other option. This especially goes for the speedboats operating out of Phuket (which are often overloaded) and the fast boat services between Bali and the Gili Islands (which are often recklessly operated). These boats carry large volumes of fuel and fuel handling is often not at an adequate safety standard. A quick Google search for “Bali speedboat fire” should supply you with an hour or so of reading material.
On popular routes it is now frequently possible to book your tickets in advance, online, through travel agents or with the ferry company direct. As with all transport in Southeast Asia, the actual need to book varies.
On extremely popular routes, in season, on routes not overflowing with capacity (ferries to Ko Tao for example) you may need to wait for the next ferry if the first one is full—and bear in mind there may not be another ferry for a good few hours. Also, if you know when you want to get a ferry, there is no harm in booking in advance. Booking in advance though, in most cases, is not essential.
On some routes, especially those run by smaller ferries and speedboats, tickets may just be sold on a show up and get on basis. It varies. Do your research on the particular route and act accordingly.
Assigned seating is rare, though in larger overnight ferries, cabins can often be booked both in advance and on the vessel (if there are any left). These tend to sell out very quickly. There may also be a more comfortable area of the vessel (it may have air-con or softer, reclining seats, for example) and to enjoy these luxuries will attract a surcharge.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.